Ryan McDonagh, New York Rangers, NHL
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The New York Rangers should find a way to start defending their star players — but they probably won’t.

New York Rangers fans,

As the season approaches (finally!) along with the corresponding excitement over what’s possible for your Blueshirts, and your thoughts turn to a game being on more or less every other night, here are some other images from the past few seasons that you’ll probably be seeing repeats of in 2017-18:

  • Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds punching captain Ryan McDonagh in the head, causing the defenseman and most important non-goaltender on the roster to suffer a concussion that would force him to miss eight games.
  • Simmonds slashing McDonagh on the wrist and bloodying him at the end of a game, causing McDonagh’s glove to pop off while Simmonds also punches McDonagh in the face with his gloved left hand more than once.
  • Montreal Canadiens forward Alexander Radulov snowing star goalie Henrik Lundqvist during a stoppage in last season’s playoffs, then punching McDonagh in the face with his gloved hand when McDonagh skates in to confront Radulov.

There are more, of course, but those three represent just some of the more damning evidence of the Rangers’ ongoing and inexplicable refusal to protect their best players.

None of this is a newsflash to diehard fans. They’ve been watching opponents take liberties with the Blueshirts for years, from the aforementioned McDonagh incidents to Lundqvist being endlessly knocked around and occasionally run over (ex-Islander Matt Martin, anyone?) to any other number of moments that have convinced plenty of other teams to hit the Rangers’ best players, because there’s no one that will hit back.

That it’s familiar, though, doesn’t make the failure to address it any less baffling. It represents one of the shortcomings of the Alain Vigneault era, as the otherwise excellent coach seemingly can’t be bothered with the problem.

Vigneault’s apparent allergy to tougher players who could provide a much-needed new dimension for this skill-heavy roster has bigger ramifications than not being able to ‘get even.’ McDonagh was injured in one of the confrontations with Simmonds, could have been in the other and could also have been hurt in countless other situations in which he was targeted by opponents, with no one around him to hold those players accountable.

Yes, the NHL has changed. Hulking enforcers no longer ride the bench for 57 minutes of a game, providing supposed ‘nuclear deterrence’ to other teams who entertained ideas of taking shots at the opponents’ stars. The concept of having players who can protect teammates, however, still exists on the ice throughout the league, if not in the media.

What would have happened to Simmonds or Radulov if, say, Jeff Beukeboom was McDonagh’s defense partner and not Brian Leetch‘s 20 years before? Is it realistic to believe that the 6-foot-5, 230-pound Beukeboom made no difference in Leetch’s career? That feared Edmonton Oilers enforcer Dave Semenko made no difference in Wayne Gretzky‘s?

Again, we’re referencing a very different era here. But the current logic that advanced statistics have discredited the concept of enforcement on the ice remains flawed. It removes the human element from the equation.

In one of the few instances in which the Rangers tried to make Simmonds pay after he concussed their captain, Dylan McIlrath took on Simmonds early when they met again eight days later and came out on top in a long bout.

Many former enforcers have spoken about having trouble sleeping and living in fear the night before certain games, knowing they’d almost certainly be tasked with fighting their counterpart on the other team. Simmonds challenged McIlrath almost immediately when both took the ice. Again, is it reasonable to believe Simmonds hadn’t had the impending matchup with the enforcer McIlrath on his mind and decided to get it over with?

Making an opponent think about the price they’ll pay for going after a star player is still a viable and valuable consideration in the NHL, albeit one that has diminished importance with the league becoming perpetually less physical. The problem is, who will do it for these Rangers?

The 6-5, 236-pound McIlrath is long gone, struggling to make it back to the NHL in the Detroit Red Wings’ system and a likely long shot to forge a meaningful NHL career, a victim of bad timing that caused him to miss a version of the league that once highly valued his skills. Kevin Klein, another tough defenseman who was one of the recent few to make opponents pay for taking liberties with his fellow Blueshirts, has retired from the NHL.

Brendan Smith, another tough and edgy D-man who showed plenty of fight when he needed to on behalf of his Rangers teammates last season, returns, and here’s betting he and Simmonds have at least one heart-to-heart in the coming months in front of the Blueshirts’ net. Other than Smith, though, it looks like the same old story with this roster – no one Simmonds or anyone else will fret over before they attempt to disrupt the game of McDonagh or someone else with their physicality and more-than-occasional cheap shots.

The opportunity to address the problem still exists, even with the start of the season drawing close, but there has to be some will within the organization to do so. Failing to offer Tanner Glass an essentially no-risk, one-year contract to return made no sense after the tough forward’s impressive fighting skills complemented his effective straight-ahead forechecking game for at least parts of the past three seasons – especially after he was one of the Rangers’ best forwards, period, in the playoffs last season.

There’s no reason the fourth line couldn’t occasionally be manned by similar players, but if McDonagh being concussed by a player from one of the Rangers’ most bitter rivals wasn’t enough to convince Vigneault this is an issue, it seems unlikely he’ll change his mind now.

Vigneault wants his players focused on the task of winning games, not engaging in feuds. And his club toughened up collectively in the playoffs against the physical Canadiens last season, matching their provocative behavior for the most part en route to a six-game first-round victory.

Trouble is, that was the postseason. This team isn’t built to do that over 82 regular-season games. That simply isn’t in its personality. So it’s more of turning the other cheek, which isn’t a viable philosophy if doing so means potentially losing your stars to injury.

And so, fans, you’ll probably find yourself steamed over more scenes like the ones mentioned above several times this season: McDonagh or a teammate being abused, with no one to step in on their behalf.

And, perhaps days later, more camera shots of your captain in street clothes, watching from the press box as he recovers from injury.