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.