Can Reilly Smith, Zac Jones help Rangers address deficiencies exposed by Panthers?

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at San Jose Sharks
Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

There are many reasons why the New York Rangers fell short against the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Final. The lack of production by their top forward Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin — was a major one.

That trio — and you can add defenseman Adam Fox to the mix — scored two goals combined, including one by Panarin in the final minutes of the decisive Game 6 loss.

The Rangers generated so little 5v5, with Zibanejad’s line featuring Kreider and a host of right wings struggling to get into the high-danger scoring areas.

And the Rangers defense allowed the Panthers to easily slip into the offensive zone, win puck battles, cause turnovers, produce high-danger looks and score just enough goals against Igor Shesterkin. Simply, the Blueshirts blueliners — which included the physically-challenged Jacob Trouba, Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox — failed to meet the challenge of the Panthers speed and tenacious forecheck.

So, these issues at each end of the ice were exposed by the Panthers and to a lesser extent the Carolina Hurricanes, who took the Rangers to six games after dropping the first three in the second round. The Rangers lack of consistent offensive zone time resulted in five goals over the final three games against the Panthers, and the defense was on its heels most of the series.

With limited resources the Rangers acquired forward Reilly Smith in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins last week to help up front, and appear to have settled on defenseman Zac Jones to step in and replace Erik Gustafsson on the back end next season. The Rangers also signed fourth-line center Sam Carrick on an affordable three-year, $3 million deal.

Instead of landing a big name like Jake Guentzel, who signed a seven-year, $63 million contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning, or even Tyler Toffoli or Patrick Kane, the Rangers had to swing the Smith trade since they were so close to the salary cap.

While Carrick can be viewed as a cheaper replacement for Barclay Goodrow, it should be noted that Goodrow played a big role in New York’s playoff success in 2024. Meanwhile, the Rangers are hoping Smith can solve the problem of a consistent right wing option for Kreider and Zibanejad.

On the surface it feels like it a low-risk move since the Rangers traded a conditional fifth-round pick in 2025 and a 2027 second-round pick.

It also feels like a move where the Rangers may be too late. Smith was available for two draft picks because of diminished value after dropping to 13 goals and 40 points in Pittsburgh last season.

If the 33-year-old was acquired after scoring an NHL career-high 27 goals in 2019-20 in his age-28 season, it might feel like a flashier move. But deeper numbers show a player possibly on the decline, despite helping the Vegas Golden Knights win the Stanley Cup in 2023. Smith’s shooting percentage was a career-low 8.6 percent last season and the fact that the Penguins performed better at 5-on-5 when he was not on the ice isn’t an encouraging sign.

Despite those lack of encouraging numbers, the fact the Rangers are not taking on much salary helps and Smith does have that Stanley Cup pedigree. He’s also on the books for only one more season, so there’s no long-term commitment and Smith could be motivated playing for a new contract as a pending unrestricted free agent.

The Rangers will find out in a few months if they did enough to spur the top-six forward group but right now it feels like the Rangers are only marginally better with Smith instead of the departed Jack Roslovic.

Related: What we learned about Rangers in first week of NHL free agency

Rangers look to Zac Jones to join top six in defense corps

NHL: New York Rangers at Boston Bruins
Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers were a few steps too slow too many times when the Panthers entered the offensive zone with ease and often moved the puck around without difficulty in the conference final.

It was never more noticeable than when Sam Bennett easily eluded Trouba’s hit attempt at the blue line and skated in to the Rangers zone to score the first goal in the final minute of the first period in Game 6 of the conference final.

Trouba later revealed he broke his ankle in March and he could’ve been compromised after missing 11 games. The injury slowed him down significantly and he was a minus-2 against the Panthers.

After being unable to trade him, the Rangers appear set to run it back with Trouba and are banking on Jones to be a capable replacement for Erik Gustafson, who signed with the Detroit Red Wings.

So far, Jones has appeared in 69 regular-season NHL games, including 31 last season. The Rangers were 21-9-1 with Jones in the lineup and are 36-19-3 with him in the lineup in the past three seasons.

Barring any trade, Jones appears to be on the verge of getting his most consistent opportunity since the Rangers made him their third-round pick in the 2019 draft.

Jones should slot in on the bottom pair with either Trouba or Braden Schneider, and receive some power-play time on the second unit.

In his limited NHL exposure, Jones has three goals and 14 assists and is a minus-10, though he was a plus-1 last season. He has averaged 15 minutes per game, which is on par for someone on the third pairing.

He was solid in March, playing regularly when Trouba, Lindgren and Gustafsson all sustained injuries.

Jones moves the puck quickly and decisively, something the Rangers struggled to do against the Panthers. Though he’s a good skater, Jones is not big (5-foot-10, 176 pounds) and it’s fair to question how he would’ve handled the heavy Panthers forecheck this past spring.

By comparison, the bigger (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) and more experienced Gustafsson had major issues in his own end against the Panthers. So, it’s worth wondering if the Rangers would consider having Jones share time in the lineup with big (6-6, 230) veteran Ben Harpur, who could be a 6th/7th defenseman on the roster this season.

The majority of the playing time should fall to Jones, though, and the Rangers can decide exactly what they have in the 23-year-old. If there are any issues, the Blueshirts could always rectify the situation ahead of the 2025 trade deadline.

Larry is a sports media veteran who has worked for all of the top wire services as a writer... More about Larry Fleisher

Mentioned in this article:

More About: