No team in the NHL is absent of deficiencies. The defending champion Los Angeles Kings get middle-of-the-road goaltending in most situations. So do the Western Conference runners-up Blackhawks, and perennial offensive juggernauts Pittsburgh.
For the Rangers, one could argue the team has a few areas they are perhaps average in, while if there was one facet that truly should be filed under "problematic," it's the team's power play.
This is no secret, and has been an area of weakness for quite some time. The Rangers managed to reach hockey's final two last season with another middling power play in the regular season (15th), and then a historically anemic one in the playoffs.
The Rangers power play struggles in context
What's concerning at this point isn't simply the fact that the Rangers struggle to score in man-advantage situations, it's how long this problem has existed, how fixable this problem is perceived to be, and how many times the team has unsuccessfully attempted to find solutions.
In reality, season-to-season improvements on the power play aren't only possible, they've been well-documented. Beginning with this 2005-06 season, the below chart shows how each team in the league has fared on the power play.
As far as where the Rangers power play fell among the league's best wasn't always so putrid. In the two seasons coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, New York's power play finished 8th both years.
The following season, in 2007-08, the team's power play fell to 22nd overall. The drop-off wasn't that dramatic though, as the power play simply dipped two percentage points, from 18.5 to 16.5. The team scored 14 fewer power play goals, but also generated 36 fewer power play chances.
The personnel changes the team underwent that offseason also weren't so dramatic. The team lost power play stalwart Michael Nylander, but added Chris Drury who tallied 12 goals in man-up situations, leading the team. Other holdovers included Brendan Shanahan, Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, and Michal Rozsival.
The real problem came the following season. The power play dropped to a lowly 13.9%, second-to-last in the entire NHL. Since then, its efficiency has fluctuated, spiking to 18.3% (13th) the next year, then declining the three following seasons, and actually back up above 18% last year.
Last season also seemed to be a bit of an anomaly. The Rangers power play began the season consistently in the league's top 10, but then bottomed out. The Blueshirts scored 48 power play goals in 2013-14, but only nine times over their last 22 games on 69 opportunities, or 13%. That sluggishness carried over into the postseason, where the team set a playoff record when it comes to power play ineptitude, recording an 0-for-36 stretch.
What the above table also reveals though is how routinely teams make giant leaps year-to-year in terms of power play percentage. Teams can jump six to seven points from one season to the next. The largest improvement the Rangers have made over this sample is just under 4.5 percentage points. Simply put, the Rangers haven't made any significant strides in what's been a known deficiency for quite some time.
Why is the Rangers power play so bad?
Success on the power play is found in sequences. It requires stringing together a few good plays, not just generating one. Even power play efficiency that's seemingly derived from a singular force, say, an Alex Ovechkin one-timer, is significantly more complex than that. It requires a controlled zone-entry, puck movement, offensive zone spacing, and then finally, a shot from the Capitals star.
One of the Rangers biggest issues has been applying a singular solution to such a layered problem. In an era where the team has been without its longtime power play quarterback Brian Leetch, the organization has tried to find an heir apparent. The problem with that, however, is a player like Dan Boyle isn't a power play savior for the Blueshirts, at least not by himself.
Watching a Rangers power play this season can lead someone to pointing out a number of problem areas. The team is bad on offensive zone, power play faceoffs (15-of-37, or 40%), or the easiest way to generate a zone entry in those situations. So in most instances, teams force the Rangers to come 200 feet, another area the Rangers struggle in, with stagnant spacing near the blue line, and not much of a cohesive effort in terms of gaining the zone.
When the Rangers do establish possession in the offensive zone, they often struggle to get anything going. The efforts they exhaust to simply establish that possession sometimes leaves them with overloaded areas of ice, and no escape valves to relieve penalty killing pressure.
In those sequences the Rangers muster a zone entry, puck control, and they have their shape, the team doesn't always execute the necessary, following steps. Under former assistant Mike Sullivan, players routinely were glued to their spots in the power play. Puck movement is one thing, but sending passes to stationary targets creates easy work for any penalty killing unit.
When the Rangers get Boyle back, he'll help, but he won't magically rectify most of these issues. He won't take offensive zone faceoffs on power play, he can't singularly fix the Rangers zone entry problems, and he can't force his power play cohorts to move off the puck.
In those rare instances the Rangers power play has converted this season (all two of them), the team has been able to string together sequences. On the very first tally, scored by Chris Kreider, the team had somewhat of a sloppy zone entry, but then went to work. Players moved the puck, and then moved their position on the ice. It ended with the Devils losing their shape, and Kreider finding space and a rebound to flip past Cory Schneider.
On the other power play goal, the Rangers actually controlled the puck off an offensive zone faceoff. From there, the unit managed to complete a few passes, and Chris Mueller, by moving his feet, found a soft spot in the zone, and connected on a one-timer. It's not just Ovechkin who can score on those, after all.
Therein also lies some of what's wrong here. Personnel changes are one thing, and certainly don't hurt, but the Rangers power play has long faced systemic issues. That's not to say the Rangers coaches are incapable of running a functional power play, but the team often goes through stretches where it not only fails to score, but fails to do the right things. Talented players should be able to create in special teams situations, so long as they put themselves in positions to do so.
This year, as has been the case sometimes in the past, the Rangers have a group—on paper—that should be fine on the power play. The only problem is, as has become a common trend for this team, it hasn't been.