New York Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei was born three months before the Rangers' new defensive coach Jeff Beukeboom won the last of his four Stanley Cups: in 1994 with New York, after already having collected three with the Edmonton Oilers. Needless to say, Skjei doesn't remember it. Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh was almost 5 and a hockey fan, but he has no recollection of the big defenseman, either. Sure, they've all heard the stories now that Beukeboom is running the Rangers defense. They know he was big enough and nasty enough to run interference for Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton, and skilled enough and smart enough to pair with Brian Leetch in New York. Some called Beukeboom a goon, when goons still had jobs in the NHL -- but no one with any smarts ever called him a liability.
Twenty years later, after cutting his teeth coaching Junior Hockey and in the American Hockey League, Beukeboom was tabbed to help the Rangers improve a defensive corps that broke down in front of a faltering Henrik Lundqvist in the first round of the 2016 playoffs last spring; the Blueshirts lost a demoralizing series to the Pittsburgh Penguins, four games to one.
Two seasons ago, it was the Rangers who beat the Pens in the first round, also four games to one. The role-reversal served to highlight all of New York's defensive weaknesses and underscored the fact that skating fast and playing fast just aren't the same thing. This week, the Rangers and the Penguins, sitting one-two atop the Metropolitan division, play a home-and-home, Monday at PPG Paints Arena and Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
Systemically, the Rangers look eons better than they did last spring, despite losing back-to-back games -- to Columbus and Florida over the weekend -- for the first time this season. Their 13-5-1 record has them in second place in the Eastern Conference and third place in the NHL. Their league-leading 76 goals-for is 14 more than runner-up Philadelphia; that averages out to a staggering 4.11 goals-per-game. But a good offense relies on stellar defense. And at 2.33, the Rangers goals-against average is tied for the 6th lowest in the league and their penalty kill, which was a dismal 72.8% last season, is humming at 84.9%. Collectively, they're using their speed effectively, on both ends of the ice.
We haven't given up as many shots or scoring chances as we have in the past, and it's permitted us to retrieve the puck quicker and put the speed on display and counterattack," says head coach Alain Vigneault.
What's working this season that didn't before? For one, Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh is healthier and better, and with Beukeboom's help, is more concentrated on using his legs and being creative to make jumping into the offense more of a habit. He's also the quarterback of the fourth-best power play in the league. Rookie Skjei is concentrating on using his size to be harder to play against and not letting opposing forwards off the hook in the corners; and, even with his physicality, Skjei is leading NHL rookies in assists and is near the top in hits. Dan Girardi, who struggled with a cracked knee cap last season, couldn't help but be better and Marc Staal looks more comfortable in his own skin on both ends of the ice, forcing plays along the boards.
Up front, RW Mats Zuccarello and LW Chris Kreider are playing better, C Kevin Hayes lost weight and gained speed and new RW Michael Grabner is an ace at pressuring the puck. Their collective speed inspired Beukeboom and the Rangers to change their forecheck from a passive box formation to a more aggressive "I" formation, which allows them to use their speed to pressure the puck as opposed to sitting back in the box and waiting for the play to come to them. The transition was easy; Girardi and Staal had played it under former Rangers coach John Tortorella, and McDonagh and C Derek Stepan played it on Team USA during the World Cup. It was just a matter of learning the Xs and Os and understanding new roles.
"The 'I' makes the other team choose one side of the ice or the other, making it a little easier for us defensemen," McDonagh says. "They aren't going to come up the middle and and then go left or right, we're taking that decision out of their hands. It helps us dictate. We're able to step up more and be aggressive and force turnovers, as opposed to just reacting to what they're doing."
Roles in the new system are very clear. The Rangers' defensemen unanimously describe Beukeboom as "approachable" and open to chats, so questions are never left unanswered. And Beukeboom has his defensemen in the video room more, they all say, than any coach they've ever had -- with no objections.
"[Beuekeboom] definitely puts an emphasis on video," says Skjei. "We watch after every game. He'll bring me in the office and show me a few clips. Not many coaches do that, it's usually more on your own. It's both positive and negative. But he usually ends on the good stuff, which is good."
For Beukeboom, it's all about self-evaluation:
"I'm a big believer in watching yourself play and being honest with your own evaluation so you can learn and improve. The younger the player, the more I think you have to show them video, because they need to learn what you have to do in a pro game."
Beukeboom, who was never the fastest or most talented player on the ice, worked extra hard to be prepared in every situation so he didn't have to waste time making decisions. He worked with sports psychologists before they were in fashion. He learned to visualize what he would do in every situation and kept a journal before and after games to record what worked and what didn't and implant those scenarios in his memory. And rather than looking only at an opposing player and anticipating where his next pass would be, Beukeboom concentrated on what he would do when he got the puck. Now, he's teaching the Rangers' defensemen to do the same.
"We've always talked about playing fast here, so Beuk stresses the importance of seeing the ice better and anticipating the next play," says McDonagh. "He stresses taking a snapshot of who and what is around you so before you get the puck, you know where you're going with it. Hopefully, it becomes second-nature for us."
So far, it's working. The Rangers have lost six games this season, but it is arguable that if not for extraordinary goaltending performances by St. Louis and Detroit -- they were flat-out stoned by Carter Hutton, Jimmy Howard and James Reimer -- three of those six losses would have been wins.
Pittsburgh, though, is 11-4-3, and sits just two points behind the Rangers. Their power play is the fourth-best in the league, at 24.2 percent, and their top four defensemen -- Kris Letang, Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maatta and Trevor Daley -- are the same as last season. If any team can serve as a yardstick for how far the Rangers defense has come, it's the Penguins.