As the regular season approaches Rangers starting blue-line emerging
One of the biggest questions coming into camp and the preseason was who the Rangers 7 defenseman will be. Three players were a lock in Marc Staal, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Brady Skjei. The Rangers then went out and acquired physical veteran, Adam McQuaid leaving 2 starting spots open and an extra.
Competing to grab the final spots were veterans Brenden Smith, Fredrik Claesson, and Rob O’Gara. Of course, this is a rebuilding year so it would only make sense that these spots should be filled with youth. From that perspective Neal Pionk, and Tony DeAngelo are getting strong consideration with Libor Hajek having an outside chance.
While all have played well in the preseason, Brenden Smith, Neal Pionk, and Tony DeAngelo have really stood out. Rob O’Gara has played physical but the acquisition of McQuaid and the reemergence of Smith have made him expendable. Libor Hajek has shown flashes of the highly skilled offense he is known for, but he looks like a year in Hartford would serve him well. That leaves Fredrik Claesson still in the mix with a total of 4 players for 3 spots.
Finding the Right Mix
Before diving into all the hypotheticals, after last night’s game David Quinn said that he would consider carrying 8 defenseman to start the season. That is likely what will happen as the Rangers can not send anyone but Neal Pionk down without having to pass waivers. Make no mistake about it, Tony DeAngelo will not pass through waivers.
While Staal, Shattenkirk, Skjei, and McQuaid seem like locks to make it, I don’t think McQuaid will see top 4 minutes. Of all the Rangers blue liners competing for a spot, Neal Pionk has picked off where he left off last season and looks even better in exhibition. He should be reunited with Marc Staal as the Blueshirts second pairing.
The Rangers have committed money and time into Brenden Smith, and he has repaid them by coming into camp in great shape and playing an all around game so far. Claesson has been solid, but truly hasn’t separated himself. He would make a perfect 7th defenseman, and will likely be after this is all said and done.
Of course the dilemma here is what to do with Tony DeAngelo who is better on the right side as well. He’s played very solid hockey and looks like he can QB a PP too. There just isn’t room for him in the top 6 and waivers is not an option. Ultimately, the play of both Pionk and Smith have solidified the defense for opening night, but maybe not beyond October.
What Could Happen?
The Rangers will very likely open the season with 8 defensemen. Here is how I see it when the puck drops on October 4th.
Jeff Gorton has to make a decision on the future of Tony DeAngelo with the team. Can the coaching staff get him to play the left side adequately? Is it possible that McQuaid could make the adjustment to allow DeAngelo to play his preferred side? If not, then the Rangers could move him for some decent value.
If DeAngelo can make the move to the left or McQuaid, then the Rangers will have to try and move Brenden Smith. The play of the rugged defenseman will certainly make him attractive, but his contract will turn many teams off. That means the Rangers may have to eat some of that salary which isn’t going to appeal to Gorton.
The rebuilding Rangers can not afford to just move DeAngelo for the sake of moving him. They need to retain him and see what he can do before players like Hajek, Ryan Lindgren, and Sean Day all push for spots next season.