The NY Rangers made news yesterday in one of the worst ways, from a hockey perspective, with the Ben Harpur signing. Widely ridiculed by many, it may have been a slight overreaction by some, but it is still a move that should bring scrutiny to the decision making process in New York. It’s not worth losing sleep over spare part signings, even if they are puzzling, but it does send a message about how Chris Drury (and James Dolan) want the team built. As per usual, I have some thoughts.
As an aside: I apologize for the click-baity title here and going forward. Unfortunately it’s how Google wants it, and I need to play the game. The content is still the same, just different titles going forward.
1. First things first regarding the Ben Harpur signing, it’s not worth getting upset over the specific player. Two years is silly, and I think we all agree on that. You don’t give multi year contracts to spare parts and 7th defensemen. Harpur is just that. But it’s also league minimum and easily buried in Hartford if/when that time comes. It’s horrible decision making process, but it’s depth players.
It’s both a bad process move and a ‘whatever, it’s depth’ move. Whatever that means.
2. One of the more interesting quotes came from Mollie Walker, that of all the defensemen tried with Braden Schneider, the Rangers liked Harpur the best.
Just landed in NY and I see #NYR signed D Ben Harpur to a two-year contract extension through 2024-25. Deal is for 775K AAV (NHL minimum goes from 750K to 775K next year)
Of the D they’ve seen next to Braden Schneider this season, Harpur quickly became the favorite.
— Mollie Walker (@MollieeWalkerr) January 26, 2023
It’s certainly a troubling quote from a player evaluation and development standpoint. Objectively, both Harpur and Libor Hajek are bad defensemen. There aren’t many that will argue otherwise.
Funny enough, Harpur has worse numbers than Hajek. I’d also argue Hajek is a better skater. Both make the same defensive mistakes. But both play a low-event, defense first style, which is what Gerard Gallant wants on his bottom pair. The problem here is the Rangers know what they want, and have actively avoided finding an actual good defenseman that can do this.
3. On the ice, the Rangers need to have a better third pair. True Stanley Cup teams have six viable defensemen. Harpur and Hajek may be league minimum deals, but they are not the answer for regular 12-15 minute games, especially in the playoffs. That’s one of the main problems with the Ben Harpur signing: It doesn’t address an actual need. And in doing so, the Rangers send a message that they like him in his current role, which is poor player evaluation.
4. That message is being received by someone like Zac Jones, who is one of those defenseman mentioned in Mollie’s quote above. Jones, who is likely the most impacted by the Ben Harpur signing, will see this multi year contract, the log jam on left defense, and his lack of true opportunity as a statement of his standing in the organization. He, like Nils Lundkvist, will be traded before next season starts. However unlike Lundkvist, his spot isn’t being blocked by Adam Fox. It’s being blocked by bad NHLers.
(Yes, you can argue about Trouba and Schneider in the Lundkvist situation, and they are fair and valid discussion points. To me, it was really Fox turning into Fox that made Lundkvist expendable.)
5. Jones being a trade asset isn’t something new, mind you. There are some real concerns about his play without the puck. He makes great passes, but given what we know Gallant wants in that bottom pair, Jones isn’t that guy. The lack of focus on actual player development aside for a moment, Jones isn’t supplanting Ryan Lindgren or K’Andre Miller in the top four. Thus, based on what Gallant wants on that bottom pair, he’s expendable.
6. Which brings us to Matthew Robertson, whom I believe is the ideal 6D for Gallant and the bottom pair. A good skater, good with the puck, and a defense first player, Robertson fits that profile of low event and defensively responsible. The Ben Harpur signing is likely just a stopgap until Robertson is ready, if he ever is. We will know by next training camp if he’s going to be a viable asset. He will be 22 by then, so he needs to make an impression.
This also works if Schneider winds up replacing Jacob Trouba on the second pair.
But what if Robertson never becomes an option? Are we stuck with Harpur on the bottom pair for the next two years?
7. So what does the Ben Harpur signing truly mean? Well, it’s a loaded question:
- The Rangers didn’t like Jones or Hajek in that role, so they chose, in their eyes, the lesser of 3 evils.
- Two years is too long for a 7D, let alone a bad one. But it’s at league minimum. Maybe he can help Hartford?
- Jones is trade bait.
- The Hajek experiment may finally come to an end.
- The Rangers are bad at making bottom of the lineup decisions.
- It’s a depth signing that may not be worth losing sleep over.
- Decision making processes are certainly under fire with Chris Drury.
All of these are true, which is why the Ben Harpur signing is such a weird one. It’s not a big deal, but it is a big deal. This is not a well run franchise right now.