The Rangers did a great job improving their defense for the 2017-18 season, but there are still questions to be answered.Coming into the offseason, New York Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton made it a priority to fix the blueline, which hasn’t been as productive as it needs to be in today’s NHL. But with the new additions to the team, Marc Staal and Nick Holden could find themselves on the outside looking in if they don’t produce this year.
For the first time since he came to the Rangers, head coach Alain Vigneault has a defense that can play on their natural side. With that, Vigneault and Gorton have some decisions that need to be made about who they feel are the best six defensemen coming out of training camp. We already know that captain Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith are going to be the Rangers top four. But the question remains: Who will be in the bottom two?
Staal has spent his entire career with the Rangers and has been an integral part of this Rangers blueline. As he has gotten older and injuries have piled up, he hasn’t been the same player he was when he broke into the league. Staal finds himself in bad positions in his own zone throughout games that lead to the opposition scoring goals that could have been prevented. He knows that his roster spot isn’t guaranteed as it might have been in the past. With his declining play, the Rangers need to watch him carefully before it gets any worse.
Holden was brought in last year and really surprised the Rangers early on, playing a solid game in his own zone while adding some offense. Despite his hot start, Holden and Staal paired together wasn’t the greatest match as they put each other in high-risk situations which would hurt the team in the playoffs. Holden is also fighting for a roster spot as the Rangers have some impressive kids in camp that are certainly going to get a chance at cracking the big club.
Perhaps the most impressive defenseman in training camp this year was Anthony DeAngelo, who the Rangers acquired for Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta in a draft-day trade this past offseason.
DeAngelo has really impressed Vigneault with the way he moves the puck and his ability to create chances in the offensive zone. He is still a work in progress, but his play this pre-season can’t hurt him. DeAngelo has yet to play a full season in the NHL as he was called up last year by the Arizona Coyotes. In limited time DeAngelo put up 14 points but was a minus-13 in 39 games. The former Tampa Bay Lightning first-round pick has played himself into the conversation as a potential replacement for Staal or Holden.
Both Neal Pionk and Ryan Graves impressed in training camp, but the pair was assigned to Hartford on Thursday. Either one—or both—could be potential options for the club later on in the season should they move on from Staal or Holden.
Graves is in his fourth year with the organization and while he’s primarily known as an offensive defenseman, he’s shown tremendous strides with his defensive game. Pionk, on the other hand, was signed as a college free agent in May and has been nothing but impressive. The 22-year-old defenseman is more of a two-way player who has shown offensive ability, scoring the overtime game-winning goal in the preseason opener.
There is plenty of depth on the blueline and that depth has been extremely impressive throughout training camp. Unless they show drastic improvement early, Nick Holden and Marc Staal’s spots on this team are in jeopardy.
Ultimately it will come down to which one of the two is more tradeable and that looks like it will be Holden, who has a team-friendly contract. Staal, on the other hand, still has term remaining and a no-movement clause in his deal.
A trade won’t happen right away but look for the Rangers to try and flip Holden for a draft pick or a center if and when they decide to make a move.