Alain Vigneault was unusually specific in his introduction as Rangers’ head coach, offering strategy insights alongside the usual clichés of first press conferences. Specifically, Vigneault confirmed that he will bring his famed zone-matching strategy to New York, leaving Rangers fans to speculate what changes that might mean for next year’s team.
Vigneault designates certain lines as his offensive and defensive zone lines, instead of using a checking line, which traditionally matches up against opponents’ top players. This system exploits the favorable player vs. player matchups.
This strategy caused Canucks forwards of recent years to regularly lead and trail the league in zone start percentage, a statistic that measures the percentage of time a player starts his shift in the offensive zone, as opposed to his own zone. During the 2011-12 season, for instance, Daniel Sedin, Henrik Sedin, and Alexandre Burrows ranked first, second, and third, respectively, with 79.6%, 78.6%, and 73.8% offensive zone starts. No other NHLer cracked 70%. That same season, Manny Malholtra (13.2%), Dale Weise (20.6%), and Maxim Lapierre (22.2%)–the Canucks’ d-zone line–saw the offensive zone less than other players in the league.
Over the past three seasons, when a faceoff would occur in the opponent’s end, Vigneault would deploy the Sedins. And when they had a defensive zone faceoff, AV turned to faceoff specialist Manny Malholtra. It’s no coincidence that the Sedins were regularly league leaders in points, while Malholtra was often a minus.
And though no team employed zone-matching as dutifully as Vigneault’s Canucks, John Tortorella already used that strategy with the Rangers, perhaps to the second-greatest extreme in the NHL. Last year, Brad Richards ranked 12th in the league with 63.4% of his zone starts in the opponent’s end. Brian Boyle ranked 26th last season, and 5th the season before, in terms of fewest offensive zone starts.
How much Vigneault’s brand of line juggling impacts the Rangers, then, will largely hinge on whether or not Brad Richards stays. Already, Rangers beat writers have softened some on the possibility of Richards’ amnesty buyout, and it makes sense. Richards and Nash would give AV a duo of pure skill offensive specialists comparable to the Sedins.
Last year, the Canucks zone matching strategy became less extreme with Ryan Kesler missing significant time to injury. His ability to play in all situations against all levels of competition had previously allowed Vancouver to turn so much of the rest of the lineup into specialists. If the Rangers buyout Brad Richards, and Derek Stepan takes over top line duties with Rick Nash, who becomes the “pivot” center to play alongside Ryan Callahan? Derrick Brassard has the talent to grow into the role, but in a system that rewards scoring depth, it may make sense to keep Richards around.
Another difference between how the Rangers used offensive zone deployments then, and how they might now, will have to do with larger philosophical changes. Torts seemingly gave certain players a lot of offensive zone time–e.g. Marion Gaborik, Chris Kreider, and Richards. Vigneault uses the offensive zone more to feature certain players than to shelter them–a subtle, but important difference when the best offensive players are so often the worst in their own end.
The players who had the greatest number of offensive zone starts under Tortorella didn’t necessarily play the most. Vigneault figures to change that, with his more offense-oriented approach. Brian Boyle, in particular, could see his ice time cut in favor of more skilled forwards. The Rangers might also seek another center to play alongside Boyle in these situations. If the Nashville Predators buyout former Sabre Paul Gaustad, the Rangers might pick him up cheaply.
Ultimately, who benefits and suffers most from zone matching will depend largely on amnesty buyouts. But don’t be surprised if, regardless of how this offseason goes, Brian Boyle seemingly has his worst season yet, while Rick Nash exceeds the point totals of his best seasons in Columbus.