With the revamped Blueshirts kicking off their preseason tonight against the Devils, let’s take a gander at what’s been their Achilles’ heel – defense. While goaltending was certainly subpar overall, the tandem of Hank & Georgiev finished with a respectable .919 5×5 save percentage. Their season was doomed by the amount of shots & high-dangers chances allowed that resulted from an inability to control the puck & responsibly exit their own zone. JD & Gorts made a couple of big-time acquisitions while disposing of Kevin Shattenkirk in hopes of strengthening their back end. Assuming no preseason surprises, opening night should look like this:
Skjei – Trouba
Staal – DeAngelo
Hajek – Fox
The biggest name there is obviously Jacob Trouba. NY has been starved of a true #1 since Mac was shipped to TB. $56 million later, Trouba gets to fill those skates for the next 7 years. Simply put, he’s going to have to be better than he’s ever been if this defensive corps is to make a significant turnaround. He’s just 25 but will be the eldest blueliner not named Staal and has more NHL games played than Skjei, DeAngelo, Hajek and Fox combined. There’s going to be collective hurdles to navigate while Fox & Hajek figure out the pro game, Skjei & Deangelo figure out their individual Jekyll/Hyde routines and Staal figures out how to keep up. Trouba was paid big bucks to not only be a reliable #1 but to bring his BFF Skjei back to what we saw in his All-Rookie Team debut season. In terms of skill set, there’s no reason Trouba & Skjei can’t be an exceptional defensive pairing as they enter the peaks of their careers. Both 6’3, both over 200 pounds. Both play a relatively physical game, block shots, skate well, can easily eat 20+ minutes and were touted as prospects with “shutdown abilities & offensive upside”. While the rooks ride their ups & downs, Trouba can’t afford to have many downs of his own – and Brady’s success is part of that responsibility.
Skjei’s issue seems pretty simple. It’s not a lack of skill or ability. He’s just been extremely indecisive, often panicky and in turn loses confidence. Been put in over his head a few times too simply due to a lack of alternate options. He’s certainly made his own bed but a lack of a consistent, experienced defender alongside him for the past two seasons hasn’t helped. Having that problem resolved with the addition of a buddy he played two years with as high schoolers has got to be a HUGE boost for Brady’s mindset. Familiarity, communication, trust – that’s all gonna be there and this time Brady doesn’t have to be the alpha of his pairing. No more excuses. Odds are whatever Skjei shows this season is what we’re gonna get through 2023-24 when his contract expires. So if he wants to hang with his boy Trouba for the duration (and avoid being a potential Seattle expansion pick in two years) then he’s gotta take advantage of being put in the best possible position he could ask for.
Listen. Nobody is happy to see Staal listed as a second-pair defender. I genuinely think #18 still has value as a veteran D, preferably in a 3rd pair role – but that’s entirely up to someone like Hajek to prove they can leapfrog him. For now though, Quinn is almost certainly gonna go with experience which is the only advantage Staal has over anyone else in this lineup. I would think his PK1 days are finally over but the bane of Rangers fans recent existence will still be gobbling up 19 minutes a night for the foreseeable future. Sorry. Let’s just move on.
Like his play on the ice & his Twitter account, Tony DeAngelo is a wild card right now simply because he’s not yet signed. He doesn’t have any leverage – it’s either he signs what the Rangers offer (which will most likely be a 1-year minimum dollar contract) or he doesn’t play. So it’s most likely a “when”, not “if” situation. The soon-to-be 24 year-old ADA took a big leap last year under Coach Quinn, racking up 30 points and pacing the Blueshirts with 77 PIM and a +6 in just 61 games. Plus/minus is surely overrated but finishing a plus-ANYTHING on last year’s Rangers team rivals Bobby Orr’s +129 NHL record. His offensive skillset shined with an impressive 1.09 5×5 points-per-60 – anything above 1 is an elite pace at even strength – and he contributed 10 power play helpers as well. Most of his production came after the deadline with 18 points (8 PPP) in 29 games from February on while playing over 20 minutes a night. He surely wasn’t riding any coattails on that shell of a squad. He’ll most likely start the year playing second fiddle behind Trouba, but it’s more likely that Quinn will rotate his bottom 4 based on game script as opposed to a definitive second & third pair designation. The feisty DeAngelo may always be unpredictable in his own zone & with his temper, but he’s another talented piece about to enter his prime.
Libor Hajek was part of the haul that came back in the McDonagh/Miller trade. While he had a rough go of it in the AHL last year, he had a great 5-game debut before a shoulder injury cut it short. It was hard not to have overly optimistic expectations at the time of the swap but the reality is that all the Rangers need from Hajek now is sound, responsible defensive play. There’s plenty of play-making talent but no one with a true stay-at-home shutdown skillset other than him. Every great team has at least one blueliner who quietly eats quality minutes. You don’t notice them because they’re not laying thunderous hits or flying with the puck on their stick, but they excel at keeping rubber out of harm’s way. Basically what Staal was seemingly a century ago. If his 5-game audition is any indicator of what he’s capable of as a pro, the Hajek/Fox tandem will be the biggest reason the Rangers end up a surprise contender for that 8-seed.
While Trouba is the big-ticket item of the off-season, I’m most excited about the acquisition of Long Islander Adam Fox. This kid is gonna be the real deal in terms of the next generation of offensive blueliners. The only D prospects that get more shine than him are Makar, Byram, Boqvist & Hughes – all top-10 overall picks in their respective drafts. In comparison to what the Rangers surrendered to get him (most likely a pair of second-rounders once Fox plays his 30th NHL game) they got an absolute bargain. He’s not a speed demon but a very good skater. He’s not a big body & won’t be a shutdown guy, but doesn’t project to be a defensive liability thanks to smarts & a great stick. When the puck is on Fox’s tape though, there’s no doubt a highlight reel play can unfold at any time. His hands and vision are top-of-the-charts excellent. Throughout every level he’s played, he transitions with ease & epitomizes the best defense is controlling the puck. In the offensive zone is where he’ll really shine. It might sound silly to think Trouba signed for 8 sheets a year to NOT be the PP QB, but Jacob’s the only right-side guy with reliable defensive acumen. Let Fox & Tony run with the PP minutes while Trouba piles on as much ES/PK TOI as possible. If Quinn listens to me I have no doubt Fox would eclipse the best offensive season from a rookie this decade (Will Butcher piled up 44 points – 23 PPP – skating just 16 min/night a couple seasons ago). I really really really really love everything about him.
Realistically speaking, it’s improbable for everyone to avoid disappointment. For all the hype around most of these guys there’s just as many question marks. Still, the front office has done a great job amassing young NHL-ready defensive talent on top of kids like K’Andre, Lundkvist, Robertson, etc. still developing. The Rangers resurrection is well underway.