The defense was a huge question mark entering this season, but David Quinn has sold a scheme the team is buying into and it’s showing.
The 2-4-1 New York Rangers are a work in progress. The stunning part of this season so far has not been the young forwards like Brett Howden (who has been playing well) but the defense, especially the six who stand on the blue line most game nights.
The team has been carrying eight defensemen since opening night as the coaching staff continues to find the true top six. Quinn has not started the same lineup for what is now all seven games of this young season. Marc Staal, Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith have started the season out strong as they have appeared in all seven games played by New York.
The Top 3
Alternate captain Marc Staal has proven why the team didn’t buy him out last summer. The veteran defenseman has played with different partners but has not changed his game. An old-school, stay-at-home defenseman, Staal has his moment in the first few games, but settled down and has become the defenseman the head coach can call on in close games.
He continues to help out the younger players but doesn’t expect to see him as the offensive defenseman. The team will leave that role for others such as Neal Pionk, Kevin Shattenkirk and Skjei.
Brady Skjei has been steadily improving game by game. He scored the overtime winner in the team’s first win of the season at Madison Square Garden last week and is averaging over 22 minutes of ice time per game, clearly leading the Rangers in that category. Skjei has shown the agility and speed fans have been hoping to see the past few seasons. Skjei looks comfortable on the ice as he is the apparent replacement of former captain Ryan McDonagh with regards to playing against teams’ top opponents.
Brendan Smith has had a resurgence in his game as well. His progression has been noticeable over the first seven games as the coaching staff has given Smith ample time to adjust to the new system Quinn has brought into New York. He has played with many different partners, showing the agility to get the job done. Mistakes have been made, but he had Karen’s form them, a trait David Quinn prides his team on and demands from the players.
The Bouncing 5
Kevin Shattenkirk has been scratched for one game this season, but the real concern for the coaching staff is getting some consistent play out of Neal Pionk, Adam McQuaid, Fredrik Claesson, and Anthony DeAngelo as all have watched multiple games from the press box.
Kevin Shattenkirk has played in six of seven games this season with him being a healthy scratch last Thursday night. That move has paid off as Shatty has been more involved in the offense as was apparent in Tuesday’s win over the Colorado Avalanche when he assisted on both of the Rangers goals in regulation and scored the shootout game-winner.
Pionk sat for two straight games, then came back in Wednesday night against the Capitals and played a strong game. The scrappy defenseman recorded three assists, two in the power play in the team’s OT loss. As was the case with Shattenkirk, Pionk sitting out seemed to be the correct motivation. Fredrik Claesson has been a fair bottom-pair defenseman when called upon to play.
Adam McQuaid started off playing a head-hitting game but had taken a few steps backward as he attempts to kick himself into the top six. He, along with defenseman Anthony DeAngelo, has been scratched for the last two Rangers contests.
That brings up the final of the eight, DeAngelo. Following a strong preseason, the young defenseman had yet been able to pick up what the coaching staff has been trying to teach. He has only appeared in two games this season and seems to be all over the ice. The coaching staff preaches accountability and though DeAngelo has a great commitment level, the results have not been there.
If not for the fact that he must clear waivers to be sent down to the AHL, he would almost certainly be back with the Hartford WolfPack right now.
The Numbers are Proof the System Works
How good has the team been on defense overall? The numbers don’t lie. In the seven games played so far, the Rangers have given up 24 goals, good for 3.43 goals against per games played on average. Of the 24 goals against, seven have been scored while the Rangers were short-handed and one was an empty net goal.
The strong defensive start is helped by the team’s five-man assault inside their own end. The practices and hard work is paying off, though it has yet to be reflective in the wins column.
That will come in time as the team finds a way to finish their scoring opportunities.
The game in Washington was the first time in the last three games that the same six defensemen skated in back-to-back games. A great opportunity for the top six, but the team will probably have to move a defenseman as they may need to bring up another forward to help get some more pucks into the back of the net.
Defense and some great goaltending have been the story in Broadway. The team can not ask any more of Henrik Lundqvist as he has made outstanding save after save to keep the Blueshirts in game.
The defenseman in front of the goalie is now looking to keep the Rangers in games as the team begins to address their scoring issue.