How Bold is Too Bold to Fix the Rangers' D?

In a tweet on Wednesday morning, Larry Brooks prefaced his New York Post column, setting the stage to address the New York Rangers’ defense:

No, we didn’t all think that, Larry.

Not all of us, anyway. There’s a faction of us who recognized the fact that Kevin Shattenkirk, for all he brings to the power play, has never been successful as a top-pair defenseman and wasn’t necessarily going to be the answer on the right side. Even before the season began, there was no clear indication of who should partner with Ryan McDonagh to stymie top lines and that’s gotten worse as everyone except Marc Staal, interestingly enough, has regressed.

Maybe Steven Kampfer—who’s place in the lineup is LOL-bad—getting walked by Alex Tuch on Oscar Lindberg’s goal was the wake-up call this organization needed to realize that maybe, just maybe, the defense corps just isn’t good.

Mac looks tired and hasn’t come close to the Norris-worthy form he displayed in the 2014 Stanley Cup run. Brady Skjei hasn’t built on his stellar rookie season to take the next step forward, and Brendan Smith has largely looked hungover from his honeymoon, appearing years, not months, removed from his tough, bullish playoff performance. To round things out, Shattenkirk is still woefully deficient in his own zone, Anthony DeAngelo hasn’t earned any trust, and neither Nick Holden nor Kampfer has displayed any consistent NHL-quality defending.

Of course, this isn’t to say that there isn’t any blame to direct towards Vigneault. His system—especially his aversion to “off the boards and out” hockey—provides no mystery to opponents and makes it difficult for the back end to consistently make the first pass that Vigneault mandates. Opposing forecheckers have no fear of getting beaten along the boards and are comfortable in aggressively closing lanes rather than taking a more conservative retreat.

Regardless of whether it’s the system or the personnel that should carry the lion’s share of the blame, the prevailing thought is that something is going to happen. The fact that it’s hard to determine the cause of the defensive issues means anything is an option and there are no simple solutions.

“So there’s no question that something has to give with the Rangers at some point if the ship doesn’t turn,” Pierre LeBrun said. “Now whether Alain Vigneault and costing him his job, or a trade, obviously all bets are off if they don’t start winning.”

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman echoed a similar sentiment:

“The message was clear. The Rangers are ready to re-stock. Now comes the next question: How far will they go? My sense is they are honest about who they are. They’re not interested in the ‘dreaded middle.’… They want more. Picks and prospects, keep them coming.”

TSN’s Darren Dreger, too, noted that “It’s so difficult, like I said, to make a major transaction on anything meaningful, but a team like the New York Rangers seems to be at the top of the list for having a strong appetite to do something pretty bold.”

Define bold. A coaching change before Thanksgiving would certainly meet that criterion. Though not quite as bold as the Ivan Hlinka or Jacques Demers firings, the number of coaches who don’t get to December is small. If Jeff Gorton believes that the system is to blame or, more abstractly, that Vigneault has a hand in the team’s slow starts and lack of compete, then a change behind the bench might be the move. Perhaps Lindy Ruff, who had a lot of success with similarly built Sabres teams in the mid-aughts, could give this iteration of the Rangers a kick in the pants?

At this point, considering the rarity of firing a coach so early in the season, the more likely move is a trade. Chris Kreider’s name has been kicked around but he’s probably the closest thing the Rangers have to untouchable. Along with Pavel Buchnevich and Mika Zibanejad, the return for Kreider is unlikely to match the value he gives this team.

If Friedman is right and the Rangers want picks and don’t want any part of the “dreaded middle,” then moving a back-end piece, ironically, might be the play. No matter how untouchable the KZB line may be, New York’s most valuable pieces are Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei as both would fetch massive returns. Maybe the answer to the woefully deficient defense is actually to just tear the whole thing down. That would also qualify as bold.

Depending on which way this team wants to move, trading one of Mac or Skjei could make sense. If Gorton is set on making a move for the future, then does he consider trading the captain? If he wants to win now, does flipping Skjei for another top center help?

Without a doubt, McDonagh would net an enormous return and expedite a rebuild like no other player on this team. Plus, he’s going to get awfully expensive after next season and we’d have to expect the Rangers to compensate a bit for the team-friendly deal he signed in 2013. The market would be prime for McDonagh and Toronto makes sense in a swap for, say, Mitch Marner. There could be value in bringing back a young middle-six scorer as well as a top-flight D prospect. The risk in moving Mac is that, even though he’s a #1D in the way that Stepan was a #1C, the Rangers don’t have a prospect ready to take the reigns and there’s no guarantee that they’ll be able to find another one. That would become a focal point of the rebuild.

If Gorton accepts just draft picks in exchange for his best trade chip, coupled with dealing Rick Nash at the deadline, the Rangers could easily have five first-round picks in the next two years to couple with Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil. That’s a strong start to a rebuild, especially with a lot of pieces already in place. And let’s not forget that, even though the context was different, the last time the Rangers traded a captain, they made it to the Cup Final.

A month ago, moving Skjei would have been blasphemous. There were more questions about what it would cost to extend him than whether or not he had a future as a Ranger. But, unequivocally, his play has slipped. He hasn’t taken the next step as a 1b option on the left side and the playmaking he showed last year has been minimal. There have been glimpses, particularly against Vegas, but Skjei’s body of work this year hasn’t been impressive.

Despite that, he’s still got a high ceiling and there’s no doubt that he could land a piece like Seth Jones and Adam Larsson did. Is Matt Duchene young enough to be an improvement now and part of a rebuild? Does Colorado have an appetite for moving Tyson Jost if they think Skjei can be a top-pair guy? There are dozens of options that make sense and, like McDonagh, Gorton could accept draft picks (though fewer) and further expedite a truer rebuild. Skjei can be part of the core moving forward, but if he’s not a building block, then being bold and selling high now would make a lot of sense.

For the record, neither player should be traded, but these are the discussions that happen when teams follow up a so-so playoff performance with a sluggish start. Mac is young enough to still be productive after a 2-3 year rebuild period and is a smart enough player that he’ll be able to play 20:00 a night when he’s 33. Skjei could also be going through a sophomore slump and could flip the switch at any moment. There’s certainly a case to be made for keeping them around.

But if Jeff Gorton wants to be bold and tear down a failing defense, moving McDonagh and/or Skjei might be the play. Though the optics of dealing young, productive blueliners seems backward, such a play might be his best shot at reinventing the defense and remedying a problem that many of us saw coming, even if Brooks’ revisionist history says otherwise.

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