Rangers' Special Teams Top the 100% Mark

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Dave Rogers

Editor-in-Chief at Cleared for Contact
Writer, photographer and a lifelong New York Rangers hockey fan.
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It is said that if you combine a team’s penalty kill percentage with its power play percentage — commonly known as PDO –, anything over a 100% total means your specialty teams are helping you win games. It makes perfect sense, too. If your power play is scoring more goals than your penalty kill is giving up, then the club’s special team situation is a net positive over the season. During the 2015-16 season, the New York Rangers PK performed at just 78.2%, while their PP, much improved over previous seasons, sat at 18.6%. When you combine these two numbers, the net result falls beneath that 100% threshold at 96.8%.  This year, however, when you add their 21.6% success rate on the power play to the 82.9% penalty kill rate, they have a PDO of 104.5%.

While their Power Play was improving over recent years, the penalty kill, had been falling off. That 78.2% was the Rangers lowest season total on the PK since the 1988-89 season’s 77.0%. What’s worse is that the Rangers’ PK in recent seasons prior to last year was one of the team’s strengths, repeatedly ranking them in the top-10 of the league. The two prior years saw the PK at 84.3% and 85.3% respectively. They also found themselves short-handed more frequently last season compared to recent years and even their short-handed goal total on the season was way down.

2016-17 82.9% 41 7 2
2015-16 78.2% 243 53 3
2014-15 84.3% 235 37 10
2013-14 85.3% 232 34 11

Seeing that the penalty kill had become a drain on their stellar 5-on-5 production and improving power play, Jeff Gorton set out in the offseason to sign forwards that would help improve the team in that role. He settled on Michael Grabner, Nathan Gerbe and Josh Jooris. All three have had considerable success killing penalties on previous teams. Grabner was especially known for using his speed to force other teams to have to consider protecting against his short-handed offense. Back in the 2010/11 season with the New York Islanders, he put up 6 short handed goals. While he’s never repeated that feat, he did score 3 more in 2013/14. Even when the production hasn’t been there, the threat of a breakaway against keeps attacking teams on their toes when he’s on the ice. Grabner is the only forward that Gorton brought in who has spent significant time on the penalty kill this season, though. Jooris through five games prior to being injured spent just 31 total seconds on the penalty kill –a single shift. Gerbe never won a roster spot and left for Europe after he and the club agreed to terminate his contract.

Instead, the resurgence of the Rangers penalty kill falls most squarely on the shoulders of the coaching staff, led by Head Coach Alain Vigneault. Marc Staal (2:19) and Ryan McDonagh (2:18) lead the Rangers in SH TOI/GP. That displaced Dan Girardi (2:43/GP) atop the leader board in that category this season. Instead, Girardi is down to a much more manageable 1:46/GP, almost a full minute less per game than in the 2015-16 season. New faces up front have filled in as well. Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller have teamed up to form a new forward duo that resembles the good work put in by Rick Nash and Derek Stepan the past few years who have seen roughly the same usage as the previous season. In fact, Hayes and Stepan have the Rangers’ only two short-handed goals so far this season. Nick Holden and Kevin Klein on defense and Jesper Fast up front have rounded out the bulk of the penalty kill minutes.

As far as a systemic approach to shutting down opposing power plays, the Rangers have used an up-tempo attack at both blue lines and for any contested pucks. They are supporting each other in battles so that puck turnovers have a good chance of being cleared. Just as they do at 5-on-5 play, they rely on active sticks and speed rather than physicality to disrupt plays. Even short-handed, when they get control with a little extra time, they look for a good first pass to possibly create some offense while down a man or use puck possession in order to back off the opposition. This has lead to increased offensive chances as well as decreased zone time.

With the man advantage, the Rangers have continued to improve. While the almost 4% increase in conversion from the prior year is the most obvious sign of their increased performance on the power play, the “eye ball test” shows exactly why this 2016-17 Rangers team is different than in years past. Under Vigneault’s stewardship since coming to the Rangers, the passing on the power play has not been an issue. In fact, their ability to complete passes and move the puck had led them to over handle the puck during their time in the offensive zone. Rather than get shots on net, they’d continually opt to try to upgrade their scoring chances and angles. At times that would result in beautiful control of the puck followed by an attempt that was either a tap in or a remarkable save by the opposing goalie. However, it was feast or famine much of the season. When the team was clicking offensively, the extra passes resulted in production. When they weren’t, they passed until they turned the puck over and their opponents cleared it down the ice.

So far this season the passing is just as crisp, but starting in the pre-season led by Mika Zibanejad and Brandon Pirri, the Rangers had a new mantra. “Shoot the fucking puck,” wasn’t just something screamed by fans in the Blue Seats anymore, but instead became a matter of course. The Rangers would gain the zone, set up in an Umbrella style power play system with a true point at the center of the blue line and with shooters setting up on the half walls, then with a combination of movement and clean, smart passing, the Rangers would work the perimeter, moving the puck high to low to high again, while also threatening with quick passes to the forward in the slot. This work slowed down opposing penalty killers and the slot threat kept them from over pressuring the outside, giving the Rangers the opportunity to try to run defenders out of position. If this was last season, that would lead to two, three or four extra passes before a turnover or a shot on goal. Now, though, the shot may come off the rush or the player in the slot might take the shot after a couple of passes, sometimes he plays catch with the player on the half walls. Other times the player on the half walls rips a one-timer, or he might move the puck to the defender at the point for a shot. In short, the Rangers shoot much more often but are also much less predictable. They have a multitude of weapons all capable of scoring. It leaves the opposing team tired and hemmed in their zone. It also keeps goalies moving from side-to-side so that when the shot finally does come, they are not always set on their angles to stop it. The team also jumps on rebounds and is more than willing to shoot again, and again if they get the opportunity.

This combined threat of a penalty kill that can limit the offense of opposing teams and a Power Play that can produce as contributed to the hot start the Rangers have gotten off to this season. Through 15 games the Rangers have an 11-4-0 record and have scored 11 power play goals while giving up just 7 goals while short-handed. They’ve also given up no short-handed goals against but have scored two short-handed goals themselves. Their special teams have now scored 6 more goals than they’ve given up in total. So their special teams play spot them a half a goal per game lead against their opposition on average. That’s a winning recipe and a contributing factor towards why the Rangers are winning much more than they are losing this season.

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