The New York Rangers have been better than we thought they would be.
I know that seems like an obvious statement now, but about a month ago no one guessed the Rangers would be anywhere near the level where they are right now. The main reasoning is a significantly upgraded offense that’s not only remarkably explosive but is also taking care of work on the back end to support the defense.
A marginal improvement from Dan Girardi and a pretty solid jump from Marc Staal have also helped. Nick Holden hurts the situation — especially because his inclusion forces out Adam Clendening -- but whatever. Ryan McDonagh has been historically good, Kevin Klein has been alright and Brady Skjei is coming along just fine.
The problem? I’m not so sure the Rangers offense can sustain THIS level of play when 70% of their transition is coming from offense to offense. Alain Vigneault’s system is built on the offense generating from the defensive zone quickly, which requires defenseman to be able to move the puck to make this happen. Too often this year the Rangers offense is doing the heavy lifting in this department, which closes off transitional lanes because there’s less forwards up the ice to take those passes.
Here’s some examples of what I’m talking about and why I think it might turn into a problem.
The Breakout: Offense carrying the puck all the way.
This is the beautiful Kevin Hayes goal against the Blues to give the Rangers a 5-0 lead. The rush starts with Jimmy Vesey forcing a turnover and him, Miller and Hayes breaking out from here.
The play finishes like this:
BRB gonna spend all day watching this. pic.twitter.com/ebWSqTTqS1— Alex Nunn (@aj_ranger) November 2, 2016
Breakouts like the above aren’t rare -- they happen all the time -- but the Rangers have had a lot of their breakouts this year come this way.
Look at this example next: This is an offense doing all the dirty work for the full 200 feet against Arizona.
The play starts in the Rangers’ far corner, with a mess of bodies fighting for the puck.
Jimmy Vesey forces the puck free and moves it out to Derek Stepan who tries to break out of the zone down the boards. The two Rangers forwards break off to chase after him to join the rush.
Stepan runs into trouble (because he’s by himself) in the neutral zone and passes the puck backwards to Vesey to try and continue the breakout.
Vesey gets into the zone and finds Rick Nash — who is inexplicably left alone by the two Coyotes defenders. If the Coyotes play this right, there’s no play to be made and this fizzles into nothing. Notice how the Rangers have two players in the screen to the Coyotes’ four. Nash makes a beeline to the net because he’s good and that’s what good players do.
The Coyotes realize too late Nash is behind them. Nash’s shot is saved, but because there’s three defenders to one Ranger, the rebound is easily handled and cleared away.
Long term concerns: From an endurance standpoint, having to go 150-200 feet with the puck every time you’re creating odd man rushes can be exhausting.
Plays like this that happen all the time, but relying on this form of offense can wear a team out — especially when the forwards are doing so much work in the defensive zone to get the puck out in the first place.
The Rangers breakouts might look beautiful (and their puck movement really has been) but the lack of defensive help on these types of plays forces the forwards to do far more work and tire out far quicker. Where the Rangers don’t score on these plays, they’ve already exerted a lot of energy and then have to continue a grind and cycle in the zone to either win the puck back or create another chance.
Here’s another example of some O to O breakouts the Rangers have been leaning on.
The Breakout: Offense moving the puck from the defensive zone to offense in the neutral zone
The Rangers forwards start a turnover on the fifth goal against the Lightning here in the defensive zone. The red circle indicates the two Rangers defenseman, while the two green circles are the two forwards in the zone. Michael Grabner is also on the ice and out of frame.
The Rangers offense (in this case J.T. Miller) moves the puck up through their zone to a streaking Grabner in the neutral zone. This isn’t a bad play at all -- it results in a goal — but the point is to show you what would be happening if Grabner wasn’t faster than a speeding bullet.
The Rangers -- because two of their forwards had to work the puck free and move it out of the zone themselves -- only have one forward in the neutral zone against three Lightning defenders.
Obviously good things happen when Grabner is on a breakaway, but this is just to reiterate that in the event Grabner wasn’t so fast the Rangers’ transition lanes would be clogged with a three defenseman against two forwards ratio.
Long term concerns: The Rangers are getting away with these types of breakouts because of how fast they are. Chris Kreider, Grabner and even Miller have all had a slew of breakaways this year because they’ve simply been faster than the other team’s defenses.
That’s not a problem, and it’s actually part of a strategy the Rangers have run often — gun the fast forwards down the boards to take deep home run passes. When the system works, however, those passes come form the defense, which creates more natural lanes further up the ice. When those passes come from the offense there’s less lanes because there’s less forwards to take the pass.
To this point, the Bruins have been the only team that’s exploited the Rangers’ offense to offense transition. The Rangers won that game thanks to a lethal power play, but the point is teams will figure this stuff out. Hockey Stat Miner did an excellent segment on this during Episode 22 of Bantering The Blueshirts (listen here).
The Breakout: Defense to offense
This is exactly how breakouts are supposed to be run in a Vigneault system. Ryan McDonagh gets the puck and moves it from his own defensive zone to the offense.
Kevin Hayes takes the puck from McDonagh, and because the Rangers had all three forwards in the neutral zone the Blues lose J.T. Miller who is wide open for a great chance. He didn’t score, but it’s amazing what having an extra forward up front does.
Here’s another example from McDonagh doing this the right away against Carolina.
The play starts with the Rangers defense winning the puck in the defensive zone. The puck cycles to McDonagh who has all of his forwards up the ice for a potential pass.
Mats Zuccarello is beyond the defense, and McDonagh hits him with a perfect pass (Zuccarello would tie the game with a goal on this breakaway). Because the Rangers have forwards in the zone Carolina’s defense plays closer to the blue line and that allows Zuccarello to slip through for a breakaway. Chances like this don’t happen when the Rangers offense is sitting in the D zone trying to break it out.
Long term concerns: The Rangers don’t have enough defenseman who can do this. Right now McDonagh is doing 90% of the defense to offense transition himself. Kevin Klein and Brady Skjei have helped, but the Rangers are getting little of this from Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Nick Holden. Adam Clendening did a ton of work in this department but can’t get into the lineup.
The question becomes how long the Rangers can sustain their offense doing so much.
The Rangers are winning games right now because of their explosive offense. The Rangers offense is explosive because its fast and because other teams haven’t found a way to slow them down.
Soon enough you would expect other teams to try more creative ways of shutting the Rangers down. And when the Rangers offense can’t move the puck as efficiently to itself? The wheels might fall off the bus.
And if that happens the current defense — especially with Clendening out -- hasn’t shown a real ability to fix the problem.