Rounding out the Rangers defense report cards, we have the rotating cavalry of 3LD/6D/7D players. For the most part this quartet of Libor Hajek, Zac Jones, Niko Mikkola, and Ben Harpur filled the role of the 6D for the Rangers, to varying degrees of success. This spot in the lineup was a black hole for the Rangers for the most part, which might be some foreshadowing in how these grades are going to go.
Zac Jones got the first crack at the lineup, lasting 16 games through the first 2 months of the season. Jones recorded a goal and an assist, both in the 6-3 win over Dallas. He wasn’t bad, but he wasn’t good enough to hold down a roster spot, at least according to Gerard Gallant. There was room to grow with his play away from the puck, something that didn’t mesh well with Gallant’s desire to have a low-event, defense only third pair.
What Jones lacked in play away from the puck he made up for with his play with the puck. This was expected, if you understood his style of play and skill set. He was never going to be a Ryan Lindgren, but he was a good enough complement to Braden Schneider that they deserved more time. Schneider was at his best with Jones, something we hope continues this season. Jones met expectations, at least to me.
As an aside, Jones is rumored to be one of the focal points of disagreement between Gallant and Chris Drury, for what it’s worth.
Niko Mikkola was viewed as a much needed acquisition with the Vladimir Tarasenko trade. After Jones was unable to hold a roster spot, that 6D spot was a rotation between Libor Hajek and Ben Harpur. Naturally Mikkola was an upgrade on both, but he and Schneider never really solidified that bottom pair, and it became a weak spot for teams like the Devils to exploit.
There will be a subset of people that call out Mikkola’s better numbers away from Schneider, which is a fair point. For context, this was when Ryan Lindgren was out and overlapped with K’Andre Miller’s suspension, so Mikkola was on the top pair with Adam Fox. At that point, Schneider was playing with Ben Harpur. Context matters.
Still, Mikkola was an upgrade on Harpur and Hajek, but not much of one. Perhaps that is because of the system and the expected role of the third pair, which handicapped the Rangers from the start.
Once Jones was sent to the AHL, Libor Hajek was the default 6D for a month or so. He spent October and November rotating with Jones, and then most of December as the “only” 6D. Hajek registered one goal in his 16 games, and faired much worse than Jones. It still irks me that Jones wasn’t allowed to work through his struggles, when Hajek had more struggles than Jones. But perhaps that’s why Gallant isn’t with the Rangers anymore.
But hey, he was a net positive in quality chances against? Positives!
Someone needs to tell me why Ben Harpur was not only signed, but given more than one year. Harpur was bad. Worse than Hajek bad. There’s not much else to it. This is why Mikkola looked so good, by comparison to Harpur.