As the dust settles with the hiring of New York Rangers head coach David Quinn, the first thing he should address is the slumping defensive unit.
The New York Rangers have hired their coach, held their press conference and let the hockey world know they have their man. Now that man needs to get to work and the first thing on his to-do list should be improving the struggling defensive core on his team.
The Blueshirts had a revolving door when it came to the defensemen last season. Ryan McDonagh, Brendan Smith, Anthony DeAngelo, Marc Staal, Nick Holden, Brady Skjei, Kevin Shattenkirk, Steven Kampfer, John Gilmour, Neal Pionk, Rob O’Gara and Ryan Sproul all stood on the blue line at one time or another.
The team must solidify six strong defensemen and at least a solid seventh d-man to help the rebuilding process. The team is destined to give up a lot of scoring opportunities early in the season as they get to learn Quinn’s new system and how he wants the team to play around the net. Before that can happen, Quinn and the Rangers organization are going to have to figure out who the top six defensemen are going to be to start the season.
The Elephant in the Room
Defenseman Marc Staal should be the first situation the team addresses. The 31-year-old has three years remaining on his six-year, $34.2 million deal he signed in 2015. His cap hit is $5.7 million annually for the next three seasons. The 12-year veteran of the Rangers also has a no-move clause which puts a damper on things as far as dealing him to make room on the team’s salary cap.
The team will need to decide if they want his experience to help the younger players or if they would rather buy him out as they did with former Ranger Dan Girardi at the beginning of last summer. Staal appeared in 72 games for the Rangers and was a plus-11. He began the season as the sixth defenseman, but through the year was one of the most reliable on the blue line as he often skated as one of the two top defensive pairs.
Staal isn’t likely to waive his no-move clause as he has all the control contractually and a buyout doesn’t resolve all of the Rangers financial responsibilities but may be the best of the options available.
Should the organization decide a buyout is the best alternative, the team would have six more years with a reduced cap hit before his contract was off the team’s books. The numbers per year, starting with the upcoming 2018-19 season, would be approximately $2 million, $3 million and $3.8 million followed by three seasons at $1.4 million per David Rodgers of The Hockey Writers.
A reduction in the salary cap, but in three years where the Rangers might be able to bring in more talent, the team would be shelling out $3.8 million for a 34-year-old player who isn’t even with the team any longer.
A final option would be to keep Staal for this season and address a buyout next summer where the cap hit would run significantly less then it would be now.
Anthony DeAngelo and Brendan Smith both began last season as partners, but the team felt DeAngelo needed more work and was sent down to the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack as was Smith. DeAngelo did get recalled later in the season and seemed more comfortable as a Ranger, as Smith had a tough time in the AHL not playing to his potential and then breaking his hand in a fight with a teammate at the end of the season. With a new coach and staff, he may get another opportunity to show he can play for the Blueshirts come training camp.
Rob O’Gara was acquired towards the trade deadline in the Nick Holden trade with Boston. An average defenseman, the rookie appeared in 22 games. He played a steady game but doesn’t have a lot of speed. The Rangers are going to need to find more defensive help, but until then O’Gara probably makes the starting six unless another player, possibly Smith, can outplay O’Gara for the spot.
Ryan Sproul was acquired in October of last season and was assigned to the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack until February. He appeared in 16 games for the Rangers averaging around 16 minutes of time on the ice. The 25-year-old has appeared in only 44 career games and will have a tough time finding a spot on the team’s current defense.
The Future is Strong
With that said, the future of the New York Rangers lies with Brady Skjei, Kevin Shattenkirk, Neal Pionk, and John Gilmour.
Brady Skjei had a tough sophomore season with the team; that is understandable seeing as how he never had a steady partner. He was constantly trying to do too much on the ice which was apparent as he made many mistakes. He is an excellent skater and puck handler but they way former coach Alain Vigneault used him was detrimental to his progress. Skjei was never able to find the confidence he had in his rookie season. Expect a better season this year from Skjei as he will be leading the way on the blueline for a shallow defensive team.
Kevin Shattenkirk was the top free agent player available last offseason and the hometown player knew his first season on Broadway would have its challenges. Shattenkirk seemed to have issues early on with the exception of his power play skills which were quite beneficial to the team in the first half of the season. Unfortunately, he suffered a meniscus tear in his knee and missed most of the second half of the season.
Shattenkirk should have a bounce-back season especially with the hiring of Quinn who Shatty played with when he was in the AHL. The new head coach will rely heavily on his relationship with Shattenkirk to help get his message heard by the team.
Now comes the learning part of the defensive squad. The main reason Quinn was hired in the first place was to coach the young defensemen on the team in Neal Pionk and John Gilmour. Both played in 28 games for the Rangers last season. It was a trial and error period for both, but the organization learned a lot about them as they did about playing in the NHL.
Smart, fast and able to learn on the fly, both of these players showed potential and promise for the future of the organization. Pionk played a smart game, displaying his speed, grit, and ability to land huge hits on the opposition. Pionk registered one goal with 14 points. He has the ability to play with anyone as his partner without making many mistakes. The upcoming season should continue to give the team an idea of how strong he can play on the puck along with his skill without the puck. He seemed to adjust to the speed difference from the AHL to the NHL with ease.
John Gilmour needed a little more time than Pionk to adjust to the NHL style of play. His had two goals along with three assists, but his minus 11 rating was an example of his early struggles with the team. As the season wore on he developed an ease working on the power play and began to understand the responsibilities on the ice. As the season came to a close, following the trades, missing the playoffs and the changes every day on the blue line, Gilmour kept playing hard. His comfort level increased as the season came to an end. He is poised to have a great rookie season with the club.
Should the Rangers not sign any defensemen this summer (Erik Karlsson’s name has been floating around recently), I believe the Rangers will buy out Marc Staal’s contract this summer. The $17.1 million the team would have to pay Staal over the next three seasons just doesn’t make any sense financially.
This is how the Rangers defense could look come training camp provided the team has not made any deals or signings:
- DeAngelo- O’Gara
- Marc Staal will be bought out with Steven Kampfer not making the squad.
- Ryan Sproul has an opportunity to make the team as the seventh defenseman unless the Rangers find a player of equal or better talent in the minors.
The Rangers will have to find another veteran defenseman to improve the unit. Seems to be the same problem the team had last season. Signing Shattenkirk was supposed to solve the problem, yet heading into free agency this year the team still has the same questions and concerns.
Currently, the team has just under $25 million in free cap space.
Free agent defenseman available on July 1 as per Frank Seravalli of TSN.ca.
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David Quinn will have to rely on Jeff Gorton’s ability to find at least one if not two strong defensemen to join the team. This will probably need to be done via trades as the free agent market is not stocked with too many viable candidates.