An Early Look At The 2019-20 Rangers Blue Line
While the right side of the Rangers defense corps has been completely made over in preparation for the upcoming 2019-2020 NHL season, there’s been little to no activity surrounding the Rangers’ left defensemen this summer.
The somewhat surprising and undoubtedly controversial buyout of Kevin Shattenkirk, coupled with the acquisitions of right-shot defensemen Jacob Trouba and Harvard standout Adam Fox, have made the Rangers defense younger and quicker. Now add in the uncertainty around Tony DeAngelo’s new contract after a breakout season; it’s become unclear to many Ranger fans what their depth on the right side will be when the puck drops on the 2019-2020 NHL Regular Season. Let’s take a look at what David Quinn’s defensive lineup could look like when the Rangers face the Winnipeg Jets on October 3rd.
1st Pair – Brady Skjei (LD) and Jacob Trouba (RD)
While these two lifelong buddies will look to reignite their previous chemistry on the ice, there will be a lot of expectations and pressure on both Skjei and Trouba to perform well on Broadway this season. Skjei is coming off his second consecutive 25-point season. But after his impressive rookie campaign in which he nearly scored 40 points, as well as the addition of Trouba to the Rangers lineup as his defense partner; there will be a lot of eyes on Skjei to take his game to the next level in 2019-2020. Skjei had a rotating cast of defense partners last season, as he was frequently paired with Neal Pionk or Kevin Shattenkirk, neither of whom will be donning Rangers sweaters this season.
Skjei has shown flashes of his ability these past three seasons in the Big Apple. He is a terrific skater and can join the rush and create offense. However, it remains to be seen if he can emerge into a top-pair defender or if he is better suited for second pairing minutes going forward. Partnering with a player like Trouba will give Skjei the perfect opportunity to showcase his abilities while finally playing with a steady defense partner. It will be necessary for Trouba and Skjei to communicate well with one another on the ice, as both players have tremendous skating abilities and can both help generate offensive chances by pinching down the boards or joining the rush.
In regards to Trouba, a lot of pressure will be placed on the American-born defender, and rightfully so, because of his contract. After inking a seven-year, $56 million deal with the Rangers this summer, the 25-year-old Trouba will be expected to replicate his 50-point performance from Winnipeg last season on Broadway in 2019-2020 and beyond. The Rangers need Trouba to assert himself as that legitimate number-one defenseman who can play over 20 minutes a night and can be used in all situations. One of Trouba’s best attributes is on the breakout, as his ability to make a stretch pass up the ice will enable the Rangers forwards to turn defense into offense in a matter of seconds.
2nd Pair – Marc Staal (LD) and Adam Fox (RD)
In theory, Marc Staal is the perfect type of defenseman for Adam Fox to play with during the Harvard alum’s rookie year. However, the Marc Staal of 2019 is not the Marc Staal of 2009, which is well-known to Ranger fans. Staal is overpaid for his services – with a $5.7M cap hit – but his experience on Broadway as well as his slow, steady game may be a good fit for Fox, an offensive-minded defenseman that often joins the rush and is at his best with the puck on his stick.
Staal has lost a step in regards to his mobility on the ice, but it’s essential to realize that Fox will be the mobile defenseman of the two, as Staal will be the one covering up for mistakes that the 21-year old will inevitably make in his first season playing professional hockey. Staal has played all 12 of his NHL seasons with the Rangers and provides intangibles such as character and perseverance to the game of hockey after suffering several severe injuries during the earlier part of his career on Broadway. “Staalsy” also brings the experience of 840 career games to help mentor a group of relatively young and inexperienced blueliners, like Adam Fox, that may learn a thing or two from Staal. It’s also important to note that Staal partnered with Tony DeAngelo often in 2018-2019, the season in which DeAngelo finally broke out and recorded 30 points in 61 games. While his contract may be what keeps Staal on the roster and most likely in the top-four again, it’s important to note the experience he brings and the impact he can have in a mentor-like role for the Rangers.
3rd Pair – Libor Hajek (LD) and Tony DeAngelo (RD)
Libor Hajek will be a fascinating player to watch for the Rangers in 2019-2020 and a player that Ranger fans should quietly keep their eye on. Hajek was supposedly one of the centerpieces in the Ryan McDonagh/J.T. Miller blockbuster trade to Tampa last February and there were high hopes for Hajek in the AHL in 2018-2019. However, Hajek did not perform up to expectations in Hartford last season, suiting up for 58 games and recording just five assists and during his AHL stint. He was also a -26 for the Wolfpack last season, as there were concerns about his game on both ends of the rink.
However, after being called up to play for the Rangers, Hajek’s play seemed to improve. Hajek only played five games for the Blueshirts last season before separating his shoulder and missing the remainder of the season. That being said, Hajek was productive during his short stint in the Big Apple. He scored his first goal against the Devils on March 9th and was very solid while donning the Rangers sweater. Hajek was a +1 and received 21:44 TOI the game before his injury. It’s important to note that Hajek did not have a stable defense partner on the Wolf Pack, as the team came in last place in the division and allowed the third-most goals of any AHL team in 2018-2019.
Hajek seems like he can develop into a solid defenseman that can skate well and move the puck, as well as occasionally provide offense. Tony DeAngelo, another offensively inclined defenseman, appears to be the best partner for Hajek as he attempts to establish himself as an NHL-caliber blueliner. DeAngelo flourished under David Quinn last season and still needs to be re-signed by Rangers management, but it’s clear that DeAngelo has created a strong rapport with Coach Quinn and a spot on one of the Rangers power-play units. DeAngelo still has to work on his defensive game, but the offensive ability is present and this past season was important for “Tony D” in regards to cementing his ability to play at the NHL-level. I’d like to see DeAngelo suit up for all 82 games next season (if healthy) to see what the Rangers genuinely have with him. And following the Shattenkirk buyout, it’s clear that the Rangers envision DeAngelo on the back end when the puck drops on the 2019-2020 NHL regular season.
7th Defenseman – Ryan Lindgren/Brendan Smith
Who Jeff Gorton and David Quinn keep as the team’s seventh defenseman will depend on whether the organization decides to give Smith another opportunity at the NHL level or whether they’d rather bury him in the AHL, which would also give the Rangers a little bit of salary-cap flexibility. Lindgren was solid in limited minutes last season, but time will tell if he can earn a roster spot in 2019-2020.
All in all, the defense for the Rangers has a lot of “if’s” and “maybe’s” heading in 2019-2020, but this is what a rebuild truly is. David Quinn will have his hands full examining a tremendous amount of young talent on the Rangers roster when training camp kicks off in a few weeks.