Throughout the first month of the NHL season, the New York Rangers’ offense has been a blinding force. Opposing teams have looked silly trying to contain their quick counter-attack, yo-yo trick-passing abilities and lethal power play.
It’s a far cry from the Rangers season that dully flamed out last year. After two straight years of being Stanley Cup favorites, including a trip to the Final in 2015, the team turned more into the morning-after camp fire, still quietly smoldering but mostly doing nothing, than the dazzling bright burn.
During the off-season, general manager Jeff Gorton completely revamped the team’s offense, adding depth pieces like Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri. Those move have been coupled with strong play from youngsters like Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey and JT Miller to create four really deep, talented forward lines.
Defensively, the team has always been a question mark. Defensive inefficiency is ultimately the sword the 2015-16 season fell on, when the Pittsburgh Penguins beat them handily in five games in the opening round of the playoffs.
While the personnel upgrades the team made in the off-season didn’t trickle down to the defense—New York lost Keith Yandle, one of the league’s best puck movers—a completely different tactical approach is paying early dividends and quietly as important an improvement as the team’s new-look offense.
“We’re playing less man-on-man because we’re playing faster in zone,” Rangers veteran defenseman Marc Staal explained. “We’re stopping guys in corners, that’s allowing us to outnumber them and get the puck back.”
Their defensive struggles were in part due to the old playing style and the team’s blueliners weren’t really able to progress play up ice to help the forward group. Staal admitted the team spent a lot of team without the puck.
“We did a lot of chasing last year, we weren’t able to create turnovers,” he said. “If you don’t do that, then you’re tired and you just dump it in and it starts all over again.”
This season, however, he said, “We’ve been doing a good job of cutting it off and it’s been solid.”
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault confirmed the team has moved to a more zone-oriented approach when it comes to defending and he added it’s certainly paid off, early in the season.
“For us, it’s a question of, if we can get that puck quicker I think we’re a lot faster in being able to counter-attack and use that speed,” he said. “Whether it be deep in our zone or in that neutral zone. So far, there’s no doubt that it’s paid dividends.”
And through the Rangers 5-2 home victory over the Winnipeg Jets—the fifth straight game of five-plus goals—the change certainly has paid dividends. The team, at the November 7 mark of the season, leads the NHL in goals with 55 – at least twice more than the seven teams at the bottom of the league in goals.
A more zone-oriented approach is clearly well suited for the styles of defensemen on this team. There’s no physical bruising defenseman who spends time in his own zone harassing opposing players—although in his prime, before all of the injuries, Staal was a tremendous one-on-one defender—so it makes sense to have guys like Dan Girardi and Staal trying to play more to their strengths now.
And for the better skating defenseman like Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei, it allows them to flourish and help with that quick transition. Skjei already looks like he fits much more comfortably than he did in his brief call-up last season.
The exception is probably Kevin Klein, who’s struggled mightily this season. His drop off in shot generation and suppression is likely both a result of no longer having Yandle driving play on his left side and also the new strategy.
The change in style could have also been one of the reasons that defensive cast-off Dylan McIlrath struggled to gain a regular spot on the line up. His punishing physicality is better suited for constantly beating on opposing forwards, not this zone-transition style.
So while the spotlight is on the improved forward play for obvious reasons, the major defensive system change has complimented the forwards excellently and given the Rangers one of the league’s best records through the first month of play.