The New York Rangers have 13 wins through 17 games in the team’s 90th season. The team tied the franchise’s record for the most points earned in their first 17 games.
There’s a lot of talk about how good the Rangers offense has been so far this year, but the impact of the defense on the offensive end of the ice has been largely overlooked.
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Changing the face of the defense
Alain Vigneault’s decision to move to a more zone-oriented defense has completely changed the way the Rangers defense runs. It not only has improved the play in the defensive end, but it has also greatly impacted play through the neutral zone generating more goal scoring opportunities.
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Alain Vigneault said that the strength of the offense seen throughout the start of the season all stems from the speed that the team employs at the defensive end of the ice.
“For us, it’s a question of, if we can get that puck quicker I think we’re a lot faster in being able to counter-attack and use that speed. Whether it be deep in our zone or in that neutral zone,” Vigneault said. “So far, there’s no doubt that it’s paid dividends.”
Beyond just getting the puck up the ice to create opportunities, there has been no lack of representation by any defenseman on the stat sheet. The seven defenseman who have seen ice time this season have compiled an impressive 47 points (six goals, 41 assists). In every game the Rangers have played, a defenseman has at least one point per game (and accounted for anywhere from one to up to six points). All seven have a combined points per game average of 2.76.
The reason more points are being generated actually has to do with the change in the defensive layout. It has changed the way the Rangers play the game. Geared more towards defenders who can skate, like Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei, the zone defense format has allowed the Rangers to play a quicker game and higher offensive success.
Last year, the Rangers transition game struggled. The team’s forecheck was not all that effective, they struggled to control rebounds in the defensive end and ultimately their offensive game suffered. After trading Keith Yandle – who is one of the leagues best puck movers, is strong in transition and strong on the blue line – there were questions as to how the Rangers would bounce back in the wake of his exit.
Ryan McDonagh: better than ever
Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei have 11 and 10 assists on the season, respectively. That puts them among the top five point scorers on the Rangers this season. (McDonagh is tied at the number four spot with Nash, Vesey, Kreider and Stepan; Skjei is in fifth tied with Pirri and Fast).
McDonagh has been the New York Rangers most reliable defenseman over the last few seasons. He is known for his great skating ability and puck handling, which has made him crucial to the Rangers transition play. And arguably, McDonagh is playing his best hockey of his career.
At the end of October, McDonagh recorded a point in nine straight games, tying a record set by Brian Leetch in 1996. Currently, he has an average time on ice of 24:02, more than any other Rangers defenseman (the player with the second highest ATOI is Kevin Klein with 19:39). Perhaps most importantly, McDonagh has been a wall on the blue line, rarely letting pucks escape the zone.
Since Skjei was selected 28th overall in the 2012 Entry Draft, there has been pressure on the young defenseman. After the disappointing play in Traverse City before the start of the season, many were uncertain if he would live up to expectations. But the 22-year-old has blossomed at the start of this season this season. Alain Vigneault recently made the choice to play Skjei on his offside and pair him Marc Staal, a choice that has worked well for the Rangers thus far.
Nov 15, 2016; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; New York Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei (76) reaches for the puck against Vancouver Canucks forward Daniel Sedin (22) during the first period at Rogers Arena. Mandatory Credit: Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports.
Skjei has 10 points on the season, notched a six-game assist streak and currently is ranked fourth among all NHL defensemen (in addition to leading all rookies) in assists this season. Another area where Skjei has had an impact has been in his physical play on the ice. He leads the team in hits (30) averaging 16:29 in ice time.
His command on the ice, both at the defensive end and through the neutral zone, shows not only that he has the skill to play in a top-four role, but also that he is feeling confident in his abilities – something that will allow him to continue to develop in his role on the roster.
The offense ultimately deserves the credit for putting pucks in the net, but the defensive play, and especially what McDonagh and Skjei have been doing this year, has helped solidify what was one of the Rangers weakest areas.
Uncertainty on the defensive end
We are only 18 games into the 2016-2017 season, so there’s no telling what the rest of the year will bring. It is not guaranteed that the Rangers offensive outburst will be sustained and in closer games, the Rangers will have to be backed by a completely reliable defense if they have hopes of making a run in the for the Stanley Cup.
Teams that are able to stifle the Rangers in the neutral zone have already proven to be an issue for them this year. Not surprising, given the fact their game is normally at it’s best when it’s at its fastest. Finding another top two defensemen would be beneficial. This would ensure there is a defensive strength when goal scoring slows down (knock on wood).
Regardless of whether the Rangers decide to pick up another defensive player, the adjustment they made to their defensive game has already made a clearly positive difference. It has allowed for the fastest game, the smoothest transition and ultimately the strongest offense in recent memory.
The Rangers’ choice to strip down, make a change to the identity of their defensive game and the confidence they have shown in that change has literally transformed the way the Rangers play hockey.