By Sean Hartnett
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Since January 1, 2014, the New York Rangers have posted the NHL’s best record at 81-31-11. Great teams remain at the top of the heap because they are constantly re-examining themselves and searching for ways to improve on both their strengths and deficiencies.
For the Rangers, their power play has been a long-standing weakness. It has been dead average since Alain Vigneault took charge of his first regular-season game on October 3, 2013. There have been spurts of life, but sustained power-play execution has been something lacked by the Rangers under Vigneault’s otherwise blemish-free reign.
Since the start of the 2013-14 season, the Blueshirts’ 17.6 percent power-play conversion rate is tied for 19th in the league alongside the Dallas Stars. That isn’t the marked improvement fans were hoping for when Vigneault ushered in lightning-fast transition and fast-paced puck movement. The Rangers’ power play was at 16.8 percent during predecessor John Tortorella’s four full seasons behind the bench, excluding the 21 regular-season games he coached in 2008-09 following Tom Renney’s February dismissal.
The 3-0-0 Rangers have begun the young season 1-for-4 on the power play. While that isn’t any kind of sample size to judge from, Vigneault said on Monday that he is in the process of figuring out his best personnel for man-advantage situations.
“One area that I’m still trying to sort out is our power-play personnel,” Vigneault said. “We haven’t had a lot of power plays so far. So, I’m thinking this is going to take a little while here to sort itself out. But I like the players that we have. I just need to figure out who works best with one another on that power play.”
During Monday’s practice, Vigneault experimented with Keith Yandle and Kevin Klein on the top power-play unit. In his post-practice press conference, he did not rule out the possibility of deploying four forwards on both units.
“He’s got a good shot – there’s no doubt there,” Vigneault said of Klein. “And that’s a weapon.”
If Vigneault sticks with Yandle and Klein on the first power-play unit, it should make interesting watching when the Rangers host the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night. Yandle is one of the league’s most gifted and creative power-play quarterbacks. Many teammates, including Henrik Lundqvist, have described Klein’s shot as consistently the hardest on the team.
“I think, by far, he has the best shot on the team – no question,” Lundqvist said last season. “He always gets it through, it’s hard. It’s not a great thing in practice, but I appreciate it in a game. It hurts if it hits you. If you don’t use your pads or glove, it’s going to hurt. He’s great.”
Winger J.T. Miller, 22, agrees that Klein’s shot is the heaviest.
“He probably consistently has the hardest shot,” Miller told WFAN.com. “It’s always knee-high and perfect. I’d say on a consistent basis, he shoots it the hardest.”
Putting Yandle and Klein together could be a deadly combination. Yandle leads all NHL defensemen with 118 power-play assists since the 2008-09 season. Klein enjoyed a breakthrough offensive season last year, notching career-highs in goals (nine) and assists (26). His 11.8 shooting percentage more than doubled his career mark of 5.2.
“Kevin’s obviously an elite, elite player,” Yandle told WFAN.com. “He’s got a really good shot and finds a way to get open. In the offensive zone, he’s good at finding areas where you can get him the puck. No matter where you put it, if it’s close to him he’s going to get some good wood on it.”
Oddly, Klein hasn’t played consistent power-play minutes since his final full season with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals in 2006-07. Given the lack of game tape available, he could be the Rangers’ secret power-play weapon.
“Maybe we’ll get an element of surprise with me out there,” Klein joked. “There’s no video on it!”
“It’s fun getting used to the power play, trying some things,” Klein added. “I haven’t played it in a while. I played a few shifts in the preseason. I played (on the power play) in the odd game in the past. Consistently, you’d have to go back to my last year in the minors. I just have to work hard at making the right decisions on there. You’ve got to think quickly, move the puck, get open for guys in order to get those shots. That’s the main key, trying to be in the best shooting positions where guys can give you the puck. If I get the opportunity, I’ll fire a couple.”
The Rangers’ power-play units at Monday’s practice were: Nash-Brassard-Zuccarello, Yandle-Klein and Kreider-Hayes-Miller, McDonagh-Stepan.
Absent from power-play duty was veteran Dan Boyle, who will be scratched for Tuesday’s game. The 39-year-old’s preseason defensive-zone struggles and poor decision-making have continued into the regular season. Impressive 23-year-old Dylan McIlrath will make his season debut against the Jets and skate on Yandle’s pairing.
“I think that Boyle can play a little bit better than he’s played so far,” Vigneault said. “At the end of the day, it probably has a little more to do with the fact that I want to see Dylan. I decided to make the change for (Tuesday).”
Given Boyle’s tough start, McIlrath has a great opportunity in front of him to push for a permanent place in Vigneault’s lineup.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.