The New York Rangers outstanding defensive depth might have to suffer in order to address their huge hole down the middle.
A defense led by Ryan McDonagh, new arrival Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith is exciting enough. Offseason trade acquisition Anthony DeAngelo provides intriguing potential. And the club hopes Marc Staal can bounce back from a rough 2016-17 and rediscover his sometimes-dominant form—albeit as a member of the third pairing.
All of that is nothing compared to what awaits in the minors for an organization awash with defensive prospects salivating at a chance to make the club.
Three of them, specifically Alexei Bereglazov, Neal Pionk and Sean Day, are all on the verge of being ready to compete for spots on the blue line.
That, of course, is easier said than done for the trio with the aforementioned veterans ahead of them. And it’s an issue the club will have to address both in the near future and long-term.
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“Whatever happens after training camp happens, but my goal going into training camp is to make the team,” Pionk, 22, told NHL.com’s Dan Rosen in July. “I think I can fit the Rangers’ style. I know coach (Alain) Vigneault likes to play an up-tempo game.”
The other two prospects don’t generate any less excitement within the organization. At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, boasting a speed and skill level that defies his size (think Skjei), Bereglazov can’t be ignored. He’s in the picture.
“This guy is ready to – he’s been playing at a high level,” director of player personnel Gordie Clark told Matt Calamia of nyrangers.com. “He should be able to go in (and battle for a roster spot). You have to earn it but he’s going in to challenge for a spot.”
Day is there too, an elite prospect who saw his stock slip precipitously amid a myriad of family issues. Joining John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad and Connor McDavid in becoming the fourth player in Ontario Hockey League history to be granted exceptional status by Hockey Canada, allowing him to play in the league as a 15-year-old four years ago, Day slipped to the third round of the 2016 NHL draft, where the Rangers scooped him up.
“I don’t think a lot of people go through what I’ve had to go through, but you can have it way worse than what we do,” Day told NHL.com of his brother being imprisoned in 2014, his grandmother passing away last year and his mother being hospitalized with Celiac disease. “If you don’t want to work hard to play pro hockey, then I don’t think you belong here. It’s done wonders for me to go through the things I’ve gone through. It’s changed my mindset. I want to put in the work to play pro hockey.”
Calling this glut a pleasant problem, however, is a bit too optimistic.
The Rangers see Pionk, who recorded seven goals and 27 assists in 42 games while helping the University of Minnesota-Duluth reach the Frozen Four last season, as being ready to play at the highest level. Working to his advantage is the fact that he’s a right-handed shot, whereas Bereglazov and Day are lefties.
Theoretically, then, that would put Pionk in competition with DeAngelo for the right-side spot on the third pair, with the winner giving the Rangers a second righty D-man (along with Shattenkirk) after they sometimes played with five left-handed defensemen manning the six spots last season.
But should Pionk win out, that would leave the 21-year-old DeAngelo as a spare part, and he wasn’t acquired in the blockbuster Derek Stepan trade to play a role as a seventh or eighth defenseman. So, he’d have to head to the minors.
Plus, what if Bereglazov or Day prove more impressive than both right-handers in preseason? With the 23-year-old Bereglazov, it’s not as simple as stashing him in the minors, because his contract contains an opt-out clause that will allow him to return to the KHL rather than play in the AHL, and the Rangers don’t want to lose him for nothing. So it’s possible the big Russian will need to be included on the Opening Night roster – which, if the veterans are healthy, would initially leave him sitting around as insurance rather than getting the playing time he desperately needs for his development.
While Day’s status isn’t nearly as complicated, as the 19-year-old will likely start the season at Hartford, it appears he’s put his family troubles in the past and is on his way toward realizing his prodigious potential. How long can he be kept in the AHL if he begins to dominate?
Oh, and there’s also veteran Nick Holden, who played well at times last season but struggled in the second half and playoffs. The Rangers have supposedly been looking to move him to open a spot and eliminate his $1.65 million cap hit but it appears as thought there haven’t been any takers.
Perhaps the unfortunate answer to this numbers problem lies up front – more precisely, in the middle.
The Rangers’ outstanding defensive depth exists within an organization desperate for centers. The loss of Oscar Lindberg in the expansion draft and the trade of Stepan in the offseason has left the club dependent on reclamation project David Desharnais presumably manning the third line and a yet-to-be-determined player handling fourth-line duties.
Quality centers cost a premium in salary and trades for a reason: It’s hard to be successful in the NHL without good ones. And amid the excitement over the guys playing directly in front of Henrik Lundqvist, the center situation is at a borderline crisis point. What happens if Mika Zibanejad or Kevin Hayes are injured and miss long stretches?
Such an imbalance of wealth at one position and a dearth of good options at another seems impossible to maintain. Having a great defense and a huge hole in the middle might end up amounting to a wash, which would be a waste of the construction of such a formidable back end.
So trading from the area of strength to fill the area of weakness—the basis for pretty much all trades—might be necessary at some point. And it’s the high-ceiling, low-cost kids that hold the most value and can be easily traded in the salary cap era. So biting the bullet and parting one or two members of this promising and exciting trio for a competent pivot man might be unavoidable.
It would certainly hurt. But man, do the Rangers need centers.