The Rangers’ brutal possession is a problem, and it starts on defense

Bobby Bevilacqua


Dan Girardi had one of the worst games of his career in last night’s game against the Sabres. Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

Last nights loss against the Buffalo Sabres was yet another brutal game, continuing a stretch of poor play in recent weeks that is very telling about the true nature of the New York Rangers team.

The performance last night was poor in many aspects. Henrik Lundqvist played his worst game in years. Many of the forwards were lackluster, having little to no impact on the game. The defensive coverage was atrocious at times, with a few players especially standing out.

But a huge problem this team has is their corsi, or their possession numbers. I know a lot of people write off analytics and won’t acknowledge it as a way to evaluate a team, but it truly helps in this situation. Corsi and possession are literally just tracking shot attempts. If a certain player or the whole team is getting buried and shelled with shots, chances are they are not playing well. It just quantifies what you’re seeing on the ice.

And what we’ve been seeing on the ice is long stretches of play, upwards of 15 minutes, where the Rangers do absolutely NOTHING. Yesterday’s game featured a 15 minute stretch where the Rangers had a total of two shot attempts at 5v5. That’s bad enough, but the issue is that it’s a pattern. It’s a regularity. We see it every game. The Rangers get completely pinned back in their own end and can’t clear the puck. When they do get to the neutral zone, the dump it in and lose possession.

That’s where corsi comes in to play. The awful corsi numbers that we’ve been seeing are just backing up the eye test, which shows the Rangers getting pinned in their own zone and getting trapped in the dump and chase game. For a team built around speed and skill among the forward group, that won’t fly.

In fact, the Rangers are in one of the worst stretches of negligible possession that they’ve ever had under Alain Vigneault. The cumulative shot difference is almost all the way back to zero, which means that the Rangers are bleeding shot attempts.

Possession numbers have dipped every single season dating back to Alain Vigneault’s first year in New York. In the 2013-14 season, the Rangers had a 52.5% score adjusted corsi, which was seventh in the entire league. Last year, they had a 48.1% score adjusted corsi, which was 20th in the league. When the possession numbers were high, they made it to the Stanley Cup Final. When it was much lower, they were ousted in the first round. That’s not a coincidence.

Even Larry Brooks called out AV last night, saying that it’s been a trend that the Rangers have been playing in their own zone a lot. He then followed up after Alain Vigneault avoided the question. I usually don’t agree with Brooks but he’s absolutely right here. He has written about this problem before as well as the fact that AV only uses his six defensemen without change. Also, kudos to Brooks for actually asking the real, tough questions in the press conference. I give him a lot of credit.

But of course, Vigneault decided to dance around the question and not actually answer anything, saying that “we’ll take a look at things.” That means nothing, and it’s extremely frustrating. Just about every single person watching these Rangers games notices the painfully obvious problems with possession and the defense, yet AV constantly fails to recognize them and adjust accordingly. This team will not attain a real level of success until he learns to A) Acknowledge the true issues at hand, namely the awful shot differential and the defense, and B) Actually does something about changing those problems.

One of the biggest reasons for the Rangers struggle with possession and shot differential is because of the defense. Last night was possibly Dan Girardi’s worst game of his career. He finished with a -28 corsi at 5v5, which basically means that at even strength, the Sabres had 28 more shot attempts than the Rangers when Dan Girardi was on the ice.

Girardi is probably this team’s biggest problem on the blue line. While he’s certainly better than last year, that’s not really a big compliment because last year was an absolute disaster. While Marc Staal has truly improved, and played a fantastic game yesterday, Girardi has not. Even Nick Holden, who had a tough start to the season, has gotten a lot better. In fact, he was the only Rangers defenseman with a positive passion last night and was very steady and reliable.

Girardi’s way of defending is baffling at times. On Eichel’s first goal last night, he slid into a crouched position which basically did absolutely nothing. On the game winning goal, Girardi lost the race to the puck, dove to the ice, lost a puck battle along the boards and then was late to get back to his man in the slot.

The bottom line is that he’s a step too slow and not good enough positionally to make up for it. We see it time and time again, yet he still plays top pair minutes. Last night, Girardi played 21 minutes while Brady Skjei played 14. Those numbers and roles should be completely reversed.

The fact that Girardi can’t pass either hurts the team. When the puck is on his stick, he plays it like a hand grenade. Usually he just chucks it out of the zone, either into the neutral zone or the other team’s territory, rarely completing a pass to start a breakout or transition.

This isn’t meant to criticize only him, because there’s a lack of players that really know how to move the puck out of their own end. Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei are pretty good. The other defenseman who has shown that he can move the puck, Adam Clendening, will be scratched for tomorrow’s game in favor of Kevin Klein. Klein has had an awful season so far and may actually be worse than Dan Girardi so far. We also probably won’t see Clendening for a month based on how AV uses him.

I truly think this forward group is good enough to win a Cup. I also think that the left side of the defense, which is McDonagh, Staal, and Holden/Skjei, is good enough too. But the right side is an absolute mess. Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein have been bad, Clendening isn’t someone that will solve all of the problems, and someone will be playing on their off side every single night. It’s not ideal.

The Rangers desperately need to trade for a puck moving defenseman that plays the right side. Ryan McDonagh is constantly dragged down by Dan Girardi, evident by his career worst -27 corsi last night. McDonagh needs a partner that can play to his strengths and help him blossom, because that’s surely not Girardi. That defenseman also needs to be someone who knows how to move the puck, which is the Rangers’ biggest issue.

The Rangers also need this steady, puck moving defenseman because this is a team that’s winning solely because of their offense. The Rangers barely win games in less they score four goals. They are 4-8-1 in games that they have scored three goals or less. This defense is not good enough to consistently win these close, grind-it-out types of games.

For the time being, I think that Brady Skjei should play the top pairing, because he is the closest thing to a puck moving defenseman that we have (outside of McDonagh). Skjei can skate extremely well, he starts and sustains sequences of possession, and he’s defensively responsible. The McDonagh-Skjei pairing worked very well at the end of last season and in the playoffs.

Unless the Rangers make some serious changes, whether that be personnel or usage changes, this team will end up just like last season; crawling to the finish line and flopping in the first round of the playoffs.

Posted on December 2, 2016, in In the Crease and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: