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Analyzing the New York Rangers’ blueline and how the Hurricanes forwards can exploit their systems

The Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers are set to play in the Qualifying Round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. How will the Canes forwards match up against the Blueshirts’ blueline?

Buffalo Sabres v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

If you were to sum up the New York Rangers game, it would be to skate fast, shoot hard and pray that your goalies keep playing at an unbelievable level. When it comes down to it, the Blueshirts’ D-corp leaves a lot to be desired in their own end.

And it is important to make that distinction because of the dominant offensive games that Tony DeAngelo and Adam Fox, who was traded from the Hurricanes to the Rangers, have developed.

Let’s start with some stats.

The New York Rangers’ defense is rough. The Rangers forfeited the second most amount of shots per game in the league and had the sixth highest xGA (expected goals against). Despite the nature of the defense to collapse into the blue and protect the home, the Rangers also surrendered the third most high-danger chances in the league and had the fourth-worst Corsi-for.

While the Rangers have struggled in their own zone, the combination of amazing offensive talents and unreal goaltending allowed them to remain in the playoff race up until the league’s suspension on March 12 and are the main reason why they are matched up against the Canes today.

Let’s take a look at who the blueline consists of before we take a look at their system.

Top Pair

Ryan Lindgren - Adam Fox

Micah Blake McCurdy
Micah Blake McCurdy

The most surprising turn of events for the New York Rangers is that both of their rookie defensemen have seemingly blossomed into a legitimate top pair. Fox stirred up Calder Trophy debate, being the Rangers’ best defenseman on both sides of the ice with his confident play and ability.

By far one of their best skaters on the blueline, Fox is able to escape situations and move the puck out of danger rather than having to rely on passing to teammates to alleviate pressure. He is also able to move transitionally through all three zones and can jump up into rushes and plays, giving the Blueshirts another option for setting up the offensive zone.

He has also shown a strong defensive awareness and been analytically solid. He hasn’t quite developed into a first unit powerplay quarterback yet, but he has shown an ability for it and there is growth to be seen there.

Paired with Fox, Lindgren had a bit of an up and down year, but really solidifed himself at the midway point and on. Lindgren is more defensively-minded than Fox, making him a reliable choice for his offensively talented partner. He isn’t afraid to get physical and can chip in offensively, but his real value is in his defense.

The only knock for the two is that they’re still young. Both in their rookie seasons, Fox and Lindgren are prone to make the occasional mistake and go through growing pains as they work to solidify their overall games. The experience of playoff hockey may be a shock to the pair, but it shouldn’t be expected to make that much of an impact.

Second Pair

Brendan Smith - Jacob Trouba

Micah Blake McCurdy

This is a top-four pairing simply because of Jacob Trouba.

While Smith has been in the system for a while, his usage rate as a defenseman was way down this year and he saw himself as the seventh defenseman, but playing as the fourth-line forward (Yeah, this one is weird), until Brady Skjei was traded to the Hurricanes. He then became Trouba’s partner, more so out of a necessity than out of a good fit or the best choice.

Trouba plays the most minutes for the Rangers and is their primary penalty killer. In New York, however, Trouba has become a new man and it isn’t one the team was hoping for.

Despite seeming like the Rangers’ next top shutdown defenseman when he was acquired in the offseason, Trouba has left a lot to be desired in comparison to his stellar prior season in Winnipeg. It’s not that he hasn’t been feasible, he’s been good, but at an $8 million AAV, he has been far from what they expected.

Slower and less mobile, Trouba has seemingly been shackled with a burdensome system that may be slowing down his game and without a reliable partner since Skjei was traded, he may see his game struggle even more.

Third Pair

Marc Staal - Tony DeAngelo

Micah Blake McCurdy
Micah Blake McCurdy

The Rangers’ third pair features the offensively brilliant DeAngelo with the heavily regressing Staal. Neither have been stellar defensively, but they are playing on a sheltered pair to try and minimize the damage.

Staal has seen his game fade more and more with each passing season and he has become somewhat of a punching bag for the New York faithful with his large contract. Although he is an alternate captain on the team and has been there for 13 seasons, his time may be quickly coming to a close.

His skating ability is not up to par with the state of the current NHL and the role of a big body defenseman has changed. He contributes little to the offense and while he can be feasible, his defensive lapses have become more of a liability although he can be useful in a stay-at-home shutdown role.

The hot-headed DeAngelo on the other hand is an offensive juggernaut. Getting top power play time, DeAngelo put up a career high 15 goals and 53 points in 68 games. He is able to jump into plays and join rushes much like Fox although his defensive game is not as well rounded.

The System

Adam Herman from Blueshirt Banter, did a great analysis of the Hurricanes’ forecheck and why the Rangers will want to use Igor Shesterkin’s puck handling to help them alleviate the pressure from it. In essence, Herman broke down the Canes’ forecheck to a dump-in style that relies on heavy pressure and speed to either regain the puck or force their opponents to turn it over. This doesn’t quite do it justice, so I highly recommend reading it for yourself.

While he explained why Shesterkin can help against that style, I’ll try to explain why the Hurricanes forwards have such an advantage over the Rangers’ defense.

So, something that may be hindering the Rangers is the defensive system they have chosen to employ. It’s more of a positioning and zone based system that is focused on trying to keep pucks to the perimeter and not letting defensemen get too drawn out. It is meant to limit high-danger chances, but the craziest thing is that almost all that the Rangers give up is high-danger chances.

Here are some of the biggest issues with the Rangers’ system that the Hurricanes could take advantage of.

Giving up the Blueline

When their opponents obtain the puck and start an entry on the rush, the tendency is for the New York defense to back up deep into their zone and basically give the opponent a free entry.

It’s purpose is to protect the “home,” but it gives up so much space to the attacking offense. If a player pulls up or turns it’s essentially a free entry if they’re untrailed by a forward.

In the above clip, if the Blues puck carrier was not going off for a line change, he had two other forwards that had entered the zone cleanly too.

In many cases, players should close gaps and stick to attacking forwards to give them very little space. A team like the Canes who like to flip the puck in deep before a defender can turn, will always get a foot up on entries.

It is a conservative system that accounts for defenders not being able to skate and keep up with attackers. While it may work for Marc Staal, it shouldn’t be the case for Fox, Lindgren or Trouba.

The Hurricanes can utilize their overwhelming forecheck to regain pucks once they force defenders to turn, but if they instead decide to use the space the Rangers defense gives them, players like Teuvo Teravainen, Ryan Dzingel and Martin Necas can thrive given the extra space and time to make plays.

Stationary Low-Slot

An interesting decision by the Rangers seems to be to have at least one defenseman set up in front of the net as long as the opponent is on the offense. There are a few issues that arise in it.

First, is that a lot of the time the defender is flat-footed. The Rangers like to alternate one defender in the low-slot, so when the puck goes to the other side of the ice, players are slower to respond, get hemmed in and subsequently get fatigued.

On the above clip, Jordan Staal and Warren Foegele both are allowed to sneak into the paint while Fox and Lindgren are alternating. When both defensemen take position, there is more of a focus on where on the ice they are rather than bodying out the Hurricanes’ forwards.

It also opens up more of the other side of the ice, which allows passes around the board and can keep momentum and possession open

Second, is that the defense often ends up puck watching. The difference between this style and the Hurricanes, is that the Canes like to go with a man-on approach and make sure players are covered.

With the Rangers’ system it is easy for players to sneak into open zones or get positioning down low because the defenseman isn’t as aware of the play around them.

In this clip, Max Domi enters the zone and pulls up on DeAngelo who is collapsing to the net. This now allows Domi room to make a play. After the puck goes wide, Domi circles back around to the slot, but DeAngelo had taken positioning along the net and was watching the puck, leaving nobody to cover Domi.

The below clip is another example of both cases happening on an extended shift by the Flyers’ forechecking.

We can see as the Flyers keep up offensive pressure, Lindgren and Fox are attempting to alternate between the sides of the ice. It is also worth noting that Fox is much more agressive than Lindgren who likes to remain in the low-slot more often. When they switch, it creates a gap where the Flyers’ forwards are able to get tips and deflections in close.

It also happens often as the defensemen are more worried about their position than picking up the players circling around the the backdoor or the crease.

Not relying on their own skating

With the exception of Fox and DeAngelo and a bit of Lindgren, most of the time the Rangers defense is relying on outlet passes and long feeds to get the puck up to their forwards.

Like I said, Fox and DeAngelo have the skating ability to move the puck in transition, but for the most part the New York defense is relying on passes up the boards or across open ice.

These pucks are easy for a team like Carolina with heavy forechecking pressure to pick off. Especially so when the Hurricanes system relies on pressuring opponents to quickly make decisions and hopefully blunder.

The Hurricanes like to pressure with two forwards on a chase in, but typically set up the third forward in a trapping position to knock off passes out when under pressure.

This system may have been a remnant of Lindy Ruff who was the defensive Coordinator for the Rangers from 2017 to just recently as he was hired to be the New Jersey Devils’ head coach. The Rangers saw declines in overall defensive statistics each subsequent year under Ruff.

Players like Staal and Smith saw continued decline, while Trouba’s was newly started. Luckily for New York, players like Fox, DeAngelo and Lindgren were able to flourish in their own skill sets, but it still seems that the old system is holding them back.

These players can be difference makers as when they seem to shake off the burdens of the conservative system, they can really be a problem on both sides of the ice.

With Lindy Ruff newly departed, however it wouldn’t make sense for the defensive system they ran for years to be revamped for the postseason, but it should be one looked into going forward.

History may be happening in Manhattan, but it might still be another year or two before that blueline can truly see a major revival on both sides of the puck.

Because of this, the Hurricanes’ forwards may be able to have a field day with the time and space the Rangers’ defense can allow them to have, granted so long as the New York goaltending isn’t as impervious as it always seems to be.