The Rangers' Defense is Not a Concern...Yet

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David Rogers

Editor-in-Chief at Cleared for Contact
Writer, photographer and a lifelong New York Rangers hockey fan.
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Let’s overreact for a second. New York Rangers’ Head Coach Alain Vigneault has already wrecked the team’s season by stapling young offensive-defenseman—and the only return left on the roster from the disastrous Stepan/Raanta to Arizona trade—Anthony “Call me Tony” DeAngelo to the press box right next to last season’s trade deadline deal revelation Brendan Smith. The coach did this in favor of putting Nick Holden and Steven Kampfer in the lineup. He has elevated Marc Staal to the top pair to replace the overused, now bought out, defenseman Dan Girardi while shifting team captain Ryan McDonagh to his unnatural right side. AV hates you, me, winning, the Rangers and America (seriously, I think I saw him kneeling during the National Anthem the other night).

OK, now that we’ve gotten the hyperbole out of our systems, let’s consider what got us here. The Rangers’ opened the season against last year’s comically worst team in the league, the Colorado Avalanche. What should have amounted to a gimme win and perhaps an audition for maligned Avs center Matt Duchene began to unravel just minutes into the first period. Only two things in the game went right. Duchene gave a stirring performance at the center position, scoring a goal just five minutes into the game and derailing the Rangers’ season before it had a chance to begin (sorry, I know I said I was done with the hyperbole). Oh, and Mika Zibanejad laid claim to the number-one center position by scoring two power-play goals. What went wrong was that the Kevin Shattenkirk and Ryan McDonagh experiment was clearly over. Both were a minus-3 in the game.

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AV would give the pair another period together against Toronto in the next game, however, the Rangers’ would begin the second period of that game down 5-2, and AV had seen enough of his two of his highest paid defenseman playing together at even strength. Marc Staal was moved up to the top pair while Shattenkirk dropped down to play with Brady Skjei. Meanwhile, Smith and DeAngelo would see their ice time plummet. Neither Smith nor DeAngelo played an inspired game. Both had their share of mishaps and poor decisions with and without the puck. Both of the defenders’ play was worthy of reduced ice time. Yet while each game is a sprint, the season is a marathon. If the Rangers are going to make any noise this season, they’ll need their revised defense to eventually exceed the performance of recent seasons.

Sitting Smith and going with seven defenseman in their following game against Montreal was not a bad idea. DeAngelo became the odd defender out after both Holden and Kampfer entered the lineup and despite early miscues, played reasonably well in the Rangers’ single win of the early 2017/18 season. It was also not incorrect for AV to stick with what worked in the following game against St. Louis. The Rangers played well enough defensively in that game, surrendering just a single even-strength goal while Henrik Lundqvist was between the pipes.

Moving forward, it is imperative that Vigneault get Smith back on his game and he won’t be able to do that as a healthy scratch. The early season is not the time for a coach to panic about the inconsistent play when the team’s defense corps has been shuffled as much as it had to with the subtraction of Girardi and Kevin Klein and addition of Shattenkirk and DeAngelo. Shattenkirk has defensive deficiencies, however, it is too soon to give up on playing he and McDonagh together. That may end up being the case, but four periods is simply not enough of a sample to stake what could be a top pair for the next four years.

The bottom of the pairings suffer from a similar dilemma. For an up-tempo game plan that relies on springing the attack quickly from all three zones, the passing abilities of Shattenkirk and DeAngelo should prove vital. While balance is needed to pair these two defenders with suitable defensive partners that can help mitigate their deficiencies, a gross overcorrection after just two games would show a lack of insight into their value to the team.

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AV is at a pivotal point here. He must get Smith’s game back on track if the Rangers are going to have a stronger backend than in recent seasons. Staal’s improved play is a band-aid that shouldn’t be relied on as a permanent fix. Instead, the coach must go back to the original game plan and perhaps beyond. Starting Friday, McDonagh and Shattenkirk should be paired again, while Skjei and DeAngelo can be tried as the second pairing. Staal’s improved play (for as long as it lasts) might be able to get Smith back on course.

A rotating crop of top-six defenders, never knowing if their next mistake so early in the season will see them shifted away from the partner they are trying to grow continuity with for one of the two more vanilla options on the roster in Holden or Kampfer is untenable. It will stifle the good work General Manager Jeff Gorton accomplished in the offseason in bringing in two offensive defensemen to better situate the pairings in an up-tempo system. Pinning them to the bench for mistakes or scratching them entirely is a move best used only once in the beginning of the year.

What good would an article this early in the season, primarily focused on coach Vigneault’s personnel decisions, be without a warning that his tenure may soon be up? Not much. If AV refuses to put the best tools provided him by Gorton to good use, it may soon be time for the GM to find someone else who will.

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Discussion
  1. Respecttheblue
    Looking at Smith's SMH reactions to his own flubs during the game, it was clear to me he knew he screwed up on at least one of those goals. He gets a message he needs to be more ready to play. No need to panic here.
    That Team D porosity could easily be a weakness, we already knew that going into the season, so AV has injected a note of competition for ice time. Maybe it'll even work. I'll try to suspend judgment for a while I hope, before going off the deep or shallow end.

    Blue, sorry I just noticed I said a few things you did. You made a bunch of good insights above (w/o the benefit of hearing Maloney) that I wanted to highlight.
    Also, I don't believe the Rangers (particularly the coach) showcases players. However, I would not be surprised if Gorton and AV discussed playing all 8 early in the season to see what we have. Of course if we see what we got, so do other teams.
    Sidenote: We won't be able to trade Staal unless he plays every night and looks like he had a rejuvenation. We won't be able to trade Holden unless he plays a good amount and purports himself well. The team probably feels that we'll have plenty of time to work with DeAngelo and as a 21 y/o he does not need to be in the lineup every night this early in the season.
    The word from Dave Maloney (in his interview with Scott L and Patrick O'Sullivan) is that Smith had "whole lot going on this off season" from getting married, moving, honeymoon and other obligations that he did not do much skating or any real cardio work, even if he did weight training. Maloney surmised that he was breathing heavy and scrambling to keep up with the speedy Leafs at the end of shifts. Since he had a bad game and was given responsibility for a goal, "AV is sending a message", especially while he has 8 Dmen and doesn't want to keep any of them in the pressbox, every night.
    Early in the season, unsettled pairs and the luxury of 8 Dmen seems to mean that AV can use the competition to ratchet up the play of the D and sit anyone that has a bad game. My guess is until things settle in more and the winning begins, we'll see the juggling continue.
    Personally, I think the cream will rise to the top and that Smith will be the same guy we saw in the playoffs w/o all the intensity, yet still physical. He may just need an extra week or two. Smith was a good player in Detroit and he will be fine here. When the playoffs begin (if we make it), I expect him to be as tough and physical as last year.
    Looking at Smith's SMH reactions to his own flubs during the game, it was clear to me he knew he screwed up on at least one of those goals. He gets a message he needs to be more ready to play. We need his defensive intensity and aptitude. But on what line ultimately I could not say. Could he shore up an inexperienced DeAngelo? unless there is some other problem we don't know about, I think this will be a speed bump for him and he'll be back. One thing various seasons have taught me is u need defensive depth beyond the 6 slot and to have it ready, it also needs to be nurtured somewhat. No need to panic here.
    That Team D porosity could easily be a weakness, we already knew that going into the season, so AV has injected a note of competition for ice time. Maybe it'll even work. I'll try to suspend judgment for a while I hope, before going off the deep or shallow end.
    Sent from my iPhone using Blueshirts Brotherhood mobile app powered by Tapatalk
    Rangers4Life
    Maybe he's one of those players that seem to excel more in pressure moments, like the playoffs. I didn't watch any of his games in Detroit so I was pleasantly surprised when he came here and became a solid player. Only time will tell which version we have.

    I think I recall at the time of the trade some words of warning that when Smith was engaged and playing at the top of his game, he played solid defense and picked his spots for physicality well. When he wasn't, he'd run out of position for a hit and would take bad penalties. Last season we saw the former, so far (and it's been preseason and two regular season games) we've seen much more of the later.
    I worry that the emphasis for Smith - from him and AV - is that he needs to be more of a puck mover to be in the top 4. If he's overthinking in that regard, it will be hard for him to recover.
    My biggest gripe with AV is that he doesn't just let guys play their game. Smith had that luxury last year because he needed time to get acclimated to the system, but won't have it now.
    Maybe he's one of those players that seem to excel more in pressure moments, like the playoffs. I didn't watch any of his games in Detroit so I was pleasantly surprised when he came here and became a solid player. Only time will tell which version we have.
    Rangers4Life
    I feel Smith will bounce back after being scratched. No rhyme or reason but just a hunch.

    I think that's fair. There's no real reason to expect otherwise. Although I'm not sure he was always exactly the player in Detroit that he was at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs for us. That situation may have, for lack of a better term, amped him up for a short period of time. We'll have to see how sustainable that level of intensity is.