The New York Rangers amassed 101 points last season thanks to a smoke-and-mirrors operation where great goaltending and puck luck masked defensive inefficiencies.
One area of struggle, however, was painfully obvious even to the casual observer, and that was the team’s penalty kill. The Rangers finished 26th in the league in killing off a meager 78.2 percent of opponent power plays. They also scored just three shorthanded goals all season, which was better than only two teams.
What a difference a year makes. This season, the Rangers are not only killing off penalties at a better rate, but they have also become one of the NHL’s most dangerous shorthanded teams.
Going into the last offseason, general manager Jeff Gorton and the Rangers’ staff made a point to add speed and penalty-killing ability to the forward mix. Numerous depth acquisitions like Michael Grabner, Nathan Gerbe, and Josh Jooris fostered good competition for roster spots. While Gerbe and Jooris are no longer with the team after training camp and the early stage of the season, Grabner has been a revelation for the Rangers.
Remarkably, the 29-year-old Austrian speedster leads the Rangers with 21 goals going into Sunday’s tilt with the Detroit Red Wings. He has also been a major weapon on the penalty kill, using his speed, intelligence, and quick stick to disrupt the opposition.
The Rangers’ personnel changes on the penalty kill have not just been limited to new roster additions. Head coach Alain Vigneault has also deployed J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes on the penalty kill, a new experience for both. They have been effective in killing penalties and creating chances the other way.
To this point, the Rangers’ penalty-kill success rate sits at a much-improved 81.9 percent, good for 14th in the league. Only a recent stretch of yielding goals has brought this number down somewhat. Still though, they are miles ahead of where they were last season. In addition, they already have seven shorthanded goals this season – four more than they had all of last season. They are tied with the Calgary Flames for the most shorthanded goals in the NHL.
In addition to the personnel changes, Vigneault and the Rangers sought to change their style of penalty killing after the struggles of 2015-16. In October, Vigneault took responsibility for last year’s failings and offered some insight into the changes for this year.
That onus is on me. Probably should’ve done a better job last year. As coaches, we have tried to put in certain rules, so there might be easier reads for players when they can be more assertive.
Assertiveness has been key for the Rangers with respect to their improvement on the penalty kill. Specifically, increased pressure and proactive play from the forwards has created more disruption and helped generate rush chances the other way.
Team captain and number-one defenseman Ryan McDonagh expressed his satisfaction with the stylistic changes back at the beginning of the season.
As a defenseman, I like it better when (forwards) are dictating as opposed to standing in someone’s lane who doesn’t have the puck. You know, putting a little pressure, getting between guys, the puck-carrier and someone else, forcing them to make a play. At times last year, we got a little bit stagnant, got caught playing in a lot of two-on-ones down low. That’s when you get into trouble. I like it when our forwards are pushing the puck, at least to an area where we (defensemen) can get a sense of who’s around us.
Grabner, Miller and Hayes have been at the forefront of applying pressure as penalty-killing forwards. The trio has combined to score five of the Rangers’ seven shorthanded tallies this season (Rick Nash and Derek Stepan have the other two). Grabner picked up what was somehow his first shorthanded marker of the season Thursday against Toronto.
Not only have the Rangers yielded fewer power-play goals against, but they have turned their penalty kill into a weapon. It’s been said that the best defense is a good offense. The Rangers are certainly playing with that belief on the penalty kill.