For the Alain Vigneault years, we watched the Rangers struggle with defending high quality chances, specifically about three feet out from the net. There were always cases of the man in front, especially with Henrik Lundqvist in net, being left uncovered and open for deflections, screens, and rebounds. It was sometimes maddening to watch.
That system was actually by design. It is a system called “fronting,” where the defenseman plays in front of the man in front. This has been a tactic commonly deployed in Hank’s tenure as it allows his defense to absorb shots so he doesn’t have to. The main positive with this strategy is you’re preventing the enemy from getting direct deflections/tip-ins, which are often the hardest types of saves a goalie can make when facing zone pressure.
The negative side to this strategy is if the puck does get through your defense then the enemy forward often ends up with a good screen or an unchallenged chance at a rebound. Normally you wouldn’t deploy this strategy for shorter goaltenders like Lundqvist, but since he’s superb at placing rebounds into the corner, you don’t have to worry about the enemy getting those 2nd and 3rd chances very often. I’m sure we can all recall photos of this in action, like the one below.
This tactic was used regularly for the Rangers. It worked for the most part, but really started to get exploited in AV’s final years. The defense was letting forwards walk in to extremely close distances, they weren’t blocking shots, and Hank was no longer able to take those close in shots and direct rebounds to corners. In the end, it led to frustrating defensive play.
David Quinn has changed that, going to a net-side positioning system in front. As you can see from the image below, taken from the Thursday night loss against Chicago, the blue liners are now behind the men in front, tying them up.
The advantage of this system is it allows the goalie to track shots better and prevent the enemy from getting to rebounds.
The disadvantage with net-side positioning is you can end up screening the goalie yourself if you fail to move the enemy out of the slot. You also eliminate yourself from takeaways and thus transition rushes, since you’re focusing on the enemy screen and not eating up the puck.
On the whole, the numbers say the Rangers are still struggling to prevent these rebound and dangerous chances. However we are still early in the season, and it’s really just three games (Carolina, San Jose, Florida) skewing those numbers. When you add in a new system, there’s going to be a learning curve. Most of the blue line is returning from last year –or prior years– so it takes time to undue years of habit.
In theory, the adjustment will limit the number of rebound chances and in tight goals against the Rangers. Lundqvist is no spring chicken anymore, and while he hasn’t shown signs of slowing down yet, limiting those chances will do wonders for his longevity. When you add in the new defensive system, where there should always be a man in front, you have a system designed to limit high quality chances. Whether or not that comes to fruition, we shall see. The learning curve is usually two months or so, so let’s check back in December.