What’s The Worst That Could Happen – The Defense

This is the second installation (Part 1) in a series I’m doing where I explore potential missteps that the Rangers could make on their attempt to build another contender, and how we might survive them should they come to pass. The point here is to find silver linings, dissect pitfalls that might arise, and stoke a sense of imagination that’s a little bit hopeful and a little bit morose. It’ll all be fine, but it’s worth humoring the thought. This one is going to hit a little bit close to home, as it has to do with repeating the mistakes of the past, the kind of stuff that helped hamstring a dynasty-in-the-making. But maybe it’ll be fine!

Do you guys remember the early 2010s? It was a long time ago, and I am very young, so I actually don’t. My understanding though, based on a cursory reading of history is that the Rangers picked Dan Boyle over Anton Stralman, and this was widely regarded as the beginning of the end of our stellar defensive corps. I’m going to offer a different conceptualization of what went wrong there though, because I think it’s worth considering how maybe things were actually different than they seem in the most obvious light and actually hurt our team even more than one might think.

My thesis is basically this: we didn’t pick Boyle over Stralman, we picked him over one of Dan Girardi (or Sami Vatanen – hey Dave) and Marc Staal. If we had picked just one of those currently-understood-as-bad defenseman, or even pulled the trigger on the widely rumored Girardi/Vatanen swap, then we may have just won a Cup or two. Instead we got tunnel vision and terrible contracts. Allow me to explain.

When giving out big contracts, especially when you can only give out a few of the ones you’d like to give out, choosing two of three guys or something along those lines, you’ve got to have perspective. It was the talk of the town for a little bit – who was going to get traded to avoid an impending cap crunch, who was going to stay and form the backbone of a team that was sure to be contending for years to come. Everyone, including Dave himself (sorry Dave) saw the Girardi deal as a necessary evil, one that would only look bad at the tail end of it. And hey, we didn’t give Ryan Callahan $8m a year like he wanted right?

The problem is that we had Anton Stralman coming into his own as one of the best subtle breakout defensemen in the league. Somehow we didn’t see it coming that he’d want to stick around, somehow we figured we could give out giant contracts for d-men and have it all. Somehow, something went wrong. By the time his contract negotiations came up we didn’t even keep in contact with him, because only then did the front office realize they simply didn’t have the cash. So, the story goes, we went for a cheaper, older version of him on a short-term deal and got a dud.

Except Dan Boyle wasn’t really a dud, he just wasn’t Stralman, or the old Dan Boyle. He was in a bit over his head, and could have been great on a team with say, Anton Stralman, Ryan McDonagh, and Sami Vatenen. Actually it was only one of those guys, and two rapidly-declining backstops who would be sticking around quite a while. How could we have made that all happen though? Simple enough, just have a dang chart on a whiteboard or excel spreadsheet or something. I mean hell, CapFriendly has these charts laid right out for ya! If only we’d have known, and didn’t succumb to basic cognitive biases and emotional attachments.

Which is one of the biggest traps we might fall into this time, and it’s rapidly approaching. Anybody heard of Neal Pionk? What about Tony DeAngelo? K’Andre Miller, Nils Lundkvist? Well we’re not going to be able to retain all of them, and this time hopefully Gorton is a bit more aware of that, having learned from the mistakes of the past. What I’m deeply concerned is we’re going to get to a point down the line where it’s a choice between Miller and Lundkvist, and we all go back and forth and argue who should get traded and who should get the money truck in their driveway, and then we’ll only wind up with one of them when we could have both. The narrative will be that we can only have one though, but that just won’t be true. The problem is actually Pionk.

He makes some nice highlight-reel plays, but we all know he’s sneaky bad right? Don’t be fooled by the end-to-ends, because he makes silly mistakes on the regular at a rate that far outpaces his smarter plays (compare with DeAngelo, who makes excellent moves and the occasional blooper, but in a solid ratio). In other words he’s a prime candidate for The Bad Contract. He might just get a five, six, or seven-year deal at what might seem like a reasonable AAV, until one or two years from now it’s readily apparent that he’s our version of Nikita Zaitsev. The narrative will be that it’ll only look bad towards the end of the term, that he’s totally serviceable in the right role, that guys like him don’t grow on trees, and so on. Reminding anyone of a certain number 5 yet?

Well it gets worse! Then, several years down the line, we’ve got a beauty of a false choice set up between K’Andre and Nils, and we could even add a dash of expiring-bridge-deal to that! Not only might we wind up with Pionk’s future contract tying up space and time and a significant roster spot, forcing a bad decision, but it’s not unlikely that if Pionk gets the bag then DeAngelo doesn’t. He might just get a shorter-term “show me” deal, and it might just be expiring at the time we want to retain both of our 2018 first-rounders, only to realize we can’t. That’s make it a “pick two, but maybe only one, out of three” rather than a “let’s have our cake and eat it too” kind of situation, and that’d be the marginal loss that will prevent us from a dynastic run, even if we do get close.

I’ll be happy to eat my words on this of course, but unfortunately I can see it coming. It’s easily preventable though, and I’ll tell you how: make a damn spreadsheet. Look at things in terms of the big picture. Trade when you’re at an impasse and keep reloading, but also know where your talent is and where it’s just smoke and mirrors. If Gorton has a little self-awareness we could really have something special, a Nashville-esque blueline to backstop an elite forward group on the way to some excellent playoff runs. Or, we could have the 2010-2018 D corps all over again. That’d be bad I think, and the upshot is we simply don’t have to repeat the same old mistakes. It doesn’t have to be farce, or even tragedy. It can be some sweet sweet cross-ice passes and excellent breakouts for the better part of a decade, instead of 5×5’s worth of blown coverage and poor gap control. Gorton, make smart decisions, I believe in you.

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  • There are lots of Pionk type defenceman in the AHL. Small, skilled and defencelessly inept. If the Rangers are building their Blueline on his shoulders they are in trouble.

    DeAngelo and Skjei and equally skilled but more robust and better in their own end of the ice.

    We only seen so far glimpses of Hajek and the rest of the newbie Dmen. I was hoping Lindgren and maybe even Gilmore get brought up to the show and get some more NHL experience…but so far it’s not to be.

  • So who are the 3 you protect and how do you insulate the ones you have to expose?

    For now, it’s Skjei, ADA & Hajek to protect.

    How to protect? Dangle a little bait.

    Sign Pionk to a front loaded bonus driven contract now where bonuses are over before the expansion draft and make him available. Maybe he progresses, but between last year and this, I doubt it.

    For somebody like Day, give him a 1 way qualifying offer, but bonus the shit out of the 1st year while diving on paragraph 1 to make for a bit of a poison pill.

  • We lead the league in undersized. middle pair defensemen. We may need to blow this up a bit. Play two rookies, trade Pionk or Smith or Shatty. Make Staal a 7th defenseman and tell Claesson thanks but no thanks. We will not be better going into next season with 6 of the same 7 defensemen. Either we try to make a trade for a bigtime defensemen or change out Ruff and the system. Someone needs to look at the details and understand that all these 1 goal games (losses) is as much about poor defense as it is about lack of elite offensive talent.

    With the picks we acquired, we should have a better pool of resources in 2 years. Add a young stud on both sides of the blueline and we may be a better team.

    Side Note – Is it me or do we have 10 bottom 6 forwards? We need to add top 6 talent if we want to contend in the near future.

    • They don’t really want to before the expansion draft.

      They can sign some 30yr old UFAs to fill holes for top 6, guys like Panarin(who would be a good add if you’re trying to win right now) currently don’t make sense.

      But with that D, you can’t win right now or in the near future. After this year, two more just like it unless retaining salary via dump off trade or Ottawa needs to hit the floor.

      • Did you see that McKenzie said the Rangers will line up bags of money for Panarin this offseason? And that the interest is mutual. I wonder if Dolan (Sather) will push this one, if true.

        • The write that crap every year and it used to be valid.

          Then someone actually talked to Gorton and at least that writer understands what’s going on. *If* a player is available and *if* he’s a good fit and *if* there’s a hole in the lineup “down the road” *then* they’ll look to pull the trigger.

          Until then, they’re going to limp along with this D unless they can swing a deal to get a player out.

          Shatty may have the least ugly stats, but he’s also going against bottom 6 units

    • I’m not sure of what your definition of the “near future” is, but if it means the next 2 years, forget about it. The Rangers should continue along on the path. This is a rebuild, they said so, it doesn’t happen overnight. Then go out and add to the kids we have. Now and next year is too early to add elite talent via FA to the mix. Let’s see where the kids take us then we will have a better idea of where to add that elite talent. Quite frankly, I believe that at least one, maybe a few, of our kids can be elite talents and join Zib in that area. Let’s make sure we get the elites where we need them and not duplicate because we don’t want to wait for the kids. Patience people, patience, that’s what’s needed.

  • The decisions made by this FO since our AV-led loss to Ottawa are remarkable. Either way I fully expect them to give some demented deal to Pionk (one of the worst defenders in the league) and then buy-out Shatt.

    It’s really hard to see a path to success in the short and medium term when you have a bottom-5 FO leading the rebuild.

  • If things go right Pionk should be traded regardless.I think the key with the future of the D is to project who will be on the team and when they will arrive. I also think it’s fair to say from end of this season, it’s going to be 2 to 3 more seasons before Miller and/or Lundkvist. We also have the problem of Smith, Staal and Shatty taking up rooster and cap($16.7mill) space for the next 2 seasons. Other than Sjeki, ADA and Hajek it’s fair to say the rest won’t be around to see better times.

    Skeji is already signed. We need to sign ADA to more than a bridge deal this year. Hajek is on an entry level contract through 20-21 season. Next is Rykov. Does he come over next year? I think we all hope yes. So if he comes over and signs a max entry level contract at $925K for 3 years he’ll be set until 22-23. Now let’s say Lundkvist comes over in 21-22, his entry level contract will last for 3 years. At that point Skeji’s contract will be expiring(23-24) Let’s say Miller finishes college and comes in 22-23. Then he has 3 years on an entry level deal. So it will likely be somewhere around 24-25 or 25-26 when these guys will start to get paid. Hank’s contract also expires the same time as the 3 S’s, so the available cap space increases to $25.2. Now factor in cap increase and let’s assume it’s $3mill per season. If we use the $79.5 mill for 2018-19. It will be 6 seasons before we have to really start paying up again. so let’s add $18 mill to the available cap space, from cap increase, and now we have close to $40 mill in open cap space. Finally I think they will make a hard push for Adam Fox if he goes UFA in August 2020. so we can have Rykov in 19-20, Fox in 20-21, Lundkvist in 21-22 and Miller in 22-23. They may slip. We may get Rykov and Fox in 20-21. Maybe Miller and Lundkvist in 21-22. Either way, we will add these D men over time. So we can spread out the cap hits and they can easily correspond with Sjeki’s contract expiring. Our left side can be Skjei, Miller , Hajek or Rykov our right side is Fox, Lundkvist and ADA.

    The one thing that would screw this up is if they sign Karlsson as a UFA. Considering what our future can look like, let’s hope they don’t. Obviously a lot of other players will need to be signed, but if we mange the cap reasonably well, resigning Miller and Lundkvist should not be an issue.

    • Can’t believe they would do that, maybe if it was a couple of years ago before the rebuild and with Hank playing another 4-5 years, but at this point it’s way too risky given his injury history.

      • I’m hoping they won’t either Tanto. It does make me nervous when I hear things like Bob McKenzie talking about us jump starting the rebuild. But agree he’s way to risky to sign here.

        • Panarin maybe, although I would be loath to go over $10m and 6 years … and if he asks for a full no trade/movement
          clause for the duration of the contract, I have to pass and hope that Chytil, our next 1st rounder and/or Kravtsov become elite players. I would have to be real comfortable that in 2-3 years we could be good enough to win a SC with Panarin and I’m not comfortable (yet). Tough call, especially with the Islanders and Florida in the mix to drive the price UP.

          • I gave you thumbs down tango, because of the maybe on Panarin. A hard NO is the only answer

          • Ok, I returned the favor because …. never say never. Of course sometimes the answer might be never, like do we want to resign McQuaid, but it’s circumstances that dictate answers. We (the fans) haven’t had an opportunity to fully gauge them just yet (what’s his known habits, medical history, strength and conditioning routines, drive, etc. Even with that info in tow we still don’t know what’s the “ask”, how many years, what conditions and at what salary. Of course I’m leaning towards NO based on rumors propagated in the media, but I’m also willing to leave the door slightly ajar until those rumors are proven false or true.

          • Fair enough. but I just look at his age and cost in relation to when the Ranger will be able to compete. To me, just doesn’t seem like a fit. The other factors you mention are mute. IMHO

  • Based on the Rangers defensive choices the last 7 years it is very clear that we should expect the worst case scenario to happen. I know people will harp on me for being pessimistic, but the amount of defensive talent we have let walk out the door with little to no return to show for it is disgraceful. The worst part about all of this is that we did not want to pay Yandle or Mcd, but then gave shatt 6.3, smith 4.5 and skjei 5. We let up 2 all star players for garbage and now everyone is crying about our defense. Oh lest we forget we let stralman walk for nothing.

    My feeling now after that recent brooks article is that Shatt will be bought out, Staal will continue to play top pair minutes, pionk will get a sizeable extension, claesson will walk and they will retain money to move smith. Skjei will stay. I think Tony D will come back on a good deal but given Quinns comments yesterday who knows if he returns. Then they will pay huge money for Karlsson.

    What SHOULD happen, is that Shatt should remain, Tony D should remain, Smith traded with a second or third to limit retain money, Staal bought out, Keandre brought up, Claesson retained, Gilmour brought up, Pionk traded, Hajek on the team and then you can sign Karlsson but i am not in love with signing karlsson given his injury history. Even so, id rather go with a young, very cheap defense then the absolute garbage we have paid for for the past half decade.

    The issue is that I have no idea if Quinn and management play Staal/Pionk together cause they actually thinks they are good together or whether they are secretly trying to tank. There is no statistic, eye test or any form of test that shows those 2 are good together. It is scary that he continues to use them but it has put us in a position to get a top 7 pick. Time will tell, but it is clear that Sather and Gorton do not know what make good defensemen and we should all keep our expectations in check this summer

    • Don’t listen to Brooks, there’s 0 reason to buy him out this summer and Brooks makes crap up half the time depending on how he feels the morning after.

  • We used to be old and slow, now we are defenseless and fast. I would have rather had more kids play so we can blame it on youth and not just piss-poor play. DOOMED!

  • Pat- to add a couple of transactions which contributed to the demise of the Rangers Blueline. 1. Michael Sauer: Sauer was just starting his second season in 2010, he was becoming a really solid top 4 defensive man. He had good gap control, phyisical with and without the puck, would defend the crease, would fight as needed, and could match up against teams top lines. MSG- December game against the Leafs suffers a career ending concussion. I truly feel if Sauer was a Ranger in the 2014 season, he would have been playing against the LA Kings top lines and fared better than Dan Girardi did.

    2. Glen Sather: This is on the decision making of Glen Sather. Glen always had a list of players that if he could get would, Dan Boyle was one of them, he let Stralman walk who in his last season, if you listen to Ranger games on the radio, Mr. Dave Maloney would praise Stralman play every game. The small details and quiet plays Stralman would make in the defensive zone, But Sather did not care and had to sign a 39 year old Defensive man in Dan Boyle.

    3. Glen Sather trade for Keith Yandle: Glen’s continuing of trading first and second round picks. Yandle was a PP specialist and a good skater but Coach AV had no clue what to do with Yandle, Yandle strength was on the PP and it took AV at least 45 games or so to begin playing Yandle on the PP unit #1.

    4. Trading away four-straight years of first round picks from 2013 through 2016: Defensive prospects the Rangers could have potential selected in the mid to late first round ( projecting where the Rangers would have been slotted based off their season records), 2013: Shea Theodore-D, 2014: Marcus Petterson or Brandon Montour ( late first or move up in second round in 2014), 2015: Rangers would have had I believe the 30th pick which went to Arizona in the Yandle deal and Brandon Carlo was still on the board with that selection and even Christian Fischer- RW which is still a big need in the Rangers farm system. Lastly: 2016: this is the draft Gorton had two players on his radar :Clayton Keller and Jakob Chychrun, second round, Sam Girard was still around mid-second round, Coincidentally, Rangers obtain Libor Hajek and Ryan Lindgren from the 2016 draft both selected in the 2nd round. The Rangers did not get to select their draft choice until #81 (Sean Day). Another RW around in the second round if the Rangers had a pick was Alex Debrincat. Note- Gorton had no assets to use to move up in the draft hence why obtaining so many picks now is critical to future drafts.

    This is what I truly feel highly contributed to the Rangers current rebuild and this is due to Sather’s high risk actions of trading too many draft picks and signing free agent and re-signing the right players like Stralman and not giving long NTC contract to Girardi and Staal, especially when the NHL was moving more and more in the direction of the mobile defensive man. Sather in my opinion was behind everyone else, However, albeit I do have to give it to Sather to take a gamble and try to get a ring based upon the team Coach Tort built in the late 2000’s to early 2010’s.

  • A lot can happen in the next 2 years with our defense. In the first place Staal, Shattenkirk and Smith will all be on expiring contracts, no need to protect any of them. Miller, Keane and Lundkvist will be expansion exempt. Skjei’s contract will have 3 years left and a modified no trade clause will come into effect (right after the expansion draft). Pionk doesn’t get any type of no trade clause and at best you sign him to a bridge deal for 2 years.

    The logical thing to do would be to trade Skjei at the trade deadline 2 years (or earlier if you can) from now (assuming we have 3 guys on the left that we really like — thinking Miller, Hajek and maybe Lindgren …. again though, Miller is exempt …. on the right side it’s D’Angelo, Lundkvist and maybe Joey Keane (Lundkvist and Keane exempt). So trading Skjei and exposing Pionk at all costs makes a lot of sense and the 6 remaining have the possibility of being a damn good group. The only other thing we have to worry about on D’ is Day and maybe Crawley, let’s see how they develop.

  • If anyone cares, Kraftsov will not be released from his contract until May 1 from Traktor in Russia.

    • They did us a favor — although I can’t understand for the life of me why they wouldn’t. I just don’t see the upside on their part for making such a decision —- unless the Rangers’ FO asked them to take the fall so they could look blameless.

          • The best part about it was that they publicly said nothing, just that they delivered it to the GMs.

          • At the KHL meetings there was this: “Memorandum of Understanding of Contracts between the KHL and the NHL has been agreed, in line with KHL’s stated strategy. This agreement ensures that clubs in both leagues are increasingly protected from unauthorized transfers. The new Memorandum ensures that the decisions of the arbitration bodies in both leagues will now be recognized, as well as being assisted in their ongoing functions. This document also sets out the procedure for concluding future contracts with players who are currently under contract in either one of the Leagues.” Vague to say the least, but I still can’t imagine that the KHL would NOT allow a team to release a player at the end of his season. Guess we’ll have to file this one in the “who knows” category.

          • What’s The Worst That Could Happen – The Defense…..

            Jeff Gorton and the NY Rangers are pleased to announce the resigning of Defenseman Neal Pionk to a 5-year, $23.5mil contract with a full NMC.

      • I’ve argued before that sometimes that’s a blessing in disguise. The player may end up with a lesser cap hit by signing his 2nd contract earlier, perhaps just before he has a breakthrough playing-wise. Also his last contract with the team might end one year earlier than if the player didn’t burn an early ELC year — and often times it’s the last couple of years of a contract signed by a player in his late 20’s that teams come to regret.

        • …and if a frog had wings, he wouldn’t bump his ass when he hopped…

          I really like your commentary tango,usually agree, but recently it seems you went on vacation and asked your buddy to fill in for you and he is a Futbol guy

          • Not sure what the issue is with the above statement. It’s perfectly logical if you’re confident in your assessments. I for one don’t believe in the over reliance on bridge contracts. That’s what got us in trouble years ago along with a few poor UFA signings. There are plenty of teams that go out and buy a player’s free agency years cheap and early instead of waiting and waiting. We did that with Stepan and it ended up costing us $6.5m per year instead of $5-5.5m, we waited on Hayes, we wait and we wait. FOs need to have confidence in their conviction, buy the player off earlier rather than always waiting a year to late when the price 4 times out of 5 just goes UP.

            I rather lock up a player a year to soon than a year to late, the same principal seems to apply to trading players. Wait to long to trade a player and the asset’s value diminishes, wait to long to sign him long term and the good players will make you pay for your lack of conviction. You usually shouldn’t have to wait until a player is about to hit free agency, or a year before a player hits FA.

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