Hartnett: Rangers Defensemen Must Give Their Goaltenders Help

Assistant Coach Lindy Ruff May Be To Blame For Defensive Struggles

Sean Hartnett
October 23, 2019 - 12:27 pm

The Rangers need a fix… badly.

Their defensemen continually cede high-danger territory to the opposition, exposing their goaltenders to barrages of shots. These are not new trends; these are recurring symptoms that stem from poor defensive coaching.

Across the past three seasons, the Rangers averaged the NHL’s third most shots against per game at 35.3. Through the first seven games of the new season, the 2-4-1 Rangers have averaged 36.6 shots against per game, the most in the NHL.

Dreadful first-period starts have been persistent from season-to-season. Lately, the Rangers are putting themselves behind the eight ball early.

After allowing 20 first period shots to the Vancouver Canucks during Sunday’s 3-2 loss, the Blueshirts repeated the script by being outshot 21-4 in the opening frame of Tuesday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Arizona Coyotes.

Strong goaltending is preventing the Rangers from being subjected to lopsided scorelines. On Sunday, Henrik Lundqvist saved 40 of 43 shots against for a .930 save percentage. Alexandar Georgiev got the call Tuesday and stopped 32 of 35 shots against for a .914 save percentage.

As a whole, the Rangers were outshot 78 to 59 in these two contests. That shot differential would be even more alarming had the Blueshirts not produced an electrifying third period Sunday, outshooting Vancouver, 17-6.

The lack of defensive structure and the inconsistent level of competitiveness hasn’t been solved by roster alterations or a switch in bench bosses from advocate of gentlemanly hockey Alain Vigneault to intensity-demanding David Quinn.

So, if the majority of players have been switched out and head coaches have changed – who or what is the holdover that’s hurting this team? The answer is defensive assistant and penalty kill coach Lindy Ruff.

Lindy Ruff as head coach of the Dallas Stars Feb 28, 2017; Dallas, TX
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Since Ruff was hired in the summer of 2017, the Rangers have been one of the NHL’s feeblest defensive units. Only the Ottawa Senators possess a poorer even-strength Corsi Against per 60 minutes than the Rangers’ 62.45 over the 171 games since Ruff joined the Blueshirts’ coaching staff. No team has a worse even-strength expected goals against per 60 minutes than the Rangers’ 2.8 over this stretch.

Through the first seven games this season, the Rangers’ expected even-strength goals against per 60 minutes is an incredible 3.26. The closest teams to them are the Senators and San Jose Sharks at 2.55. The Rangers own the league’s worst even-strength Corsi Against per 60 minutes at 69.32.

Note: these advanced statistics have been obtained from Evolving-Hockey.com.

There isn’t going to be any let-up on the horizon for the struggling Rangers. The 8-1-1 Sabres are next on the schedule Thursday, followed by the reigning Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins Sunday and the Tampa Bay Lightning next Tuesday.

All three games are at The Garden and all three have the potential to get ugly. The Rangers can’t allow a bad situation to snowball and allow bad coaching to stunt the progress of their blue line youngsters.

If the Rangers do not show any progress in alleviating their defensive woes, they’re going to need to face the music and fire Ruff.

 Follow Sean on Twitter: @HartnettHockey