Principles and personnel on the specialty units will be different for the Rangers when the regular season gets underway at the Garden on Thursday against the Avalanche.
In addition to Kevin Shattenkirk, imports Anthony DeAngelo and David Desharnais have roles on the man-advantage units while Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey and Brady Skjei don’t. At the same time, it appears as though Skjei will get a turn on the man-down unit after being entrusted with a penalty-kill sum of 23:31 during his rookie season, while Hayes will retain a key role killing.
Unless something unforeseen develops, the first power-play unit will consist of Shattenkirk, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich and Mika Zibanejad while the second will feature DeAngelo, Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, J.T. Miller and Desharnais.
“It’s been a tough last couple of weeks figuring out the personnel, and that’s why we used a lot of bodies on the PP and PK through camp,” associate coach Scott Arniel said. “Bringing in Shatty, that’s a huge piece, he’s been one of the elite guys in the league the last few years as a quarterback. And with DeAngelo, they’re both heady kids who can really fire the puck from the top, both have great vision and can lug the puck up the ice.
“Desi is a guy who’s had a lot of experience. He’s a top-end guy that way. He’s a fantastic passer. He’s not a penalty killer, where Kevin is one of our top guys there. And Kevin is going to have a big role [at even strength] playing against the other teams’ top two lines.”
Arniel cited head coach Alain Vigneault’s preference to avoid double-dipping on the specialty teams in order to keep a lid on his players’ ice time. But if Vesey, who appears ticketed for fourth-line duty with Desharnais and Paul Carey, doesn’t get time on the specialty teams, one wonders from where his minutes will come.
The power play went on a roller-coaster ride last season before settling in at 11th in the NHL at 20.2 percent. Arniel, who has the major coaching responsibility for that unit, said that there had been some “tinkering” with breakouts and end-zone play. Kreider, who will provide the net presence on the first unit, put it differently.
“We’ve got a larger bag of tricks,” said Kreider, whose six power-play goals tied second-unit net-front guy Rick Nash for the 2016-17 club lead. “We’re developing more options so we can respond to what the PK is trying to take away from us.“In the end — or maybe the beginning — so much of it comes down to our five outworking their four. If we jump and win the puck, then someone should be open, right?”
If the power play has undergone tinkering, the penalty-killing unit is being made over by Lindy Ruff, the assistant in charge of defense who was hired over the summer to replace Jeff Beukeboom, who in turn had been hired over the summer of 2016 to replace Ulf Samuelsson.
The makeover is necessary in the wake of the past two seasons in which the penalty kill ranked an aggregate 24th (79.0) overall. Ruff was active with instructional work throughout Friday’s practice that was dedicated to the specialty teams.
“There are certain changes Lindy wants us to make as far as stick position and where we position ourselves in coverage,” Marc Staal said. “But overall, the emphasis is on being more aggressive at the half-wall and forcing the opposition to make really good plays without time to make them.“The other thing he’s stressing is really short shifts where you sprint to spots, get to the puck and get off the ice. If it’s done right, it’s 20 seconds and off.”
Hayes and Michael Grabner will form the lead penalty-kill pair. Grabner’s efficiency on the kill was best on last year’s team by a mile, on for net-five goals against (eight power-play goals minus three shorthanded goals) in 128 minutes. That equated to net-one power-play goal against per 25:36; Rick Nash had the next best rating at one per 10:00 among forwards with 80 minutes or more, though Zibanejad clocked in at one per 13:00 in 39 minutes. Hayes came in at one per 9:48 in 108 minutes.
“So much of the PK is about the four-man unit operating as one and having confidence as a group,” Staal said. “We didn’t get the kills when we needed them last year. I think that was a large part of our downfall in the Ottawa series, especially early.
“We’re paying a lot of attention to that here. It’s critical for us to be on the same page.”
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