What’s Ailing the Rangers’ Power Play?

November 6th, 2014 at 6:00 am by Derek

Author’s note: I picked this topic and collected my data before last night’s game. Of course, they scored two power play goals, including the OT winner, before I finished writing this. Damn your inconvenient timing, Rangers.

The Rangers’ power play struggles were well-documented going into last night’s Wednesday Night Rivalry matchup with the hated(?) Red Wings. In 11 games, New York had scored just 3 power play goals in 32 opportunities. After watching the painful struggles of the man-advantage unit in last year’s playoffs, seeing them have difficulty in finishing again to start this season hasn’t been very encouraging.

So what’s been holding them back so far to start the season? First, let’s take a look at how this year’s power play has compared to last year and see if we can identify the problem area(s).

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The obvious issue here is shot generation. Through the first 11 games of the season, the Rangers’ power play is producing almost 20% fewer shot attempts per hour than they did last season. That, combined with a shooting percentage that’s unsustainably low on the man advantage, are the main culprits in the 3-for-32 start on the power play. I thought that poor faceoff performance might be a factor in the lack of shots, but Rangers’ centers have been dominating the draws when they’re a man up.

A major part of the power play problem is the fact that two of the expected biggest contributors on the man advantage, Dan Boyle and Derek Stepan, have been recovering from injuries. I’m not sure if Matt Hunwick and Chris Mueller are adequate replacements for that duo. To get a better idea of what the power play should look like once everyone is healthy, I looked at the last three years of point-scoring data for any of the current Rangers’ players that had at least 150 minutes of power play time in that time span. I’ve also put their power play points per 60 minutes ranking on there to see how the Blueshirts stack up to the rest of the league.

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It’s encouraging to see that the Rangers have two guys in the upper quartile of the league, Brassard and Zuccarello. Those two were a formidable tandem on the man advantage last year, and should continue to be a real threat this year. Despite the solid performance of those two (and Martin St. Louis), the Rangers are missing a truly elite power play performer who just racks up points. The guy that we might think be capable of filling that role, Rick Nash, is actually below average on the advantage. I think can rationalize this by claiming that Nash is a guy who gets more of his points on the rush rather than set plays in the offensive zone, the latter of which is obviously the focus on the power play. Despite that, the Rangers have some pretty good pieces to work with up front. I think Kreider still has some room to grow in that area and can become a bigger contributor, and the trio of Brassard-Zuccarello-St. Louis should be able to put up good boxcars.

Defensemen, however, are another story. I really thought Dan Boyle would be higher on the list for defensemen, simply due to the fact that he got to share power play ice with the likes of Thornton, Marleau, Couture, Burns, etc. Not that being 35th out of 111 is bad, mind you, I just expected that he’d be a bit higher. The bigger problem is that, behind Boyle, the Rangers have exactly zero good point-producing options on defense. The two guys that have seen the most time, McDonagh and Girardi, are both in the bottom quartile of blueliners over the last three seasons. The pickings only get slimmer from there, with the best options being John Moore and Marc Staal. Yikes. Vigneault has been playing with Stempniak on the point a bit, but he’s almost as bad as Girardi in terms of point production. Getting Dan Boyle back will almost certainly be a boost to the power play, but don’t expect him to get much help from his fellow defensemen in the points department.

Let’s get back to the shot generation angle from earlier. If the Rangers want to optimize their power play, they need to give the biggest minutes to the guys who can both score and help the team put as many pucks as possible towards the net. While finishing ability is obviously key, success on the power play is also correlated with the number of shot attempts the team on the advantage can generate. So, I took my same list of 12 Rangers above and looked at their 5-on-4 Corsi-for per 60 minutes relative to their teammates, a weighted average of how many shot attempts the team generates when the player is on the ice versus when he isn’t. The bigger, the better here. Again, I’ve included each player’s positional rank. Note that this data is 5-on-4 only, whereas my previous data was for all power play situations.

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Damn it, can they just shoot Dan Girardi into the sun? Dude isn’t even mediocre in any game situation. The good news is that the Rangers have some players who are pretty good at generating shot attempts on the power play. Zuccarello’s name being so high on the list of forwards was a bit surprising; Ryan McDonagh being 11th among defensemen even more so. St. Louis being slightly negative relative to his linemates was unexpected, but he makes up for it with enough natural scoring talent.

The best guys for the man advantage are going to be the ones who can both score and generate shots. For the Rangers, this is going to be Zuccarello, Kreider, Brassard, Stepan, and Boyle. If AV wanted to make a rock star first power play unit, he could put all five of those guys out there, with Stepan in the middle and Brassard on the point (I think he tried this for a bit last night). I’d make that a thing as soon as Stepan and Boyle both get healthy. I would keep Girardi and Stempniak as far away from the power play as possible. The second unit is a bit dicey if you load up the first group. I guess you throw whichever guy you feel more comfortable with between Mueller and Hayes out there at center. Maybe put Nash and Duclair on the wing, with McDonagh St. Louis at the back? At this point I’m just spitballing.

The big picture is, while the Rangers lack elite point-producers on the power play, they do have enough guys with a good combination of scoring talent and shot-generation ability that they can put together at least one competent unit. They’ve been mired in some poor shooting luck so far, but hopefully that will change in the near future. However, shooting at their true talent level isn’t going to be totally helpful if they don’t start putting more pucks towards the net. AV should optimize his power play minutes to allow his best guys to get more time together, and hopefully get the man advantage rolling. And also call NASA to ask when the next rocket for the sun leaves.

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