Yes, the New York Rangers defense needs to be stronger. To get there, the front office must execute a patient plan.
Last weekend, I published a response to Larry Brooks’s article about how the New York Rangers could jump into the Evgeni Malkin sweepstakes. I wrote about how the rebuilding Blueshirts can’t repeat history by getting another aging superstar.
This week, a response is necessary for the pro-Erik Karlsson crowd. Sean Hartnett’s WFAN piece gauged the risks and rewards of signing the highly-anticipated free agent.
Similarly to Malkin, I don’t think adding Karlsson is the answer. Fellow ESNY writer Brian Paget beat me to the punch last week on why Karlsson won’t work. However, rather than make a list like I did last week, I want to talk about the Rangers’ defense. More specifically, I want to talk about alternative answers to the Rangers’ defensive woes. Those answers might just be on the team now or in their system, but a few seasons away.
I have previously stressed how the Rangers do have some question marks on the backend. While these questions are still looking for answers, the Blueshirts are taking steps in the right direction.
Since I wrote that piece, the Rangers acquired Hobey Baker candidate Adam Fox from the Carolina Hurricanes. Since the Canes are already really deep on the blueline, Fox was not going to get quality playing time in Carolina. I would like to give myself credit and say Jeff Gorton listened to me, but I’m thinking too highly of myself.
Nonetheless, it seems that Gorton and company are giving the defense the same amount of attention as the offense. So, I’m just spitballing here, but maybe the best thing for the Rangers defense this offseason is not in the free agent or trade market, but to continue to develop their young players.
The quick-veteran fix rarely works under the rigors of the NHL’s hard-salary cap. Look at the past Stanley Cup champions. Nearly all, whether it’s Duncan Keith’s crew in Chicago or Drew Doughty’s in Los Angeles, blossomed with a farm-type mentality. Of course, sprinkled in vets are required, but Karlsson is a headliner.
Let’s take a look at the Rangers defensemen 26-years-old or younger. Keep in mind that this does include some restricted free agents. There’s Fox (21), Brady Skjei (25), Neal Pionk (23), Tony DeAngelo (23), Libor Hajek (21), and Fredrik Claesson (26).
Each one of them shows a lot of potential for growth. Whether it’s Pionk with his solid play on both ends of the ice or DeAngelo with his toughness and shootout ability, they all show glimmers of potential that can be great once they enter their primes.
They might have another year or two of growing pains coming, but that might just be the best thing for them so they can learn from their mistakes, build on their strengths and take further steps in becoming solid NHL defensemen.
Now, let’s see who the Rangers have in their farm system on defense. The notables are Yegor Rykov, Ryan Lindgren, and 2018 draft picks Nils Lundkvist and K’Andre Miller.
With the veterans, there’s Marc Staal, Kevin Shattenkirk and Brendan Smith. Their contracts expire in 2021, potentially freeing up room for guys like Miller, Rykov, Lundkvist and Lindgren, who should be NHL ready by that time. Miller, in particular, is who I am most excited about. A solid two-way defenseman that’s a huge size that can wear down opponents? Yes, please.
If the Rangers continue to develop these young guys, they can possibly have a defensive group similar to the Carolina Hurricanes. None of Carolina’s rostered defensemen are over the age of 30, and as we all saw this postseason, their window to compete just got wide open. If the Rangers can emulate a defensive core like that, then opponents are going to have a tough time developing quality chances.
So no, I don’t think this is the offseason for the Rangers to go for a top free agent defenseman. The best thing for them might just be to win from within. If anything, maybe the Rangers can look into Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba, considering he’s on the market.
Trouba is a completely different case. The kid is only 25-years-old, puts up solid numbers and is probably about to enter the prime of his career. However, like any trade or free agent, the Rangers must tread carefully. You don’t want to get handicapped with a bad contract or trade away your future.
Plus, Artemi Panarin is rumored to want to be a Ranger. Though I may think the Bread Man is heading to the Florida Panthers, the Blueshirts should give that a shot.
Just remember, a good chunk of the rostered defense is very young. They have not peaked yet and still need some time to grow. Also, guys like Miller and Lundkvist are a few seasons away from being truly NHL ready. Heck, those two still need entry-level contracts. However, the Rangers must not rush them. Let them continue to build their skills where they are now. Never rush a defenseman’s progression, just ask former Ranger Michael Del Zotto.
Patience is a valuable trait that can sometimes lead to victory. Just ask Captain America. The best thing for the Blueshirts defense might just be a little patience.