What Will the Rangers' Late Game 'D-ployment' Look Like

Scene One: The Rangers lead the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 with 50 seconds left and a defensive-zone faceoff coming. Pittsburgh has pulled the goalie and Crosby, Malkin and Kessel are all on the ice.

Q: What two defensemen are you putting on the ice?

A: It’s complicated.

Obviously, Ryan McDonagh is on the ice for as long as he has wind in his lungs. But, after being the obvious choice on the right side for the better part of a decade, Dan Girardi has been jettisoned off to the Land of Buyout Toys, and there’s not a clear answer as to who will be out there in his place.

The first shot, obviously, is going to Kevin Shattenkirk. While I questioned signing him in part because I don’t believe he’s a fit for this type of role, there’s plenty of value at his price. But it’s really difficult to trust the idea that he’ll be as successful with heavy, defense-first responsibilities.

Unfortunately, he’s never been consistently used in this type of shutdown role. He’s only had a defensive-zone start rate of 45% or better twice in his career. For comparison, McDonagh and Girardi have a total of three seasons below 52%. Two of which came when they were rookies with the other coming in Girardi’s second season.

Not to mention, recency bias aside, his own-zone performance in the playoffs was, generously, lackluster.

There was a litany of things that went wrong in this play, but the image of that soft backhander is haunting, especially since it was Shattenkirk’s second attempt to move the puck. This is the exact type of play that ended Girardi’s career as a Blueshirt and makes it hard to trust Shattenkirk in critical situations. He’ll get the opportunity to earn AV’s trust, but, based on his career to this point, it’s not a given.

If Shattenkirk isn’t the guy you deploy late, then the natural next choice has to be Brendan Smith, who was acquired at last year’s deadline and gave the Rangers some much-needed chutzpah down the stretch. He doesn’t boast Shattenkirk’s puck-moving skills (though he’s a bit underrated in this regard), but he’s strong in every sense of the word. That, combined with the Grit™ needed to win puck battles and compete in front of the net makes him a good fit for a lead-protecting role late, regardless of who else is on the roster.

Side note: it sucks that there aren’t extensive highlights of every NHL player in puck battles on YouTube because a Smith fight clip doesn’t do his game justice.

But, should Shattenkirk not be fit for the role and you move Smith up from his presumed role on the second pair with Brady Skjei, the Rangers will run into depth issues. In the same way that it’s tough to project Mac’s partner, it’s tough to know who will play with Skjei. Even if the youngster earns tough minutes next year (he will), it’s a big ask to compensate for any of Shattenkirk’s D-zone flaws. And, while this is partially just personal preference, two puck-movers on the ice protecting a lead is risky. With Smith manning the top unit, there’s limited options.

Assuming Vigneault does not go to three defensemen late, the options for Skjei’s late-game partner are—pending any unforeseen developments—Marc Staal, Nick Holden, Anthony DeAngelo, and, probably, Alexei Bereglazov. That’s not a calming list.

Conventional wisdom says that Vigneault is not going to trust either DeAngelo or Bereglazov for the same reasons he didn’t trust Skjei last season, which leaves us with—gulp—Staal, and Holden to choose from. They already made Kevin DeLury cry:

While they’ve probably been given too much blame for late-game struggles in the playoffs, neither is ideal. Based on his style of play and, bluntly, coach’s favor, Staal probably gets the nod. He’s got the same playing style as Smith and, in that sense, is a nice compliment to Skjei. In a limited capacity, he can still be effective as a lead protector. Staal is dreary coming out of his own zone, but he does not get nearly the credit he deserves for his effectiveness with his stick, his ability to win board battles, or his body positioning. When you need to hold on for 20-30 seconds, those are good qualities to have.

Should one of the young guys step up, this discussion is a bit different. Bereglazov probably makes the most sense in this role, and, potentially, could push Staal out of the lineup entirely. As BlueseatBlogs.com contributor Josh Khalfin mentioned back before he was signed, “He is a big, physical, defensive defenseman who uses his size and brains to his advantage in the zone. His positioning is very good as well.”

Khalfin’s also made mention of Bereglazov’s playmaking potential but, in this context, that’s less important. Of course, nobody has seen the young Russian play in North America, but he’s got a playing style that can be valuable in a lead-protecting role.

Scene Two: The Rangers are trailing the Penguins 2-1 with 50 seconds left and an offensive zone faceoff coming. Vigneault has pulled the goalie and chosen to deploy five forwards.

Q: Which defenseman are you putting on the ice?

A: Shatty Deuces.

Regardless of what Shattenkirk does or doesn’t prove on the defensive end, his value will be defined by the offensive punch he can add. While Skjei and DeAngelo will get their share of favorable offensive deployments, there’s no better opportunity for Shattenkirk to prove his worth than in the O-zone. He has the skillset to be lethal there.

Given that, the decision when the Rangers need a goal won’t be a tough one, but when they need to stop one, things are much less clear.

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