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A Brief Analysis of the Ranger Forecheck

Hot on the heels of the bold decision to make Filip Chytil move to Hartford, David Quinn has elevated Brendan Smith—who plays defense—to the position of third line wing. Little more than two weeks ago, that spot had been occupied by Vladislav Namestnikov, who is currently scoring a point per game for lowly Ottawa and never saw eye to eye with the Ranger bench boss. Three weeks into the season the Rangers have amassed a three-and-five record, fifth worst in the league, while posting historically bad shot share numbers. The team's most promising young prospects are playing for the Wolf Pack, flanking Ryan Strome, or skating alongside Micheal Haley, and if you blinked, you missed the rise and fall of New York's vaunted Skjei-Trouba pairing. Vitali Kravtsov up and left. Faint murmurs of concern about the team's tactics are emanating from the New York Post. David Quinn's whole approach, however haltingly, however much from dark and strange corners of the internet, has for the first time begun to face criticism.

What is happening? Given the complex and multifaceted nature of the problem, no answer may be possible. The organization's offseason decisions, rather baffling at the time, begin to look staggering in retrospect; the free choice to trade Namestnikov for an imaginary return while the team entirely lacks forward depth somehow manages to be the most understandable in a series of moves—the needless buy-out of Kevin Shattenkirk, the bizarre rush to make Ryan Strome the 2nd line center, the refusal to acknowledge Marc Staal is finished as a professional hockey player, signing yet another talentless goon to waste yet another roster spot—which beggar belief. They implicate the entire organization from the President on down. But these and other issues must wait. The team's most pressing problems begin with its defensive systems. Here, we're concerned about the forecheck and how they deal without breakouts.

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This is bad

Before we begin, some cautions: first, there ought to be a generalized wariness on the part of laypeople to do tactical analysis, especially in hockey. In the sport of basketball, for instance, the diffusion of systems information is widespread; it's a very simple task to acquire and review sets of plays, various systems, defensive schemes and the like, often with commentary by experts. So too in soccer, where a blog like Spielverlagerung regularly produces mythopoetic-length pieces on individual teams, coaches, and even single matches. No such equivalent exists for hockey, where systems and tactics rarely receive mention in broadcasts, never mind public-facing analysis, and when they do the terms are near-uniformly vague. (Recall myriad mentions of "north-south," "east-west," and "heavy," styles, or the amorphous "trap.")

Second, by virtue of copyright law, time, and everyone's patience, tactical analysis must usually rely on a limited and arguably non-representative sample of cases for its meat. There is no way around this, and tacticsblogging generally is often criticized for an over reliance on "just-so" examples selected specifically because they illustrate a predetermined point. This criticism is often legitimate.

I move beyond this wariness because some of the problems are glaringly obvious and because the Ranger defense is, through eight games, literally the worst in recorded history. I ask that you trust me when I tell you that what I'm pointing out happens constantly. Things may get better—indeed, I expect them to—but the team's current defensive structure is defective and they won't have long term success approaching one half of the game in this manner.

Now, let's establish some background. Since Quinn took over the Rangers have played a 2-1-2 on their forecheck with mixed, context-specific aggressiveness. When this happened originally, people got excited; it's quite different from the approach Alain Vigneault took. Notice above the positioning of Ryan Strome (F1, hereafter) and Kappo Kakko (F2), as well as Chris Kreider (F3). This is the general approach, and the results of it depend on individual reads by the players. F1 here is responsible for pressuring the puck, with the goal of creating a turnover or more likely an imperfect pass, moving the read tree to F2, who is faced with the same choice but a new puck carrier. Whether he aggressively tries to jump a passing lane or just makes the next pass harder is a judgment call, but the overall object is to disrupt passing rhythms and by doing so make the opposition inefficient and turnover prone.

F3's choice determines the next step: he has to read pass one and pass two and use that read to make a decision about any potential pass three. A good read by Kreider (or any third high forward) probably creates a bad pass and a slowed breakout, and a great read will create a turnover and likely an odd-man rush for the Rangers. A bad read, like a bad pinch at the blue line, probably creates an odd-man rush the other way. (By moving higher into the offensive zone while failing to recover the puck or disrupt a pass, F3 can be bypassed and is left skating the wrong way.) It's a high risk maneuver, and watching the Rangers play, you'll see that F3 is usually cautious. All these, though, are less common than a simple read to stay home, allowing the third pass but maintaining numerical equality between the offense and defense. It's the modal decision and what Kreider does in the above.

But if you've watched that GIF a half-dozen times, you've probably noticed a problem—there is a huge gap between the forechecking forwards and the defensemen, and the opposition is skating faster than the Rangers are. This system might not be highly aggressive, but it does put two forwards in the offensive zone and another floating around the blue line; by contrast, a 1-3-1 trap might have four or even five players in the neutral zone. In exchange for an opportunity to generate turnovers, a higher 2-1-2 forecheck sacrifices some control over the speed of breakouts and runs the risk of letting forecheckers get caught behind the play.

If we look at another example, this may be clearer:

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Repeated problems

There's a simple analogy to soccer too: when teams press high with their forwards and midfielders, it's imperative that the defenders move higher up the pitch as well; disconnection between the defensive lines leaves attacking players with time to pick out passes and space to run at defenders. Both are sub-optimal; it's no different in hockey. Watch Tony DeAngelo and Marc Staal work to build speed and get back to the defensive zone in the above examples—more aggressive positioning on their part would allow them to check the puck carrier (literally or figuratively) much more effectively, though again they would run the risk of getting bypassed.

The Ranger defensive system—so far as anyone can reasonably infer—is fantastically more concerned with making certain the defensemen get back than that the breakout be managed in the neutral zone or at the blue line. This is such a strong preference that, as many have noted, the team literally concedes the blue line on a massive portion of zone entries. But it's more expansive than this: not only does the team concede the blue line, it concedes much of the offensive zone. In a clear attempt to protect the home plate area, Ranger defensemen generally don't engage oncoming forwards until they reach the top of the face-off circles, and they are happy to shepherd attackers outside an imaginary line running north and south through the face-off dots. Pay close attention to DeAngelo on the first goal—he's never more than a step outside the face-off dot on his side and he doesn't make a move toward the attacker until they're both deep into the zone. Then see Staal, who shades toward the center of the ice and doesn't attempt to engage his forward until reaching the top of the circle.

This is not an iron law and there are numerous exceptions, but though these examples are limited, the process described is extremely common and borne out by zone entry and exit data for the individual defensemen. Since Ruff came in during Vigneault's last year and continuing through Quinn's tenure, even seemingly good entry defenders had started to concede them at alarming, cellar-dwelling rates. Brady Skjei, as an example, went from moderately above average in 2016-2017 to the 13th percentile in entry defense over the past two seasons. The departed Fredrik Claesson had made a career of high-level entry defense; he dropped to the 38th percentile on joining the Rangers. Even Marc Staal—whose entry defensive abilities were an honest strength—has sharply declined. Small samples sizes aside, watching the team over the past month has made this strategy clear.

It almost goes without saying that the strategy is an incredibly bad one, but the strategy is an incredibly bad one—there is substantial, widely-available evidence that clean zone entires, as opposed to dump-ins and the like, generate many more shots and many more goals for the team that completes them. The Rangers defensive system, far from trying to stymie this, actively encourages—in fact, essentially rolls out a welcome mat for—teams to enter their zone.

The in-zone coverage has issues as well, but as long as the team concedes rush chances like this any hopes of fixing the defense will be dashed. It's vital that the team's high-paid defenders be allowed to defend, standing up at their own blue line and stopping attacks before they become dangerous. It won't the fix other problems—far beyond our scope here—but simply allowing defensemen the freedom to make more aggressive reads on breakouts and entries, keeping tighter gaps and reducing opportunities for their opponents to skate at them with speed, would go a long way toward limiting some of the most egregious chances the team has allowed this season. And whether the coaching staff can actually make the necessary adjustments here is one of the key things to watch as the season moves forward.

Numbers from Corsica and @ShutdownLine