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

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Dave 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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