Many believed the New York Rangers needed to revamp their defense this offseason. Their lack of moves, however, may be paying off.
After a disastrous first-round exit to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, fans knew that the 2016-17 version of the New York Rangers would look different than it has in recent seasons.
The biggest emphasis of upgrades was centered around the defense.
While Ryan McDonagh continued his tremendous play, Keith Yandle had one of his best professional seasons to date, Kevin Klein flew under the radar, and Brady Skjei excelled in his rookie season, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Dan Boyle all received their fair share of criticism.
Boyle was the first to go, as he retired instead of heading to free agency.
Yandle was next, as the Rangers felt they couldn’t afford the offensive defenseman so they traded his rights to the Florida Panthers.
But Girardi and Staal, two lifelong Rangers who have been staples of the blue line for nearly a decade, weren’t going to go away that easily.
Both veterans are signed to long-term deals and GM Jeff Gorton immediately ruled out buyouts for either player. At the same time, neither Girardi nor Staal was appealing on the trade market; not only because of their enormous contracts but because their play has diminished greatly over the last couple of years.
Girardi and Staal were key cogs in the John Tortorella Era, but that meant blocking shots on a daily basis. Couple that with consistently deep playoff runs and Girardi (32) and Staal (29) seemed to have their best days in the rearview mirror.
Top names like Kevin Shattenkirk, Cam Fowler, and Jacob Trouba had their names attached to the Rangers this summer, both to potentially replace Girardi and Staal and to also fill the void of the departed puck-mover in Yandle.
Despite the rumors, however, Gorton made minor changes to his blue line. At the NHL Draft, he traded for Nick Holden, a player who fits the Girardi-mold more so than Yandle’s. He also signed well-traveled youngster in Adam Clendening, who is playing for his fifth team despite being just 24 years of age.
Fans weren’t happy, and rightfully so. Not only did team brass fail to replace Yandle’s production, but they also decided that both Girardi and Staal can play top-four minutes.
But if early indications are anything, it’s that the defensive core is as strong as ever.
At 27-years old, McDonagh continues to develop into one of the best two-way defenseman in hockey. The captain’s stout play in the Rangers zone is expected, but it’s his offensive output that has Madison Square Garden excited. McDonagh is more aggressive in carrying the puck than he ever has, and his nine assists (he recorded at least one point in eight of 11 games), plus/minus of +8 and quarterbacking the power play are all huge positives.
When Skjei was called up to Broadway last season, he drew plenty of comparisons to McDonagh. Skating in his first full season with the Rangers, it looks as though the 22-year old can live up to that hype. Like McDonagh, not only has Skjei been a huge help on defense, but his puck movement has been a pleasant surprise. Not afraid of the spotlight, he seems to be transitioning into a full-time role just fine.
Klein dealt with back issues that kept him out of the first three games of 2016. It appears as though the injury and recent workload have slowed the veteran down a bit, as he hasn’t looked as crisp this year than in recent seasons. But Klein is still a smart veteran who performs well in big games; it’s only a matter of time before he gets more ice time and regains form.
When watching Holden on a regular basis, he largely goes unnoticed due to his inability yo stand out. But when on the blue line, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; and because he’s done his job on a nightly basis, he’s recognized as one of the Rangers most underrated moves of the offseason. Holden’s plus/minus of +10 is the highest on the roster, while his five assists are a pleasant surprise for someone who is known as a one-dimensional defenseman.
And last, but certainly not least, is the play of Girardi and Staal.
Fast forward one year after most wanted them out of town, and the veteran duo is now playing an inspired brand of hockey.
Skating on the top pair with McDonagh, Girardi has flashed signs of his previous prowess as he’s stronger on the defensive end than last season. He’s had no problem going up against the best skaters on opposing teams, and for the most part, he’s done a good job. Not to mention, Girardi’s two goals thus far already matched his 2015 total.
Staal, on the other hand, has been skating with Holden — and it could be argued that they’ve been the best pairing. He’s been equally as active on the offensive end as he has on the defensive end, and his ability to be a force along the boards has made Staal stand out. In what may be his best stat, Staal is currently the leading defenseman in Corsi ratings (24).
The saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” didn’t pertain to the Rangers defense before the season began.
But with 11 games in the books, it looks as the Gorton should stick with that motto.