Archive for Defense
With the Rangers on their bye week, which was perfectly timed with the halfway point of the season, we are afforded the opportunity to evaluate the Rangers with nothing else going on. Midseason report cards have been a bit of a tradition here at BSB, so let’s keep that tradition going, shall we?
Over the next few days, each of us will be tackling a different aspect of the team, and assigning grades accordingly. I’m batting leadoff here, and I’m going to be discussing the most polarizing aspect of this year’s team: The defense.
Overall, the back line for the Rangers has been relatively bad. The combination of age, injuries, wear and tear, and a shift towards speed has made what was once a strong defense into a bottom-five unit in the league. The slow start by Henrik Lundqvist exposed the defense even more. But it’s not all bad, either.
Boy, the Rangers play two mediocre games and all of a sudden the world is ending. The focus, as always, has been on the defense. But let’s be clear here. We all knew the defense was in need of an upgrade before the season started. The major problem lies on the right side, where Dan Girardi plays top pairing minutes and Kevin Klein has been bouncing between second and third pair. Brady Skjei has moved to that side to try to stabilize everything.
Dylan McIlrath wasn’t the answer. Adam Clendening may or may not be a viable bottom-pairing guy, and we won’t know until he’s in the lineup more consistently. Alain Vigneault is going to lean on his guys until major roster decisions are made down the road. So let’s try to get into AV’s head and understand why he’s making the decisions he’s making, instead of just bashing him or the players blindly.
You know it’s time to dust off your laptop and write a post for Blue Seat Blogs when there are jokes on the Internet about your location, your health, or doubts as to if you ever existed at all. Truth be told, I am not an alter ego for Dave Shapiro.
For new readers of Blue Seat Blogs, allow me to re-introduce myself, my name is HOV, H to the O V, The Suit. I like bourbon, matters related to bespoke tailoring, and hockey. I use a pseudonym for various reasons. I (sort of) invented blogging about Hockey Systems. Now Steve Valiquette has far surpassed me and did so with an air of Greenwich snobbery that even I can’t replicate (jk love you Vally).
Anyway, it’s been a while since I created internet, so I have decided to share a few views on things related specifically to our defense, because defense wins championships or something.
Yesterday, the New York Rangers waived Dylan McIlrath, with the intention of sending him down to the Wolf Pack. As you can imagine, this sent fans into a bit of an uproar. After all, Josh Jooris was just diagnosed with a separated shoulder and was destined to hit LTIR. This would have given the Rangers more roster flexibility with the imminent returns of Pavel Buchnevich and Chris Kreider. The Rangers didn’t have to make a move.
As of this writing, there are still several hours left in the waiver period, so we are not yet sure if the team will lose McIlrath for nothing yet. There seems to be no consensus on the likelihood of a claim (I tend to think there is a good possibility of one). If McIlrath sneaks through to Hartford that will be some grade A depth in the minors in case of future injuries, and additional ice time can only help his continued development. If he is claimed, it will highlight some poor asset management on the part of the organization, especially since he did not have to be waived at the moment.
We’re a few games into the season at this point, and it’s plain to see what the Rangers’ strengths are as a team. Most of this stems from the team’s deep forward corps – the team is fast and has a scoring touch on each of their four lines. What’s also becoming increasingly clear however is the Rangers’ weakness: the defense. While this may seem like an obvious point to make, it’s important to go further and parse out exactly what the issues are in order to better understand how to address them.
Let’s start with what even the most stalwart apologists for the Rangers defense would acknowledge: aside from Ryan McDonagh, this is not a defensive group that moves the puck well. The forwards on the team mostly make up for them, as they’re all quite fast and each line has someone capable of making quick passes and carry-ins on it, but the start of the breakout needs work.
With the return of Dan Girard in last night’s game against Arizona, the Rangers are finally back to full strength on their blue line. Adam Clendening joined Dylan McIlrath in the press box, as it appears Alain Vigneault will lean on veterans, as expected.
Girardi will likely go back to playing with Ryan McDonagh, while Kevin Klein probably ends up back with Marc Staal. That leaves Brady Skjei and Nick Holden in a third pairing role, with Holden still playing on the right side, a place where he wasn’t comfortable to start the year.
Here’s food for thought: why can’t the Rangers have Jacob Trouba AND Kevin Shattenkirk? I think it is a legitimate option that the Rangers should explore. I am not normally an advocate of blowing your remaining assets to trade for any one player, particularly one (Trouba) who isn’t the finished article and particularly as the franchise is still in replenish the mode. However there is one circumstance where I’m willing to change my thinking and that is for a young, hard to find player that the team can build around. That player could be Jacob Trouba.
To cut to the chase, the Rangers should try their hardest to get both Trouba and Shattenkirk. There are so many benefits to this. Forget about the likelihood or practicalities of making this happen for a second, and just think about the benefits. A top four containing Ryan McDonagh, Trouba and Shattenkirk would immediately make the Rangers owners of a truly elite, modern blueline. Possession numbers would be better, special teams would be better, better breakouts almost a given and you can argue, having a stronger blueline should extend not just the Rangers’ window of contention but by default, Henrik Lundqvist’s career.
Rangers fans were buzzing on Tuesday night. It wasn’t just because hockey was back, or that the Chris Kreider-Mika-Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich line seemed to be clicking either. It was watching Adam Clendening’s performance. Clendening stole the show, as his poise with the puck and ability to make smart passes to start the breakout both at even strength and on the powerplay impressed many.
It impressed so much that Dylan McIlrath seemed like an afterthought. McIlrath didn’t have a bad game either, scoring a goal that demonstrated how far his skating has come. He wasn’t perfect, and neither was Clendening, but after one game it seems like Clendening is now the front runner for the last spot on the blue line over McIlrath.
But does it have to be that way? Why can’t we have both?
The mandate for Jeff Gorton this offseason was clear: retool the Blueshirts while extending the window to win the Stanley Cup. Though many of us believe that Gorton’s troops will struggle to reach that goal with the defense as currently assembled, he has certainly begun executing a significant makeover.
Up front, Gorton has stockpiled a young group of forwards that stacks up with any in the league. New York will have one of the NHL’s youngest rosters this season with room to grow for many key players still 25 years old or younger including Chris Kreider, Brandon Pirri, Kevin Hayes, Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast, J.T. Miller, Mika Zibanejad, Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich – not to mention 26-year-old first-line center Derek Stepan.
The Rangers did a lot to improve this offseason. They completely retooled the bottom-six forwards and the penalty kill, and it appears they used some form of advanced statistical analysis in their decision making. While it appears the Rangers are set to have a better showing from their forwards, the defense remained largely untouched.
As it stands today, the Rangers will have substituted Brady Skjei for Keith Yandle and Dylan McIlrath/Nick Holden for Dan Boyle. Based off Alain Vigneault’s previous history, we are looking at these defensive pairs: