The Rangers made a minor move yesterday, re-signing RFA defenseman Zac Jones to a 2 year contract. While re-signing him may not have been a surprise, the timing and duration may have been. The Zac Jones contract shows faith by the Rangers that they have a plan for the defenseman, even if he wasn’t an NHL thought last season. Next season should be different, especially with a different coach that focuses more on structure.
1. Again, systems matter. It’s something we will always preach here, even if it gets disregarded by many. Peter Laviolette isn’t like Gerard Gallant, and he may not want a slow and steady third pair. That slow and steady desire was solely Gallant, and it hindered the Rangers’ ability to have consistent and successful zone exits. Naturally, Jones addresses the puck mover need, and it looks like his defense in the AHL got better.
The #NYR signed RFA Zac Jones to a 2 x $812K AAV contract.
Jones, 22, was one of the best puck-moving LHD in the #AHL this season.
He excels at breaking pucks out of the D-zone, thanks to his vision & passing ability.
Could see him carve out a role on the Rangers PP2 unit. pic.twitter.com/rwSqh5G7qe
— Jacob Stoller (@JLStoller) June 16, 2023
Jones’ defense was the main reason why Gallant sent him down, and while things need to be taken with a grain of salt, it looks like he had a major improvement in the AHL. Either that or he was too good for the AHL and needs that next level to make more improvements. Jones drove play well, played well on the powerplay, and was fantastic on defense.
The only “concerns” are on hits and blocks, which are certainly necessary but wildly overrated.
3. Defense isn’t totally about blocking shots and delivering hits. After all, people lambasted Jacob Trouba’s defensive play, and he was the team leader in both hits and blocks last season. So if you want to make an argument that Jones is soft and can’t play defense, but also make the argument that Trouba is horrible defensively, then pick a lane. Jones’ positioning and puck control is why he’s in the 99th percentile in xGA.
4. That puck control is a huge need for the Rangers. Outside of Adam Fox, they don’t have a single consistent puck mover. K’Andre Miller may wind up as another one, and he has certainly shown flashes, but he’s not there yet. Jones appears to be there. The fact that the Zac Jones contract is two years means this wasn’t just a “show me” deal or a contract designed to get him traded. He likely has the inside track to the 3LD spot now.
Remember: The rumors are that Gallant and Chris Drury disagreed on Jones. Gallant didn’t want him, and Drury thought he was necessary. Just rumors, but it’s been reported in a few places. This also drove the Jones trade rumors and our feelings here that Matthew Robertson had the inside track. Amazing what a new coach does for roster outlook.
5. The major issue, aside from zone exits, was puck possession. Laviolette’s structure calls for getting the defense involved in the breakouts and zone exits, to which Jones addresses. It also calls for the defense to be more involved offensively, something else Jones addresses. He’s not Fox, not by a long shot, but his skill set is exactly what the Rangers need right now. Plus, he’s under $1 million, making him a cheap in-house option.
6. It’s easy to think that the Zac Jones contract won’t matter, and Ben Harpur will get the 3LD spot. Under Gallant, I’d say that was likely true. Under Laviolette, I don’t think it is. Given the structure, emphasis on including the defense, and the key weaknesses this team showed, Jones is the only cheap player that addresses these needs. He’s also more NHL ready than Robertson, even if that is relatively subjective.
Also worth noting that given the expected limited increase in the salary cap ceiling, the Zac Jones contract fills a fourth need: Cheap bodies that can play at the NHL level. And no, Ben Harpur doesn’t count.
7. What will be interesting to watch is how Jones is deployed. He and Braden Schneider were mostly shackled with the Rangers’ fourth line at the time (Dryden Hunt, Ryan Reaves, Ryan Carpenter, Sammy Blais, Julien Gauthier).