Hockey Tactics: It’s time for the Rangers to embrace an off-handed defense pair
Since the Alain Vigneault days, the Rangers have had a tremendous focus on playing three left handed defensemen and three right handed defensemen. This makes logical sense, and it’s pretty impressive that the Rangers were able to pull it off somewhat successfully for as many years as they did. Times, though, have changed.
From a tactics standpoint, having an even split of LD and RD is ideal. This puts the player’s forehand on the boards and not up the middle, which is a better position for defensive play in their own zone. A player on his off-hand would have his forehand up the middle, which can potentially lead to dangerous defensive coverages and clears.
On the flip side, an off-handed defenseman is in a better position offensively. In the defensive zone, their heads are up the middle and able to see a better picture of the play. In the offensive zone, they are in better positions for one-timers. If the Rangers were to play an off-handed defenseman, it would be an offensively inclined player.
All that said, it is ideal to have an even LD/RD split. That, however, does assume that you’re playing your best six defensemen. In the Rangers’ case, they have the even split but simply aren’t playing their six best. It is safe to say that four of the Rangers top six defensemen are right handed: Jaocb Trouba, Adam Fox, Tony DeAngelo, and Brendan Smith. Yes, that Brendan Smith.
How could Smith possibly be one of their top-six? Simply put, he’d rank ahead of Marc Staal and Libor Hajek. The former shouldn’t be in the lineup anymore and the latter should be in the AHL to work out some of the kinks, much like Filip Chytil. However due to the infatuation with an even split, Smith is up front and Staal/Hajek are shoehorned into roles that don’t suit them at the moment. You can make the argument that Smith isn’t worth his contract, but it’s a tough sell that he’s worse than Staal or Hajek for the time being.
Let’s also fast forward to the offseason, where we have all come to the logical conclusion that Tony DeAngelo is a goner because of his place in the lineup (3RD), pending contract demands (a lot), and possible arrival of cheaper options (Nils Lundkvist, Joey Keane). If the Rangers are intent on keeping him –and replacing his 60 point pace is going to be tough– then they will need to get creative.
Short of moving him to forward, the only other option is playing to his strengths and switching him to LD. If the goal is to play your best players, then it is essential to find ways to keep him in the lineup and make him worth the contract he’s on pace to get. This is the first difficult decision the coaching staff has to make on the blue line, but getting it right sets them up for future success.