Regression is miserable to watch, and we are going through that misery right now. As Rangers fans, you’d think we were used to this by now, having gone through the exact same thing last year. Even though this year’s team is vastly improved and still a playoff team, there are some major problems on the blue line that have not been addressed. If the Rangers are to succeed beyond a being a one-and-done in the playoffs, things need to change.
The good news is that we’ve seen Alain Vigneault already make one adjustment on the blue line. Remember top pairing defenseman Nick Holden? He wasn’t being put in a position to succeed. He’s now on the third pair, and has been significantly better in that role. It’s time to make those adjustments for the rest of the lineup. These aren’t major moves either, it’s just a simple matter of tweaks before a potential upgrade arrives.
First things first, Dan Girardi and/or Marc Staal are not getting traded. Nor are they coming out of the lineup for extended periods of time. I thought AV was on to something when he sat Girardi for Adam Clendening on the second half of a back-to-back to give the guy a break. He’s got a ton of wear and tear on him, and a break is good. But several back-to-backs later, no Clendo.
So let’s assume that Girardi isn’t going to get those breaks. It’s time to shift the focus on getting Clendo –who is young and a good overall puck mover/skater, if lacking in the defensive zone– some ice time. The next obvious candidate to get some rest is Kevin Klein, who has gone from sneaky-bad to bad-bad very quickly. He’s been having a lot of the same issues: out of position in the defensive zone, bad passes, slow, etc. But it gets exposed more because he isn’t scoring anymore.
We all knew the bottom would fall out sooner or later with Klein. The Rangers were playing with house money the last two seasons, and now it appears that Klein has finally become what we all feared: A slow defenseman on the wrong side of thirty. Klein may be dealing with some lingering injury issues, but at 31 years old, he’s going to take longer and longer to heal, especially if he isn’t getting any rest.
That’s where Clendo comes in. At this point, Clendo is likely an upgrade on Klein. It’s certainly not a guarantee, but at some point AV should be taking a step back and identifying what isn’t working. Sure, there are injuries, but that doesn’t explain why the Rangers are continually unable to generate any kind of controlled possession out of the defensive zone. That starts with blue liners who can skate and move the puck. Klein, unfortunately, has done neither this season.
Perhaps it’s just a short-term thing with Klein, and he will be serviceable down the stretch this season. But too much evidence points to him having finally hit the point of diminishing returns on his ice time. He’s simply not producing right now.
Clendo may not be the answer. But since nothing else is working, something needs to give. There is no harm in giving a 31 year old defenseman a night off to get the 23 year old defenseman some ice time. Perhaps rotate Klein and Clendo regularly, and then give Girardi a night off every now and then as well. It’s the best case scenario for a team that is slowing down mightily and needs a burst of speed.