Resurrecting the Power Play
I gave up on the Rangers Power Play finding their stride during their miserable February run. Since then, any time the Rangers received a PP, I looked at it as an opportunity not for the Rangers to score, but for the Rangers to not get scored on for 2 minutes (which wasn't a guarantee; as they gave up the 2nd most shorthanded goals  this past season). The Rangers man-up units had been receiving flak for a while by time February rolled around, but it seemed warranted to me as they seemed to be trying the same things, over and over again.
Now I never expected the PP to be so bad this past season, but when I started poking around in some statistics back in March, I think the horrible performance with an extra man can be to one specific fact. The incorrect mix by the Rangers coaching staff (mostly Tom Renney) of Power Play tactics and personnel led to the Rangers 29th ranked PP. Here are some quick statistics about the Rangers Power Play as a whole since the lockout; and see if you can spot a theme that disappears after a while.
Jaromir Jagr lead or was tied for the lead in total Power Play points in every season since the lockout but the last. Larry Brooks wrote about the Power Play on January 15th, saying the following:
"The power play operation has been dysfunctional from the start. It lacks the booming shot. It lacks decisive puck movement. It lacks strength in front and at the half-wall. It lacks the ability to pound pucks on net. In short, it lacks a weapon."
"In short, it lacks a weapon." Well as we found out over the course of the 2008-2009 season, Jaromir Jagr was that weapon. Jagr could put up 15-20 PP points in his sleep, let alone the all but guaranteed 50 he would have brought to the team overall. But the fact of the matter is that Jagr was not only our best weapon on the PP before last season, but for 90 of the 120 seconds the Rangers enjoyed any Power Play it centered on getting Jagr the puck. Take a look at the following clip from a Jagr PP goal in Game 5 of the 2008 playoffs:
The Rangers do a good job of keeping possession on that PP, something they could not accomplish all season. They calm the puck down well with a couple of quick and safe passes, and rotate to get Jagr on the half-wall. Then, it becomes his show. Straka sets up with a half screen, Dubinsky is in no man's land by the side of the net, Backman is circling around up top but is no real threat, and Rozival is standing still at the top of the point, as he should be. The only reason that Power Play converted was because the Devils sat back and let Jagr dictate the situation, which is a mistake with his wrist shot.
So why didn't that strategy work this season? Well with Jagr's wrist shot gone, who else can make a shot like that on the current Rangers roster? Few; and none consistently. The Devils backed off in that instance and gave Jagr space probably because his reputation as a player demands the space with his good puck control. When the Rangers would go on the PP this past year, many teams pressured them into three situations:
1) Dumping the puck in and having to go retrieve it
2) Forcing the Rangers to make creative or risky passes.
3) Forcing the Rangers to take low-percentage (bad angle) shots.
The problem with the Rangers Power Play in 2008-2009 was that they employed the same tactics they used that centered on Jagr but they did not have a player like Jagr who could shoot and pass as well as he did. Naslund could have done this maybe 3 or 5 years ago, but he only did it a handful of times this past season. Take a look at the following clip where all three situations that I mentioned above are evident, including a Naslund shot from the half-wall.
That burns my eyes watching that. I understand you can't see everyone at once in that clip, but it does illustrate the inefficiencies of the 29th ranked Power Play. The first glaring problem with that clip is that Zherdev received no support when he managed to skate it in. Maybe he had the blinders on, but I counted 3 Blueshirts circling back after he loses the puck. Then, another dump in leads to another clear, something we saw plenty of as fans this past season. Finally, once the Rangers break into the zone they feel rushed to get a chance. Staal and Rozival move it to Naslund, who doesn't allow anyone to settle and puts a shot on net that results in another clear. You can see Gomez coming across the net trying to get to the corner to support Naslund, but the shot has already been fired.
As much as getting into the zone on the Power Play was a concern for the Rangers, I believe they should be focusing more on their mistakes once they enter the zone with possession. Getting into the zone is a matter of being decisive. If a player is going to dump it in, which many do because NHL teams are good at playing the trap, the player has to put it in deep (in the correct spot too) and the players chasing the puck have to be decisive with their fore-check. But like I said before, the current Rangers PP tactics revolve around a player like Jagr being able to control the play from the side board in an overload fashion. What I would like to see the Rangers do is move the puck down low and use their talented forwards instead of forcing the puck to the points and the sideboards. The best clip I found of such a description would be Daniel Briere's Power Play goal in Game 4 of last year's Eastern Conference Semi's; take a look:
Now granted, the goal was a rebound, but it was the movement of the puck that allowed for Prospal to get such a shot in a nice scoring area and it allowed the space for Briere to sneak in for such an easy tap in of a rebound. See, the problem with the Rangers is that they do not have a bona-fide PP Quarterback that can confidently handle the puck all while tip-toeing across the blue line. I would love to see any one of the top 5 forwards do what Briere and Prospal did in the corner, which was just pass back and forth all while moving to make the Canadiens focus on the puck side, which in turn opened up the lane for the point-man to receive the puck and dish it to Prospal near the slot. That is a great Power Play because the effective puck movement and control created chaos for the shorthanded team all while providing a solid scoring chance.
Much of the tactics that John Tortorella and his staff decide to use next season for the Power Play will hinder on what Rangers management decides to do with their personnel. I am confident though Tortorella can find a much better mix than what Tom Renney put together for last season, as Torts only had two of his seven Tampa Bay Lightning teams rank below 15th in terms of Power Play percentage during his tenure there. Tortorella needs to find a system that works best for the club going into next season, and I think that would be one which focuses on keeping the puck low to open up scoring chances in the slots and at the same time provide rebounds for other forwards. Either way, the Power Play units can't get any worse, right?