A look at the defense battle

neal pionk henrik lundqvist rangers wild

One of the stories coming into camp was who would fill out the defense. There are at least three, most likely four, spots that are filled by Marc Staal, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, and probably Brendan Smith. If Smith isn’t a viable option out of camp, the Rangers have shown a willingness to demote him, so it’s either two or three spots up for grabs, plus the 7D spot. That’s a good amount of spots open, despite the lack of moves in the offseason to address the blue line.

There are a few guys vying for these spots as well, some that played last year (Tony DeAngelo, Rob O’Gara, Neal Pionk, John Gilmour), some that were just acquired this offseason (Frederik Claesson, Adam McQuaid), and some unknown rookies (Ryan Lindgren, Libor Hajek). That’s a lot of names competing for spots.

Some educated guessing gets us to the conclusion that both DeAngelo and McQuaid will be on the roster in October. DeAngelo is in what could be a make or break season for his Rangers future, so it’s about time the Rangers see what they have in him. Plus, he is no longer exempt from waivers. As for McQuaid, there’s a reason the Rangers gave up a pair of draft picks for him.

Let’s also make the assumption that Lindgren and Hajek are not rushed, and are sent to the AHL this season. This is their first pro season, and defensemen take longer to develop anyway. No need to force them into a role in which they might not succeed, or even fit on the roster.

That leaves one or two spots between Pionk, Gilmour, O’Gara, and Claesson. Despite his significant playing time at the end of last season, O’Gara isn’t in the same realm as Gilmour or Pionk, so I think we can cross him off the list. So now we are down to Pionk, Gilmour, and Claesson. This is where it gets tricky.

Pionk and Gilmour played pretty well in their call ups at the end of last season. Claesson has been steady and solid for a terrible Senators team, and hasn’t sniffed the AHL in quite some time. Claesson is not waivers exempt, but Pionk and Gilmour are.

At this point, it is anyone’s guess who makes the team. The Rangers could make life easier on themselves and carry eight defensemen for the time being, meaning one of Pionk or Gilmour would be sent down. In that situation, I’d bet on Gilmour, since Pionk –at least in last year’s small sample size– appears to be more well rounded.

A lot can happen between now and the end of camp. A trade could open up a spot on the blue line. Smith could repeat his performance last year and play his way out of the NHL. But for now, there’s a legitimate battle for the defense. There’s nothing wrong with that. Competition breeds improvement.

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    • Gilmour is terrible……Staal shaky……..Smith…..who knows…….we are vulnerable on the backend….Hank will be standing on his head unless Quinn is a magician with his teaching…..

    • I have no idea what they will do with the pairs either. I personally would have traded zero picks for ScQuaid, but Gorton did trade picks for him, and I doubt that was with the intent of simply giving him a chance at the roster. You don’t trade picks for guys you are taking a flier on in an offseason trade, usually. I think he is nearly a lock barring injury (of course), or something extreme like forgetting which goal is his and scoring on ours this preseason (and for that to happen, whoever is in net would probably have to be caught unawares, what with ScQuaid’s offensive prowess being what it isn’t).

      So, I essentially see this as the likely group as well. Wouldn’t be shocked if Scleasson sneaks in as the 7th, or even Scleasson and Spionk as 7 and 8. Carrying 8 isn’t how I would prefer to roll, but we just don’t know what Quinn thinks about that topic yet.

  • It is pretty frustrating that for the sixth straight season, the weakest element of our team by far is the defense. Imagine if our FO could actually evaluate defensive talent instead of running retreads out there? Hopefully with quinn’s adjustments and focus on details, we won’t have the constant d-zone mess that was standard for the AV era. But again with the dumb McQuaid trade we see what the FO values.

    I think our forward group will surprise a lot of folks, especially if Buch can take a next step, and if Chytil produces. Those are “ifs,” but I feel good about them. That top line I believe is elite. Hayes is a good player as is MZA. Spooner always puts up good boxcar stats and Namestnikov is a fine middle six player. I think Hank will probably produce at a better than league average rate, but it’s hard to tell at this point. He had two astounding months last year carrying a very injured and flawed group, but outside of that didn’t have it.

    I hate playing the historical what if game, but this team with Stepan (a suicidal trade in hindsight with a comical return made for all the wrong reasons as Stepan’s contract looks great right now), JTM (top six playmaking winger), and McD (top pairing d-man) would definitely be in the playoffs this year and be strong in the East.

    There are few times that you will see a FO willingly implode a team that was a series of demented coaching errors away from the Eastern Conference Finals (thanks AV against Ottawa), and continue to do so by trading away very good players in their prime for spare parts (the McD/JTM trade) after a season marked by a poor off-season (expecting Lias to slot in was fantastically dumb) and lots of injuries (the following players missed time last year or played injured: MZA, Kreider, Zib, McD, Hank, etc etc). How as a FO do you decide “yea we’re done?”

    I hope some of these kids pan out and we sign Panarin, but what a gamble this is on the part of Gorton.

    • Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will the Rangers’ defense. You can see the future on display, kids like Lindgren, Keane and Hajek … but bear in mind as well what is missing from camp this year — no Miller, Lundqvist or Rykov.

      • Again that is a huge gamble as none of those guys are really blue chip prospects. Plus how can anybody rate the Rangers FO on assessing defense. It’s been horrible for years now.

        The Rangers FO clearly had a good team that they blew up for no reason. There have also been shitty trades for very good players that the Rangers passed up on (e.g. Hall, Hamilton, Karlson,e tc), which again shows the FO has tunnel vision.

        • If this team is does good things in the 1st half of the season. Than maybe the FO would consider that as a sign of a quick rebuild and try and trade for a trade established top 4 D man. If two of the rookie centers show major strides in their development than that famous Zib vs Hayes decision will have to go down. Brooks has called this out as a decision that would have to happen. One would think that they would use those kind off chips for some D help. No real top line fire power is a concern, we’re like the LVGK who hasn’t had any real top sprout up yet.

        • What makes you so sure that the F.O. “passed up on “Hall, Hamilton, or Karlsson? It takes two parties to make a deal, and maybe, just maybe, those other front offices didn’t want what we had to offer.

    • Also looking at our salary cap situation, incredibly this genius FO is paying $27 million for this group. That is not including the $3.6 buyout of the horrific Girardi.

      This FO is unarguably below average at both managing its Cap and assets. Just a horrible job.

      • Yeah yeah, guess that’s why the Rangers were arguably one of the top 5-6 teams in the League for almost a decade.

  • Nice summary of our D situation. I think best case scenario is start with 8 D men. But I would have Staal as a 7 or 8 D man. I would not have him as a lock to play nightly.

    Between Pionk and Gilmour, Pionk would be my first choice to stay.

    Regarding Smith, hopefully he can come back to form and bring a decent return at the trade deadline. And that can open up a spot and we have 7 D men.

    I get the leadership and grit and competition thing, but the McQuaid trade did not make much sense to me. Although if he plays well he can be traded at the deadline too.(hopefully for more than 4th and a conditional 7th) And then Hajek of Lindgren can get a late season 9 game call up. That would be to see how they look at the NHL level.

    I actually think the D will be better this year. With the system, the competition and a coach who seems engaged in what is happening on the ice.. But we will need to try and move some pieces out for assets by the deadline to make room for the new guys.

    • agree with everything Andy…hope McQuaid plays well and can be traded for at least a 3rd round pick…if Smith returns and plays well, maybe a trade for something

      I’d hope Hajek and/or Lindgren are up after the trade deadline tho

  • Thanks Dave, nice summary.

    I would not be suprised if a trade happens. They have some extra players on D who must clear waivers, and some young people they’d want to keep. So you might see someone traded.

    Watching Smith thus far, I think he stays with the big club, making the first four spots filled as you delineated them. McQuaid and DeAngelo fill the next two spots. I think they will only carry 7 defensemen. I am hoping Pionk is chosen for the final spot, but because Claesson needs to clear waivers, he might end up with the squad barring a trade happens first.

    • You may be right, then again there’s no real reason why they can’t carry 8 d, 13 f and 2 g to start the season. In the past we’ve allowed the salary cap to in part determine the roster numbers, that is no longer an issue.

      • That is true Tanto, so you also might be right.

        My thinking was that they might want to carry 14 forwards because of all the kid forwards they have that they want to try out and get experience for during the season. But, what you say makes sense too.

        Still, a trade might happen and make the squeeze lessen a bit.

        • Trade is always possible, but generally it’s tough to make trades the last week of camp and in the first 15-20 games of the season. I hear you about the forwards, then again a lot of the young kids can just be sent down to Hartford without having to clear waivers … that and some of the older guys like Holland, Cole Schneider, etc. who will more than likely clear waivers. I’m just guessing there’s a lot more flexibility up front.

      • There is a second reason not to carry too many players. You want guys to play and not just sit on the bench. A 13th forward and seventh defenseman are good to have in reserve in case of illness or injury and it is nice to get them in the game sometimes, but when you carry eight defensemen and mostly play the six best, you have two guys twiddling their thumbs. I want to see seven dmen in NY and seven in Hartford, with one or two traded so we don’t need to send Day and/or Crawley to Maine.

        • That would be the optimal solution to the issue, unfortunately every team thinks they’re hot stuff after they break from training camp — until the reality sets in after 10-20 games. It’s rare to see a team make a trade and give up assets during that time frame when they can normally just pick up these seemingly marginal players on waivers.

  • It might come down to who fits the roles we require. I thought ADA was on the outside looking in, but if you run a 1-3-1 PP, then he is one of the PP quarterbacks you need. I am thinking we only carry 7 defenseman. Stall, Shatty, Smith, Skjei, ADA, Pionk and McQuaid as the 7th.

  • Excellent analysis Dave.

    I do think the battle for spots is something of an illusion. I believe the Rangers are planning to begin with Shattenkirk, Staal, Skjei, Smith, McQuaid, DeAngelo, and Claesson. (Pionk lost his spot with the McQuaid trade.). That being said, the camp may change some minds. If DeAngelo shows he can’t cut it, the Rangers will try to trade him and that may necessitate carrying eight defensemen until the trade can be made. If the kids emerge, a Claesson trade may also be desirable.

    Barring injury, the Rangers actually have too many defensemen in the system. Even assuming they send Pedrie to Maine, the Rangers will have fifteen signed defensemen and that is too many to play on two teams. I expect them to deal someone.

  • It was fun watching the game last night, loved the pushback by our guys. I think Brendon Smith is legitimately hungry to get back to the NHL. I don’t have the metrics that might back this up but, I think Smith’s demise last year was compounded by AV’s/Ruff’s insistence that he play the right side much of the time. Keep him on the left side we can use his grit and nastiness.

    • Smith only has himself to blame. He came to camp last year way out of shape and never got back on track. His season in Hartford ended with a fight against Vinny Letteri. His wheels came off. I am sure AV was no help. That said his conditioning and attitude are on him. He played on the right with Skeji(on the left) in the play offs in 2017 and was great. They were arguably the best D pair we had that play off year. That was why AV played Staal/ Holden over them late in just about every game.

      The good news is, bad conditioning and bad attitude can be fixed. And he looks like he’s worked on both of those points a lot over the summer.

  • I see Poink and Gilmore being sent down to allow Delangelo to show what hes got. If he disappoints then my pick is the highly skilled and smart with the puck Poink who should be the first call up.

  • I do not see Pionk or Gilmour on the team right now unless there is a trade. I think Gilmour is someone that will be moved. Hartford is going to have too many defensemen. ADA will likely be the only prospect to play unless there is an injury or trade that makes room for Pionk. Hopefully thet unload at least 3 D at the deadline to clear the way for some guys that should be ready next year( and not as the 7th D.

    • Quinn wants “guys that are hard to play against” so O’Gara(didn’t look bad) Smith & McQuaid are going to have to play themselves off the roster

      Gilmour already contracted like he’s the emergency callup with his minor league salary.

      Pionk on the outside looking in as he’s only sorta hard to play against.

      ADA’s job is wholly dependent on how he runs the 1-3-1 compared to Shatty. Didn’t look good at it the 1st game, didn’t get to see last night but going back to the hotel in a bit to watch it.

      Everybody who is waiver exempt is gonna have to play like a champ to jump ahead.

  • Assuming they play well what kind of pick do you think we could get for these guys at the deadline?

    Smith – 2
    McQuaid – 3
    Spooner – 2
    Zuc – 1/2
    Names -2
    Hayes -1/2
    Shatty 1 Plus
    Zib – 1
    Krieder – 1

    • While intriguing to think about, I’m not sure we can gauge that at all until the market takes shape and we get to that point. Just for one example, last season there didn’t appear to be high demand for a playmaking winger like Zucc, based on the assumption that he would have been traded if a decent package came along. However, before the season, we might have assumed there would be definitely demand for a player of his caliber come deadline time.

  • Right D Left D
    1st Pair Shattenkirk Skjei
    2nd Pair A. DeAngelo M. Staal
    3rd Pair McQuaid B. Smith

    7th D Cleasson

    Pionk is demotable albeit a much better player with a much higher ceiling but Cleasson has guaranteed money to be the spare tire. And will except and excel in his role much easier then pionk. Do you see a decision there? My only questionable player is ADA but he is right handed and everyone just saw what we paid for McQuaid(right handed d man) so again where is there a decision?

    These are the starting pairs as long as no one gets seriously injured. The real battle is with our forwards. Who is taking the 3rd and 4th center position and who will be a winger come 10 or 20 games in. The 2 kids chytil and andersson will make it but their playing time will depend on how they fair during their limited opportunities.

    So again where is this battle for a D spot? ADA isn’t going anywhere unless we are offered a idiotic trade for him. And if he can’t beat out pionk who is really going to offer anything for him. This FO is going to live or die by that trade. Lets be honest ..they are just going to live. And make us, as fans, pay for it. Cause Dolan isn’t firing anyone.

    • No way McQuaid and Smith are on same pair. That makes no sense unless the Hanson brothers from the Chiefs are rolled out there for a shift. I want Skjei to focus on offense and he can best do that with a defensive defensemen as a partner. Either of them will play with Shattenkirk. Skjei should be with the other. DeAngelo will by paired with Staal and carefully placed on the ice. I know! It’s not pretty!

  • Quick has given up 6 goals on 22 shots vs Vegas tonight. I wonder if the Kings fans are freaking out over his preseason form yet…?

  • The core of the team is going to be in a state of flux for the next few seasons. It’s going to exhaust our patience and be thrilling to watch simultaneously. Some prospects will rise to the top, others will fade away. Some will be dealt from a position of strength.

    Of all the prospects on the Left D, I like Hajek, Rykov, and Miller. Rykov should prove well being that he is playing in the KHL now. On the right D, we really only have Pionk, DeAngelo, and Lundvist. Every other D prospect not listed is a left side d man. We certainly could use more on the right side, but we have a good start.

    At center we are stacked… Chytil, Anderson , and Howden… on the wing we have Kravtsov only worth noting in propspects… could use much more..

    In goal we have Shestorkin and Georgiev leading the way

    I expect a couple trades over the next two seasons that will make room for roster spots for some of these prospects while strengthening some areas of weakness.

    Whatever happens it’s going to be fun…


    • You certainly don’t need to field a future team just from prospects. Guys like Buchnevich will be around for another 5 years at least … we’re not even close to being a veteran team as is, guys like Namestnikov and Spooner are still young, by the time our prospects are in the mid 20’s we will have drafted/traded for another 50 players.

  • Skjei Shattenkirk
    Staal Pionk
    Smith McQuaid

    Claesson DeAngelo

    The fight for the last spot is between Pionk and DeAngelo…. Pionk is better….

    • Agree with everything you said. We will need to keep DeAngelo though since we would lose him for nothing on waivers. We may need to start the season with 8 defenseman

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