Finding the most effective defense pairings with what the Rangers have

ryan mcdonagh

The Rangers have a problem on the blue line. We can spend years debating what the issue(s) is (are), but the fact remains that there is a problem. Be it personnel, coaching, or system, the problem exists. It is an undeniable fact, and has been for a few years now.

We’ve gone through many iterations of defense combos on the blue line in the first half of the season. The only fact we have come across in those 42 games is that the Blueshirts are going to stick with their current crop, and not call up any prospects to potentially be an upgrade (barring injury). So we are left with one option: Find the most effective pairs, and stick with them.

What this graphic above from shows us is how the defense pairings are fairing. Considering how bad the Rangers are at both generating shots and limiting shots against, the chart itself doesn’t really look so good. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, the Rangers are a known entity right now. Score a lot and hope Hank makes the save.

So when it comes to defense pairings, it’s more about limiting damage than it is finding something that truly works. I think we’ve been able to establish that nothing works. Luckily we can use the above, and there are actually three pairings that are on the right side of the “good” measurement.

Ryan McDonagh-Kevin Shattenkirk
Brady Skjei-Marc Staal
Nick Holden-Brendan Smith

At the bottom of the graph are the numbers, and those are actually the only three pairings that have a positive shot differential at 5v5. Now all three have extremely small sample sizes, but since they are positive through more than a few games, it can’t hurt to try them out again, to see if it truly worked, right?

There are two concerns though. The first is Staal on the right side, which may actually work considering it’s his left eye that is wonky. The second is Holden-Smith, as Smith is struggling and Holden has made an epic tumble back to Earth after his solid start. But given the unfortunate reality of the defense group, it is what it is at this point.

There is no perfect solution to the Rangers’ defensive woes. At this point, we’ve seen just about every strategy –save one– exercised, and to no avail. I’d love to see Neal Pionk get a shot, or Tony DeAngelo. Perhaps their time is next year. Either way, the Blueshirts need to minimize the risk of their porous defense if they want to stay relevant this season.

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  • Ah, at least you didnt mention Clendenning!

    Anyway, my question to all who have a working knowledge of tactics and have played the game at whatever level is: How much do the forwards contribute or not contribute to the ability of the D to get the puck out or to limit shots?

    Since, NYR get completely bottled up at times, I wonder if anyone has looked at the distribution from D to F in the DZ and the impact that has. From watching, (the old eye test) I think the handedness of our forwards compounds our problems. There are plenty of times when the first pass is made up the boards and the forward completely botches the resulting play. Or the foward is not where he is supposed to be (here’s looking at you, Buch!)

    I think our forwards are just as guilty as the D in getting pucks out and suppressing Shots.

    And, the NYR are very susceptible to the high press. Look at what Arizona did for most of that game on the weekend. I’m sure the Islanders will do the same on Saturday.

    One solution may be more carry-outs especially when Skjei and McD are on the ice. #22 has been less likely to carry (again eye test only). Also, our tempo seems down a notch from previous iterations of this team. And the tempo starts on the breakout, and carries thru to the NZ. Speed does kill, and the NYR have slowed down.

    • You have touched on one of my pet peeve‘s with the coach’s system. Unfortunately he wants them to pass out of the zone at all times. In camp they had a kid who could really motor out of the zone and it was one of his best skills, Tony D’Angelo. Instead they tried to make him pass it out of the zone too when he had been an excellent puck carrier in AZ.

      I do not like the pass out of the zone at all times system that AV uses. They get trapped far too often. I know he like his defensemen to stay back a bit, but you end up losing a method to clear the puck by insisting on passes.

      • Hmmmm…I think NYR have much better D right now in NYC for carrying it out than Tony. He’s played under 50 NHL games and his Defense leaves a tremendous amount to be desired.

        But, what about the forwards? Why aren’t they better at it?

        • Carrying it out of the zone isn’t necessarily something rooted in experience IMO. It’s skill and instinct based, far as I’m concerned. DeAngelo has incredible handles for a defenseman; I don’t think there actually is anyone in the organization on the blueline that is better at carrying the puck. Sean Day has moments of brilliance in that area, as well. If those guys get their game together and get the chance, along with Skjei, the Rangers could feasibly at some point down the road have a defenseman on each pair who can carry the puck out with above average and up proficiency.

      • Skeji carries the puck out of the zone all the time. It is why no one really rips him on these boards. And he certainly hasn’t seen his playing time diminish.

        I would not mind seeing D’Angelo up but the only guy I would like to see him replace would be Kampfer. And with the amount of playing time he has gotten …I would rather D’Angelo stay in the minors.

  • I think the point you make is the biggest problem. Forwards are not coming back and the only truly gifted defenseman on this team for the long breakout pass is Mac. This forward group makes all the other defenders look weak. And the only one who doesn’t look bad is skeji cause he just says I am carrying the puck out.

    Simple eye test next game is how many times do you see a forward come back on the breakout. I will define my version of the breakout…so it will be clear.

    Breakout is when the D has the puck behind the net and no one is pressing them. The first pass is generally to their partner. Followed up by his pass to a winger on the rush. In AV’s ideal game the pass is made up the boards to a rushing winger who will either deflect the puck to the O zone or try to carry it in. This is ideal.

    Where I believe your point matters and his system is most flawed is when they are pressed as you stated. If the D are not allowed to breathe, they all seem to look hopeless. they all make a stupid bang up the boards play, (Staal) or try to pass up the middle(Holden/Smith). Problem is the forwards specifically the wingers are already pinching toward the o side of the neutral zone as the system is designed. But ofcourse this system is based on one important factor….not being pressed. The press seems to destroy it.

    There is a system in place for the press and you see it occasionally in game. It is where the d get pressed… pass to a winger on the boards who is also under presssure and zuc or another forward is 5 feet away on the move inside the d zone but closer to the middle of the ice. It use to happen in front of the net but last year to many times someone would make a bone head play and opposing presser had a slam dunk goal. So i assume AV just moved it up and away from hank.

    The system is pretty simple but effective against slow zone type teams. But for teams with speed and a willingness to press it leads to a lot of odd man rushes. Either for or against. This season it seems to be mostly against. Perfect example is any game against Sullivan and the Penguins. He has his players press this system and 9 times out of 10 it works in pitts favor. A more recent version is Arizona. And another version with more talented forward group is Chicago.

    Now it is not horrible against the press but it needs timing to be effective. The winger in the middle has to go by at the right moment for the guy on the boards to pass it to him and he needs to be moving his feet so he can back their D off from pinching into our zone. Someone who is flat footed …surely can receive the pass but doesnt possess the speed to stop the D pinching in. Which leads to these horrible turnovers we see every game. Now is it the D, the Wingers, or the Centers responsibility to notice the press and act accordingly I have no idea. I know the only ones I see do it consistently is Zuc and Nash.

    • Excellent post my friend. Makes me wonder why a young player like DeAngelo has not been called up and given an opportunity to replace Nick Holden.

  • Steve Kampfer must play way more….I am impressed by him….glad to see him live in Vegas…he was outstanding yet again in that game

  • Dave, Staal’s right eye was injured, not his left.

    My bigger concern than that careless error, is that the chart you show does not have statistical significance. Not only is the sample size small, as you acknowledge, but the chart does not take into account zone starts, or, more importantly, opposition skaters.

    The same objection can be made with Corsi statistics that are leaned on heavily on this and other blogs.

    Here’s what it comes down to: you and others in the blogosphere (all over the hockey world) seem to be faulting their team’s coach for not “just trying it our way,” in this case, giving all the defensive permutations in the chart a scientific trial, and thus proving statistically, what the pairs should be. Bloggers are suspicious of the claim of hockey insiders to trust their own eyes and not try all possibilities. And they are suspicious of the claim of proprietary statistics. Would you not acknowledge that this puts their coach in a double bind? “I’m trying all the possibilities” for half a season, says the coach “until I achieve statistical significance,” is gonna get him fired quicker than anything. Because he was hired not to play around with statistics, but because of his hockey knowledge.

    Here’s my conclusion: bloggers are right to try to move the conversation towards evidence, but in failing to acknowledge the known limitations of their methods and measuring sticks, (both the statistical limitations and the real world limitation given above,) they are still creating more static than signal. Remember the old criticism of politics: “lies, damn lies, and statistics”? Be careful how you use yours.

    • I have to say I wholeheartedly agree. Didn’t fancy stats say that Clendo and McIlrath MUST play more. They were right. They must play more in the AHL….not the NHL.

      It would be fascinating to have a group of objective NHL execs in a room and let them have at it about all this and see if they would really see deployment in a significantly different way than AV does it. My hunch is, I suspect they would not.

      Your last sentence says it all. Be VERY careful how you use this stuff folks. The LA Kings were the best CF% team in hockey the last three years. They missed the playoffs twice. Come playoff time, the best Corsi teams often don’t make it past round one. Those stats and the ones listed above are just one part of a very complex puzzle that makes a successful team. IMO, hockey has too many variables and moving parts to draw firm conclusions on advanced stats alone.

    • First – I apparently don’t know my left from my right. Thanks for that. You are right, it was his right eye.

      Based on your comment history, you’ve been here a while. You know we’ve pointed out numerous times some of the limitations of the stats we have available to us.

      That said, we also know that what is going on now isn’t working. If what we have available suggests that different pairings could, at the very least, get them moving in the right direction, then there’s a good reason to at least give it a chance for a few games.

      The fact that McDonagh/Shattenkirk was given four periods before being broken up (they play together here and there when the Rangers need a goal) was ludicrous. That leads me to believe that AV had his mind made up before the season began, and refused to give it a chance.

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