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.

https://twitter.com/i/status/1353530913905405953

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.