Trouba’s Improved Play Stabilizes Rangers’ Defense

Jacob Trouba’s hefty contract has made him an easy target for criticism over the first season-plus of his New York Rangers tenure. He hasn’t played up to the $8 million price tag, but he has had glimpses of the size and skill that made him such a commodity during the 2019 offseason. A broken thumb on Feb 16th looked to be the pinnacle of another lost season for the veteran defenseman. Still, a miraculous recovery has yielded some great performances, turning a lackluster campaign into a serviceable one.

The point totals have not been there for the 27-year-old, registering just seven points in 23 games thus far, but the improvements he has made have counteracted his lagging offensive game on his own end. The eye-test has certainly been there, especially over the past four games against the Philidelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, and Buffalo Sabres. We sometimes overlook the mental component when evaluating a player’s performance, and the confidence that has been creeping back into Trouba’s game has done wonders for his performance.

Similar to Mika Zibanejad, Trouba used a massive 9-0 win over the Flyers as a breakout party, tallying his first goal of the season to go along with an assist. Since that rout, the Bluehsirts’ assistant captain’s confidence has soared, becoming extremely noticeable in the offensive end while shutting down his opposition in his own zone.

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New York Rangers’ goals from 9-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on March 17th, 2021

Per Money Puck, Trouba has been above 50 percent expected goals for (xGF) in three of the last four games, with the lone outlier being the 3-1 victory over the Capitals on Saturday. The lapses that plagued him in front of the net early on this season have slowly started to dissipate. Although they resurface on occasion, Trouba has significantly minimized how many gaffes he has when protecting his own house.

Strengthening the D-Core

Trouba’s resurgence has allowed the Rangers to roll out four defensemen in all situations, a luxury they did not have the majority of the 2019-20 campaign. With the emergence of K’Andre Miller on Trouba’s left, a second pairing has unfolded in front of our eyes that has a boatload of potential.

A tumultuous last season saw Trouba play alongside multiple partners, including Brady Skjei, Libor Hajek, and Brendan Smith. Now, Trouba finally has consistency on his off-side, as he develops chemistry with a phenomenal first-year defenseman in Miller. The Rangers went out and acquired the 6-foot-3 defenseman so that he could be the veteran backbone of a defensive core that is relatively inexperienced.

Sure, you may dismiss Trouba’s importance to the Rangers due to his lack of production or inconsistency, but his value to this group cannot be measured. When he is going right, this is a team that is significantly better because of it. Trouba brings a physicality and skillset that no one else can match on the Rangers’ blue line (when he is going right, of course).

He compliments Miller’s size and skating well, adding flavor to a second pairing that backs up one of the most tantalizing young defensemen in Adam Fox and fellow bruiser Ryan Lindgren. While Trouba has visually been sturdier over the last handful of games, solidifying his role as a defensive-defenseman with the ability to contribute offensively, his underlying numbers, courtesy of Evolving Hockey, show that he has been a good player all season for the Blueshirts.

Jacob Trouba New York Rangers
Jacob Trouba RAPM per Evolving Hockey EV & PP 2020-21

And with this playoff push about to commence, Trouba is needed to strengthen the blue line over the Rangers’ final 25 games this season. So what has he done on-ice to improve his game? Simply put, he has been much more aggressive on the offensive end while simplifying his game defensively. Let’s break it down, shall we?

Trouba’s Improvements Are Noticeable

If you had to pinpoint the areas of Trouba’s struggles early on in 2020-21, you could look at a constant panic with the puck, turnovers in his own end, and loss of net-front battles as the primary sources. Turnovers were the focal point of elongated shifts that would inevitably result in a goal, with the opposition hemming the Rangers in their own end and cycling on them until their five-man unit was exhausted.

Now, Trouba has stayed up-right and poised in front, simplifying his defensive game, so he is not putting himself in as many vulnerable positions with the puck. His breakout passes have been crisp, and when he has been unable to find an open man, he uses the wall to clear the zone rather than holding the puck and trying to do too much.

Filip Chytil Jacob Trouba New York Rangers
New York Rangers center Filip Chytil is congratulated by defenseman Jacob Trouba. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

But in my opinion, the biggest improvement to Trouba’s game has been his ability to jump in on the rush. When a defenseman lacks confidence, especially in their ability to defend, they tend to sag back and try to be as cautious as possible to avoid getting beat. That insecurity was evident with the tall righty in the earlier portion of this campaign. Still, with his confidence returning, we are starting to hear Trouba’s name much more often in the offensive zone.

The Rangers’ 5-3 win over the Sabres was Trouba’s most impactful offensive game in a while, even though he failed to impact the score sheet. He was visible with the puck, launching shots from the point and getting them through while also jumping down low when the opportunity presented itself. In fact, during a flurry of chances in the first period against Buffalo, Trouba was at the net-mouth, jamming away at Dustin Tokarski in an attempt to poke the loose puck home.

His stock is definitely trending upward, but for him to reach his ultimate potential, I think that Trouba has to embrace the gritty side of his game more, utilizing his size and strength more often. No matter how you feel about Trouba’s Rangers’ tenure, you have to admit that there are very few NHL players he cannot run over when he was someone in his sights.

That tenacity will be paramount to the Rangers’ success. They still have four games remaining against the Capitals, five games remaining against the Islanders, and four games remaining against the Flyers. With a comfortable Trouba and a roster back to full strength, this Rangers roster is poised for a tenacious stretch-run.

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