The biggest story at the end of Alain Vigneault’s tenure in New York was the defense. The Rangers hemorrhaged shots left and right. They did so from almost point blank range. At first it was supposed to be the personnel, but the players on the blue line changed over, and the defense got worse.
While I don’t have much insight into new coach David Quinn’s systems, I have oodles of time analyzing and evaluating AV’s systems. It’s lazy analysis to say it was the system, and then not provide any real proof. So let’s take a look at what AV did, and what Quinn can do to make improvements regardless of the roster makeup.
AV’s system was pretty complicated. The incomplete evaluation is that the Rangers played man in the defensive zone. That is only partially correct. The Rangers’ blue liners played man only when their man was below the dots, at which point they were to release. The forwards played a zone (overload). This was overly complicated, and led to tons of men open in the slot with time.
That’s an overly simplistic way of putting it. The Suit put together a very detailed look at the defensive zone play back in 2013, and it’s worth the time to read. Long story short, the shift to man coverage once the puck dropped below the blue line is meant for one type of blue line, and that is a smart, mobile blue line.
Over the past three seasons, the Rangers did not have a mobile blue line at all. When the play shifted to man coverage, they would get burned regularly. It wasn’t limited to the Dan Girardi’s or Marc Staal’s of the world either. Players like Brady Skjei and Kevin Shattenkirk –albeit the latter on one knee– were getting burned regularly as well.
The Stats (all at even strength, data from corsica.hockey)
There are a few ways to measure the stats in the defensive zone. I’m going to stick xGA/60. xGA/60 is the expected goals against per 60 minutes of hockey, and it encompasses many components such as shot quantity, shot quality, shot type, etc. It’s a better metric than just using shot attempts or scoring chances, since it takes into account many other factors.
Disclaimer: I was going to include average shot distance allowed, but I can’t seem to find a page with that information.
The 2013-2014 Rangers were 20th in the league in xGA/60 (2.3). That should sound somewhat surprising, since this is the team that came within a few bad bounces of a Stanley Cup. The 2014-2015 Rangers, the team that ran away with the President’s Trophy and was a McDonagh-almost-killing-Zuccarello-injury away from back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances, were even worse at 26th in the league (2.5). Surprised?
It only got worse from there. The 2015-2016 Rangers were dead last in the league in xGA/60 at 2.44. The 2016-2017 Rangers were 24th in the league at 2.47. Last year’s Rangers, the season that got AV fired, were again dead last at a whopping 2.8 xGA/60. This is all at even strength too! Suffice it to say, the Rangers were just horrible on the blue line.
The Adjustments needed
If we are oversimplifying things, then the easy way out is to say the Rangers need to ensure the slot is covered more, which should lead to less dangerous chances being allowed. Defend the home plate area in front of the net, and they can’t get much worse.
However it’s not that simple, because there’s more to the defensive zone than defending the front of the net. Do that, and you wind up with a John Tortorella type defense, where the Rangers get pinned for minutes on end until the puck is either under Henrik Lundqvist or in the back of the net. It’s not fun to watch.
So we are left with the most logical plan: Adjust the defensive zone system to account for the players on the team. The hybrid zone/man that AV ran is going the way of the dodo. Teams are too fast and too skilled and simply exploit it by targeting the slower defenders. Hockey 101. The answer is in a straight zone.
The overload has its place in hockey, and it’s a strong defensive system. Overload the puck carrier/strong side of the ice, and if the puck winds up below the goal line or on the weak side point, collapse into a low zone box. Simple, yet effective. Turnovers can be forced by anticipating that pass to the weak side defender, hence why speed and hockey IQ at the wing are important.
Adjustments take time though. The good thing is that the Rangers have significant player turnover, so there won’t be as many players needing to learn a new system. This means it shouldn’t be as bad as it was in 2013 when AV took over (remember those 9-2 and 6-0 games out west?). With these small adjustments, the Rangers should be tougher to play against in their own end next season."The defense can only get better, but it will take time",