Poor defending has plagued the New York Rangers all season but stellar goaltending has bailed them out on numerous occasions. Still, if the Rangers want to become a playoff team, their atrocious play in their own zone will need to improve.
Long gone are the days of players like Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi, who valued defensive play as much, if not more than offensive play. The mentality of most current players seems to be all-offense all the time. This season the Rangers have the ninth-most giveaways in their defensive zone, with 277, and the fifth-most giveaways in their offensive zone, with 154.
In part, the giveaways stem from passing up good opportunities in the offensive zone. Those giveaways often lead to rushes going the other way for opponents. Head coach David Quinn has told his team over and over that he wants them to shoot more often, but so far that hasn’t happened. Smarter plays with the puck in the offensive zone could help the Rangers prevent opponents from getting as many chances off the rush.
Many of the giveaways in the defensive zone result from players trying to make cross-ice breakout passes instead of simply dumping the puck out of the zone. This may stem from having four rookie defensemen playing this season, although Libor Hajek is currently out with a sprained knee. The Rangers do lead the league in points by defensemen, and many of these risky breakout passes have led to goals. The defensemen just need to figure out when to try them, and when to simply pop the puck out of the defensive zone.
Lack of discipline has also been an issue for the Rangers. They are tied for the league lead with 146 minutes shorthanded this season. Many of the penalties have been unnecessary and have come in the offensive zone. They are one of the youngest teams in the league, so this may be a sign of growing pains, but the Blueshirts do not have a strong penalty kill, and silly penalties have burned them all season. The best way to help the struggling penalty kill is to not take penalties in the first place.
The Rangers have the eighth-worst penalty kill percentage in the league at 77.4 percent. They gave up three power-play goals on Dec. 31 in a 7-5 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. The inability to kill off those penalties cost New York the game. Getting Mika Zibanejad back from an upper-body injury has helped the team, but they remain near the bottom of the league in penalty killing.
The Rangers’ failure to win faceoffs is particularly noticeable on the penalty kill. Zibanejad, Ryan Strome, and Brett Howden, the three centers the Blueshirts use on the penalty kill, have all won less than 50 percent of the faceoffs they’ve taken this season.
The Rangers allow their opponents to control the puck and make easy passes without pressuring them in the defensive zone. They rely on goalies Henrik Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev to bail out the rest of the team, but even after big saves they often leave players open in the slot, get out-worked for rebounds or fail to clear the puck out of the defensive zone. They consistently end up with tired players stuck on the ice, which opposing players capitalize on.
In part, the struggles simply stem from having so many young players, most of whom are more NHL-ready offensively than defensively, but the issues run deeper than that. The coaching staff needs to find a way to improve the team’s defensive play. Quinn has stressed the importance of defense but remains frustrated with the results. He has benched players, including Pavel Buchnevich and Kaapo Kakko for defensive mistakes, but he can’t bench the entire team. On Saturday, an errant pass by Chris Kreider led to an icing call. The Maple Leafs scored off the ensuing faceoff.
Perhaps it’s time for Quinn to become more critical of his team’s defensively play. Maybe it’s time to finally fire Lindy Ruff, the often-criticized assistant coach, who was supposed to improve the team’s defense. Ultimately though, it’s up to every player on the team to start taking pride in his own defensive play.
Quinn has repeatedly called playing defense “a want.” It isn’t something that takes a ton of skill but it does take grit and desire. Right now, the Rangers do not want to play defense. If that doesn’t change, management will have to find players who do.
It wasn’t so long ago that the Rangers were one of the best defensive teams in hockey, under head coach John Tortorella. This young, talented team doesn’t need to lead the league in blocked shots, as New York did under Torts, but they must improve their positioning, decision-making, and effort fighting for loose pucks.
If the Rangers can get it together in their own zone, they can become a playoff team. If they don’t, they will continue to rely on their strong goaltending and star players, but will be unable to sustain success.