Can Zac Jones edge out veteran Erik Gustafsson as the Rangers sixth defenseman?
The New York Rangers have seen flashes from defenseman prospect Zac Jones in limited playing time the past three seasons. But is this the season that the 22-year-old finally grabs hold of a regular spot in the top-six?
Jones has played 38 games for the Rangers over the past three seasons and has eight points (one goal, seven assists), averaging 15:18 ice time. He’s typically played in the bottom defensive pairing, meaning he’s had to play with many different partners on his right at the NHL level.
Most recently, Braden Schneider has cemented himself as the righthand defenseman on the third pairing for the team — and hence one important open question for training camp is this: which defenseman will exit camp as Schneider’s partner for the 2023-2024 season?
Enter Erik Gustafsson
Although Jones was inked to a two-year extension by the Blueshirts in June, several days later veteran defenseman Erik Gustafsson was signed to a one-year deal.
Drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in 2012, the Swedish defenseman was never signed by the Oilers; he was picked up by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2014-2015 season on a two-way contract for whom he played through the 2018-2019 season. In February 2020, Gustafsson was acquired by the Calgary Flames from Chicago, but by October he became a free agent and has since played for the Philadelphia Flyers, the Montreal Canadiens, on a PTO for the New York Islanders, the Blackhawks once again, the Washington Capitals, and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Noteworthy in all this is that Gustafsson played for Rangers’ new head coach Peter Laviolette with the Washington Capitals. A recognized favorite of Laviolette’s, the 31-year-old Gustafsson was cited by the coach for his ability to play defense, battle for the puck, and move it out of the d-zone leading to offensive opportunities to score.
Although Gustafsson’s been critiqued by other NHL observers as a bit of a wild card, the coach’s prior experience with the veteran d-man may give him a leg up as the sixth player on the defense corps straight out of camp.
The development of Zac Jones
Despite his prior experience with Gustafsson, however, Laviolette will probably give Jones his chances in training camp to earn the more coveted roster spot — that of the defenseman who plays in every game, and not just sits on the sidelines as seventh d-man.
Jones isn’t by any means a large player, and he’ll likely never own the role of enforcer on a team. The 22-year-old played college hockey at the University of Massachusetts, and as is their wont, the Blueshirts drafted him as a skills player. Extending him for two years speaks to their interest in developing him as an NHL player, and not simply as an AHL’er to fill out the Wolf Pack’s roster.
Comparing Zac Jones to other players
Jones has been compared to Adam Fox because of his size, but he’s also been working on puck control and on his defensive capabilities with the Wolf Pack given that he hasn’t been handed a permanent spot on the NHL roster as of yet.
“They can’t change how tall they are,” former UMass assistant Ben Barr, and now Maine’s head coach, told The New York Post in June about the 5-foot-10 Jones. “None of us can. But they can change, they can always add a dimension to their game. … [Jones] found a way to balance the fact that he wasn’t gonna be 6-foot-3, and I’m sure he’s continued to do that the last two years.”
Even at the AHL level, Jones has had the opportunity to both observe and play with other noted defensive prospects such as Matthew Robertson; and thus he hasn’t been isolated in a vacuum of poor defense against whom he’s always shone as the brightest star.
The next step for Zac Jones would be the jump to the NHL level on a more permanent basis, facing new challenges and proving himself capable of staying at that level. But will he get that chance? Only time and training camp will tell.