A major focus for the Rangers last season was improving the team’s play with the man advantage. It has been an issue for the Rangers the past few seasons and their power play sits among the mid-tier in 2015-16. The Rangers have good offensive players and acquired Keith Yandle to help with their special teams.
We know that deception is the key to scoring in the NHL (slot-line passes and carries, rebounds, deflections) and lack of deception that allows for straight lines for goaltenders. This allows them clear sight to set depth and angle and is integral for their success. For the Rangers, they have trouble manipulating passing lanes in order to create the most dangerous opportunity, the slot-line feed.
Things that work at even strength aren’t as effective with the man advantage. While the defense collapses the slot, they take away slot-line carries and rush opportunities are compromised as defensive posture allows easy zone entries, but doesn’t allow slot-line manipulation off the rush. So teams gain the zone and accept the exterior. The best power plays are able to exploit passing lanes while probing from the exterior. Quick passes can open up passing lanes and space in the interior of the box for forwards to tip pucks, screen goaltenders and get rebound opportunities.
Over the scope of my project, I have reviewed over 10,000 power-play shots. I have recorded 8,052 straight-line shots, 610 of which ended up in the back of the net. 2,359 shots contained deception and this resulted in 730 goals. An 8% success rate vs. 31%. This is a significant difference and one that can be observed when we look at the best power play unit in the NHL at the moment: The Boston Bruins.
The Bruins have 31 goals on the man advantage versus 22 for the Rangers. Their power play has produced nine more goals on eight fewer shots (my shot totals are gathered from video review and does not include ghost shots) because they are more effective at deceiving the goaltender. The Bruins high-quality opportunities account for 40% of all of their shots with the man advantage, the Rangers are at 29%.
If we look at the Rangers power play, we see multiple instances where they settle for a low-percentage shot with clear sight lines for the goaltender and little pre-shot movement. The Rangers operate around the exterior and the Washington Capitals are very aggressive in their diamond formation. As Ryan McDonagh receives the puck from Dan Boyle, a shooting lane emerges, one that he smartly refuses because of its low probability of success.
Rick Nash layers himself in front of Braden Holtby, but there are three defenders between him and Nash, so McDonagh wisely chooses a reset to stretch the coverage. Derick Brassard’s initial contact is a low-percentage shooting position, so he takes advantage of the gap the defense has provided him to slightly increase his shooting odds. At this point, Brassard goes for that low-percentage shot, one that would likely require a Nash tip-in to score.
The shot doesn’t get through John Carlson and an aggressive Capital penalty kill overloads the right side. When Brassard wins the one-on-one pursuit and pushes the puck back to McDonagh, he catches the Capitals in their overload. McDonagh loads up, but wisely recognizes Holtby’s clear sightline and Boyle shifting into shooting position. As the Caps scramble to recover, the Rangers get exactly the kind of high percentage shot required for power play success as Boyle buries the one-timer.
That type of opportunity perfectly exemplifies the type of lateral movement required to deceive goaltenders with the man advantage. The Bruins have managed 26 of these types of opportunities, the Rangers 11. That is a significant number when you take into account that 35% of these types of opportunities result in goals.
If the Rangers continue to create 70% of their shots off straight lines, they will continue to populate the mid-tier with the man advantage.
Most of the Rangers sets are very conventional. Nash down low, McDonagh up high, Mats Zuccarello and Brassard working out of the middle. The Bruins throw many variations, including running the point through David Krejci and dropping Zdeno Chara down low for net front presence as well as one-timers off the half wall. They also use Patrice Bergeron to exploit the soft spot in the middle, like a point forward. He is able to cause all types of trouble through tipping exterior shots and, because of his central location, is able to retrieve rebounds as well as manipulate passing lanes like a power forward in basketball from a central position. Their puck movement has been phenomenal and has been integral to generating deception.
With players like Yandle and Zuccarello, the Rangers have the personnel to accomplish this type of movement, they just need to run their opportunities through their most creative personnel.