After a surprising and prosperous 2021-22 season, the New York Rangers have their sights set on winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1994. A run that ended at the hands of then defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final capped a wild year for the upstart Blueshirts. The loss sustained in Game 6 could be placed on the shoulders of a defensive miscue, an area that must improve next year.
I don’t want to make you relive this painful memory, but learning from the hands of defeat is the only way to come out victorious afterward. We can all vividly remember Steven Stamkos blowing by Jacob Trouba, creating a mini-breakaway for himself for the series-winning goal. The team that breaks down defensively in the postseason usually ends up on the losing side, and this year was no different.
Most knew that the Rangers’ demise was a ticking time bomb that was kept ticking by Igor Shesterkin until, eventually, it exploded. Defensive posture, structure, chemistry, and coverage are crucial to postseason success. A young Rangers blueline was susceptible to mistakes all season, but in the end, the veteran made the biggest one.
No Ranger, both forwards and defensemen were immune to defensive lapses. And that must be left in 2021-22 for the Rangers to succeed next season.
Gallant Needs to Preach Structure
The structure is key to any great defense. When you look at teams who have won the Stanley Cup, they rarely chase in their end. If you can keep the opponent to the outside and limit chances created through seam passes, your chances of success increase astronomically. And when you have a goaltender like Shesterkin, keeping the opposition’s chances to a minimum only serves to help your cause even more.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the Rangers gave up 788 high-danger chances last year, the ninth-most in the NHL. Yet Shesterkin’s .867 high-danger save percentage made up for many of their lapses at five-on-five. And as was the case since the first game of the season, the Rangers were outclassed analytically in nearly every facet of the game at five-on-five, yet somehow went 52-24-6 on the shoulders of goaltending.
We know what Shesterkin can do when under duress all season. Imagine what he could do when the chances are kept at a minimum? Heck, the Rangers would instantly be one of the teams to beat in the NHL. Head coach Gerard Gallant must improve the defensive structure in their zone and all three zones to do that.
Too many instances of men left alone in the slot or defensemen puck-watching when they should be paying attention to the open man cost the Rangers last season. And when they were hemmed into their end, it was usually due to a failed clear by one of the wingers along the wall.
By no means is it an easy task to get the puck out to alleviate pressure, but the good teams seemingly always find a way to do it. Gallant must preach strength on the walls and good sensibility around the net. When you have Shesterkin, the puck in the corner can’t hurt you. But with over pursuit, that puck can be fed to the high-danger areas.
Rangers’ Need to Limit Rush Chances
The Rangers got scorched off the rush last season, but it was highlighted throughout the playoffs. Shesterkin had bailed them out consistently, but at times in the playoffs, the chances were just too great. Looking back to the first-round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Blueshirts gave up chance after chance to the elite players on the Pens roster.
You don’t have to look hard to find examples of chances off the rush, but a prime example was the first Penguins’ goal of the series scored by Jake Guentzel. Shesterkin would rob Kris Letang on an odd-man rush, but a failed clear and some scrambling by the Rangers left Guentzel alone in the slot.
These are the exact scenarios the Rangers must limit next year. Your goaltender can only do so much, and if he can make a spectacular stop (which he did), you have to clean out the front better than exemplified in the clip above. That all boils down to structure, picking up your man, and limiting rush chances.
As a team, the Rangers continually left lanes open for outlet passes, and seam passes off the rush, leading to grade-a scoring chances against. The onus falls on both defensemen and forwards for these rush opportunities. The defense has to be warier of people getting behind them, but the offense must offer back pressure to force the opponent’s decisions to be made quicker.
Lapses happen, and no team is perfect, but the Rangers had far too many breakdowns last season. Gallant will have to stress defensive structure in 2022-23, especially with young players stepping into more prominent roles throughout the lineup.
There is much to be optimistic about with this Rangers group, and improved defensive play will open the window further for the upstart Blueshirts.
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Brendan Azoff is a THW contributor and podcast host dedicated to covering the New York Rangers. His passion for hockey started when he first laced up the skates at three, growing into his love for writing and talking about the greatest sport in the world. His podcast, The Backcheck, breaks down the Rangers, Islanders, and NHL news and can be found on The Hockey Writers Podcast Network and Belly Up Sports. Brendan has been writing about the Rangers and the NHL for over two years, with his content also found on Puck Prose, Blue Line Station, and E2G Sports. If you want to connect with Brendan and stay up-to-date on his posts, follow him on Twitter. He is always available for content ideas and interviews, don’t be afraid to ask!