Hockey Tactics

The Rangers defense has improved, here’s why

Over the past couple of weeks, the Rangers defense has been improving. With the exception of last night’s game, they’ve done a good job limiting scoring chances and for the most part, keeping the puck out of the net. Obviously, the game in Philly was a track meet due to injuries and roster depletion, but it was more of an exception than the rule of late.

For today’s systems post, I’ll talk about the tactics that are being employed to tighten things up. Then maybe if I have some time later in the comments, I’ll discuss what kind of seasonal fabrics everyone should be buying for their spring collection.

If you don’t get that joke, you haven’t been reading this blog long enough.

Pursue vs. Contain

Hopefully, you have read Dave and I’s hockey systems posts over the years. For those of you who haven’t (curtains for you!), there tends to be a common theme with these tactics. Ultimately, every coach must decide which players will pursue puck carriers and which players will try to contain puck carriers.

Part of the reason the Rangers have been tilting the ice towards the opposition lately is because the players have finally figured out when to pursue, when to contain, and most importantly, who should be doing what.

Much internet ink has been spilt on the fact that the Rangers often give up the blueline on counter rushes, which hasn’t exactly endeared David Quinn to the Blueshirt faithful. While it wouldn’t be a something I’d opt for, this isn’t some tactic from late antiquity. Plenty of teams do it with success.

In order for it to work though, you have to understand two basic principles:

  1. In the modern NHL, many coaches treat the top of the face-off circles like the blueline. This means that going for the takeaway can happen inside the kill zone (area highlighted in yellow), instead of the actual blueline. The reason being, if you force a dump-in from further inside the zone, your D probably has a better chance at retrieving the puck since they’re a few feet closer to the goal line.
  2. The other important component to this is F3 must backcheck and pick up a man. Some coaches will want the D to collapse into the zone and play the passing options and have F3 go for the takeaway (as diagrammed above). Other coaches will want the strongside D to go for the kill and have F3 drive mid-lane. Other times you just have to figure it out on the fly. Communication is key here.

Here’s an example of what happens when the execution isn’t there. Four Rangers are around Crosby on the entry and no one went for the takeaway. That’s a miscommunication. One of the forwards should have covered him, as it looks like Quinn wants the D to cover the passing options instead.

However, when everyone is in sync, not only will you prevent an attack, but you can spring one the other way as well. In this clip, Di Giuseppe is F3, tracks back and makes the turnover in the neutral zone, (note, our defense dropped back). Same principles apply and it’s a goal. While this isn’t in the defensive zone, it’s a reason why the Rangers look improved on defense.

Pairings that work

*Note that all stats are courtesy of Natural Stat Trick as of 2/24. Expected goals (xGF) are essentially shots that could have been goals given their quality (e.g., location, angle, etc.). This was written prior to last night’s game against Philly.

Of course, x’s and o’s only work when you have the right guys out on the ice at the right time. Despite the blueline having some upheaval lately with injuries and the Tony DeAngelo fiasco, Quinn has found some pairings that actually work.

Ryan Lindgren & Adam Fox have looked very good together. Their xGF% is almost 53% despite being on for more faceoffs in the defensive zone (OZF 47%). This could be a Leetch/Beukeboom like pairing moving forward, eating minutes, and playing in all situations.

The Libor Hajek & Anthony Bitetto pairing has also been a real nice surprise, especially after the former struggled out of the gate. Their xGF% is also close to 53% and Quinn has been wise to shelter them a bit by mostly starting them in the offensive zone. Putting players in a position to succeed plays a big role in improved defense from the Rangers.

Finally, you have K’Andre Miller with Brendan Smith. This pairing hasn’t seen a ton of ice time together, but I think it’s a good placeholder until Trouba gets back. Smith has one of the lowest expected goals against in the league and it never hurts to have that type of player showing the ropes to a youngin.

Also, I really can’t say enough about Miller. This kid is such a steadying presence on D. His ability to break up plays 1v1 and eliminate passing options is already at a very high level, and he’s what? 21? Imagine how good this kid is going to be in 2-3 years once he’s filled out and has faced every situation and opponent.

Over the next couple of weeks, as Panarin gets his situation sorted out, team defense is going to be critical if the Rangers are going to continue to fight for a playoff spot. It will not be an easy task. However, getting our forwards to backcheck and make the right reads defensively, plus Quinn nailing the pairings and deployment will go a long way to holding the fort.

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  • Suit, nice to have you back posting on this site. You were always a go to read for me with your systems posts and this one doesn’t disappoint. Great break down and analysis.

  • Great article Sharp Dressed Man. Explains ‘giving up the blue line’ so that even I might understand it.

  • But we still a a losing team with a very impatient fan base… DQ should be on the clock……how about those amazingly hideous line changes for like the 120 game in succession?? And the continuously playing terrible nhl players????? Where is the development headed??? Johnson??? Rooney???? Why not the prospects???

    • I don’t disagree with you on DQ. He should and likely is on the clock. I’m not a fan of some of his matchups, but I do think he’s coaching with one hand tied behind his back. I’m willing to give him the rest of the season to see where it all nets out.

      • Not a DQ fan here either, but what coach would do well without his 1C scoring, his 1 offensive D threat gone and a first overall pick struggling every night. Combine that with injuries to your 3C and 1D and you have a bottom 6 that probably don’t make the 4th line on many clubs.

        The defense this year is not the problem – it is 5v5 scoring. There is no puck possession and limited time in the O zone every night. It looks like we are very much still in the rebuilding stage.

        Also – can’t see why you would even think about re-signing Zibanejad.

        • On your last point….. give it some time (minimum this entire condensed season) to round back into form. Last night was a good start.

        • I think Z will turn it around. 5-6 seasons of solid play, plus he’s still only 27, is more than enough of a body of work to trust he can get going.

  • Suit- nice surprise to have you check back in with a solid systems post. Enjoyed the read! Tops of the circles is a good tid bid. I’m surprised that is the case though, considering the velocity guys can wire the puck through screens at this level. I guess goalies can handle those threats well enough….

    As far as personnel, I’m surprised of the Bitetto / Hajek stat….at least I expected uglier #s based on the eye test, specifically for Hajek. As much as I want him to succeed (given acquisition cost and all) he seems inundated at this level more often than not.

    As far as Smith, I think you nailed it. Contract aside, he seems to be a steadying presence out there. Add in he can slot in anywhere on the back end (or 4LW, lol) and given how light the bottom half of our D roster is, he is a welcomed presence for this season.

    And as for Miller- in a season where essentially everything is going wrong, he is the silver lining. Well ahead of where anyone could have expected his development.

    • Appreciate that Swayzer.

      I’d certainly prefer the pressure come a bit higher, but I think it makes sense given how DQ wants the D to play more zone coverage than straight man-on-man.

      Yea look Bitetto/Hajek aren’t the 3rd pairing I’d role out in a Stanley Cup final, but I think they’re fine for now in sheltered roles and minutes.

  • Hey Suit, it’s great to see a post from you. I love them all by all the BSB staff but it’s a treat when you post these X/O systems posts. I love keeping up with the trends in hockey Systems across the league. I wish we got more of these from you.
    In any event I would like to ask you a question. Many Ranger fans have voiced their dislike for David Quinn. I personally like him and think he’s a good coach. He’s a young coach with his 1st NHL job. He too is gonna grow with the team along with his strategies.
    My question is about your opinion on DQ (Not Dairy Queen the coach).

    Do you think the Rangers can win with him behind the bench?
    Personally, I think the players like him and have bought into his ideas and there’s only 1 way to go from here, and that’s up.

    • Thank you for the kind words. You must be a man of fine taste and incredible hockey sense.

      I wrote about DQ a couple of weeks ago, so I’ll shamelessly plug that post. https://blueseatblogs.com/2021/02/12/david-quinn-has-more-adjustments-to-make/

      In summary, I think he’s an ok coach. I have no real issue with his systems (2-1-2 forecheck, zone defense, 1-3-1 PP, rotating box PK), which I think are right for the roster. And I think for the most part the young guys are improving under his watch.

      With that said, I don’t think he pays enough attention to the matchups/situations. Bottom six players shouldnt be on the ice once you get late in the 3rd period. He routinely sends those guys over the boards when we’re trying to win hockey games and I just can’t agree with those decisions.

      • “Bottom six players shouldnt be on the ice once you get late in the 3rd period. He routinely sends those guys over the boards when we’re trying to win hockey games and I just can’t agree with those decisions.”

        It’s especially exciting when he does that and they are down a goal.

      • I know he’s putting his guys in position to succeed in the Dzone. I just hate seeing defenseman get all the time in the world to make a move with the puck from the blue line. Those are low percentage shots. Pressure those guys a bit. Maybe they see the pressure and miss the puck. At worst it comes out the zone. At best there’s a rush the other way.
        I know we all hate AV but that was one part of his coaching I liked.

  • Yes and it doesn’t hurt having a goalie in bet with a respectable save percentage. Long live the Czar.

  • Except for last night where helter skelter returned, the Rangers have shown much better structure.

    None of the “let’s all go get the puck” mentality existed. They all came back on D in nicely layered “zones” where they were clogging the passing lanes.

    They also have taken a much more aggressive style in the neutral zone, making it less easy for the other team to simply come from end to end without resistance.

    The combo of these 2 important D concepts has led to a much better team D, IMO. I think that Martin should get the credit, as I assume this is his doing.

  • This is complete crap, 1st we gave up our defense over the last few years, and this year has shown it, the rangers have sloppy play all season and no defense, no hitting, no fore check, and Alexander should be the 1st goaltender not second, and take off the masks its no wonder why we lose when no one has oxygen going to the brain, this isnt rocket science, fore check to create offensive opportunity and stand up on the blue line to slow there fore checking and create offensive pressure.

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