Remember when everyone thought the Pens were too light and too ‘green’ on defense to contend this season? Seems like a major error of judgement, no? After dismissing the Rangers, the Pens have the Caps on the brink and appear very well set to take a run at the Stanley Cup and they’re doing it with a relatively unheralded defense.
Yes, the Pens have an absolute offensive stud (albeit a dirty one) in Kris Letang and beyond Letang they have two good puckmoving blueliners in Olli Maatta and the traded for Trevor Daley. Beyond that though and they have either a lot of youth or question marks rounding out their unit depending on your own personal take on Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, Justin Schultz and Derrick Pouliot. What the Pens lack is a lot of established, top four blueliners. But it hasn’t mattered.
The Rangers can learn a lesson from the Pens (well, multiple lessons actually) in that it is arguably the type of blueliner rather than the level of experience that is most critical. People will naturally panic if the Rangers open next season with Brady Skjei AND Dylan McIlrath in the top four especially if there is a lack of experience behind that top four as well. However the Rangers need to jettison at least one of Girardi or Staal and they absolutely have to promote or find the right kind of blueliner.
The Rangers *ahem* difficulties in exiting their own zone are well documented – this is an issue that urgently needs addressing, and Skjei will help in that regard. As will a healthy Ryan McDonagh and Keith Yandle (we hope). But McIlrath can also help here even if it’s not his calling card as he is certainly no worse than Marc Staal or dan Girardi in making a good zone exit. There needs to be more though.
Should the Rangers give an extended look to a kid such as Ryan Graves who has enjoyed a solid first pro-campaign in the AHL? Absolutely, even if he isn’t entirely ready. This Rangers team – even with a handful of changes likely due this summer – can make the playoffs on the back of Henrik Lundqvist and a pretty deep offense. In order to get better on defense the Rangers need to be brave and go younger and make real, long lasting changes.
The next step for the Rangers is not just getting more youth inserted into the blueline but following the Pens strategy and ensuring they get puck moving defenseman into the line-up, be damned to the youth of the player, be damned to the relative NHL inexperience and (almost) be damned to where they find the player. The Rangers defense is too old, it’s ill-fitting with the style of their coach and there are too many square pegs in round holes.
The Pens are being rewarded for their relative bravery in adapting their defensive unit to match their system even if it meant less heralded or proven talent. Their defense may not have brand names like Staal or Boyle but it better fits the needs of the NHL playoffs. The Rangers need to take note.