Rangers’ Power Play Surges, Defense Collapses

After a 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins on Jan. 19, the New York Rangers are in a week-long, and much-needed, break for a team filled with young players. The Rangers don’t play another game until a Jan. 29 showdown with the Philadelphia Flyers after the All-Star break.

They have significantly struggled in January, but the team managed to win three of its last four games, making them 4-6 in their last 10. Head coach David Quinn has recently focused on getting the rebuilding franchise back to a .500 record, which the Rangers, who now sit at a record of 21-20-7, accomplished.

“Now they get to go on vacation and feel good about themselves,” Quinn told the New York Post. “I hope they remember what we did to put ourselves in this position.”

David Quinn, Lindy Ruff New York Rangers
New York Rangers coach David Quinn and assistant coach Lindy Ruff (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

When I first looked at this Rangers team by the numbers, the offense was the biggest factor in team struggles. The team was behind the eight-ball there when compared to the rest of the NHL. Now with the team on their extended All-Star break, is offense still the main concern statistically? Or has that focus shifted elsewhere?

Power Play Benefits Offense

The Rangers’ offense isn’t as much a disaster anymore, but it’s still far from perfect. In fact, it’s nothing special at all. As of the evening of Jan. 24, the team is tied for 26th in the NHL with 2.79 goals-per-game and 30th in shots on goal with 28 per game. Fortunately, while that shooting percentage of 10 may sound troubling, it actually puts them tied for 12th in the NHL. Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes continue to lead the points category for this team (despite Hayes being out with an upper-body injury through the break).

Chris Kreider Rangers
Chris Kreider, New York Rangers, Mar. 22, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Where the Rangers are striving the most offensively, however, is on the power play, which is a relief considering how things were not long ago. There was a point in mid-December when they weren’t getting many chances to work a man up on the opposition, and when opportunities came, they couldn’t make the most of them.

This included an eight-game stretch that saw the Rangers go 1-for-15 in power play chances. The unit also dealt with injury concerns after Kevin Shattenkirk went down with a shoulder injury, Mats Zuccarello and Pavel Buchnevich had to step back in immediately after coming off theirs.

Fast-forward to now, and the power-play unit, tied for 13th at 20.7 percent, has been one of the better parts of the team, even during struggles. Quinn previously told the New York Post that, while he felt the unit wasn’t perfect, he wanted them to continue to “work hard, have that five-on-five relentless mentality.” That seems to have paid off for the unit with a surge up the league ranks.

The team still needs work targeting the net, and the 47.4 faceoff percentage (30th in the league) and 609 giveaways (fifth-most) are ugly. But, it’s good to see some progress made offensively.

Defense Still Physical, but Broken

Quinn is a defensive-minded coach and wants his team to always play a fast-paced, physical style, but his young players seemed to hit a wall this month. The Rangers are still one of the most physical teams with 1,258 total hits (sixth in league; their average of 26.2 hits per game ranks fifth), and 757 blocked shots, tied for fourth-most in the league.

But the defense simply fell apart over this past month. The zone coverage has been sloppy, the 394 takeaways so far this season don’t make up for all the turnovers, and players’ mistakes have been costly. In the first seven games the Rangers played this month, the team gave up 34 goals.

The context looks worse when, looking back at December, there were several instances in which the team took a lead into the second 30 minutes of a game only to blow the lead and either lose or be forced to play past regulation. In fact, the Rangers are ranked seventh in goals allowed in the second period this season and fifth in goals allowed in the third.

The Rangers could also use improvements in discipline, highlighted by 200 penalties, which are currently fourth-most but was a league-leading stat a few days ago. Considering their penalty kill of 77 percent ranks 26th, the Rangers are made to pay when shorthanded.

Maybe some of the defensive pairings aren’t working, or some of players are not living up to hype. Some impatiently wait for general manager Jeff Gorton to pull the trigger on the next stage of the rebuild and hope it sees defensive veterans like Shattenkirk and Marc Staal (if they can find a way around his no-movement clause) gone. There’s hope a bigger focus on the youth, such as the call-up of Ryan Lindgren, can provide a spark.

Kevin Shattenkirk
NEW YORK, NY – JANUARY 01: Kevin Shattenkirk #22 of the New York Rangers (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

On the flip side, maybe there’s a problem with coaching and development. For instance, assistant coach Lindy Ruff, who was hired in July 2017, has stayed around following the Alain Vigneault era. His hire, and his return after Quinn’s hiring, sounded great on paper considering he inherited was one of the NHL’s worst defenses. But with production like this, maybe it was worth giving a rebuilding team a complete set of new coaching faces.

If things fall back to how they were in said seven-game stretch, answers are going to be needed, especially with such a defensive-minded team. Hopefully after this rest, the team can turn things around.

Goaltending More About Lundqvist’s Future

Statistically, things could get better with goaltending. Henrik Lundqvist and company have their ups and downs, as the team is tied for 26th in goals allowed with 3.38 per game and 28th in shots on goal allowed per game with 33.3 per game. The team’s .899 save percentage currently ranks 21st.

The past month-and-a-half has been somewhat harsh for the goalies. There have been the losses in overtime or shootout. There have been games with five or six goals given up. Fortunately, the goalies haven’t been at the focus of the team much —  simply put, this team cannot rely on them alone.

New York Rangers Henrik Lundqvist St. Louis Blues Alexander Steen
New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist blocks a shot by St. Louis Blues’ Alexander Steen (AP Photo/Bill Boyce)

The dispute with goaltending isn’t statistical, however. The main concern and debate among the Rangers community is whether or not the team should make a concerted effort to trade Lundqvist.

He has a no-movement clause, meaning he will have to approve any moves involving him. And judging by his past actions, and a reported trade the Rangers previously tried to make involving him, he doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Some may consider this to be a hindrance to the rebuild, but honestly, there’s no better person to teach a young goalie. Heck, in terms of a “veteran presence” in the clubhouse, Lundqvist is one of the best for young athletes to model themselves after. Besides, the Rangers clearly have other needs outside the net.

Despite troubles over the past month or so, the Rangers have fought their way back. Now, the players should get some rest in, as well as some practice to keep their skills sharp. They may be rebuild focused, but that doesn’t mean they can’t look to make a statement.