Defense Season Recap and Grades
Entering the 2016-17 season, the biggest concern for the Rangers was their defensive corps. Aside from team captain Ryan McDonagh, the entire back end was a giant question mark. Would Kevin Klein be able to sustain his successful play from 2015? Could Dan Girardi and Marc Staal bounce back from very sub-par campaigns? How would Nick Holden and Adam Clendening fit into the Rangers defense? And finally, how would Brady Skjei develop in his first full season on Broadway?
And then you have the moves Jeff Gorton made during the season. Was trading Dylan Mcilrath the right move? How would Brendan Smith adjust to the Rangers system after being brought in during the trade deadline? All of these questions left the pundits to question how well the Blueshirts would do this season. Now that the dust has settled a bit, let’s look back on how the Rangers blueliners fared this season.
Ryan McDonagh – The Rangers captain has been one of the most steady Rangers over the course of his career. McDonagh was almost always in the right position, and if he got caught in a bad pinch, he was able to use his speed to catch up and make the defensive play. The captain stepped up his offensive game this year, putting up more than 40 points for the first time since 2013-14. McDonagh being the constant, driving force on the blue line helped guide the Rangers through a rough season on the back end. Grade: A-
Dan Girardi – After what can only be described as a brutal 2016-16, the veteran defenseman had a bit of a bounce back season this year. Girardi looked a little slow at times, but he was able to a simplify his game. He was tied for ninth in the NHL in blocked shots, and fifth in blocked shots per game. Girardi made mistakes during the season, but on the whole, he had a solid year. Grade: B-
Marc Staal – Like his veteran counterpart, Staal struggled through most of the 2015-16 season. And with newly acquired Nick Holden, Alain Vigneault decided to pair him with Staal. For the first five months of the season, the pair played very well together. Both players are “stay at home” defensemen who were making the smart plays in their own end, and made positive contributions in the offensive zone as well. But as the season wore on, Staal’s play started to slip. The simple plays he made early in the year were not showing up, and he was regressing at the worst possible time. He steadied himself a bit in the playoffs, but it was a little too late. Grade: C
Nick Holden – When the Rangers acquired Nick Holden from the Colorado Avalanche, Alain Vigneault received a call from Patrick Roy who said: “you just got one of my better defensemen.” And for the first five months of the season, that was pretty evident. Holden was making smart defensive plays, staying out of the box, and putting up points. But, as the season continued, Holden’s play slipped and so did his reliability. Even though the coaching staff kept putting him on the ice in critical situations, it was not because of the way he had been playing. Holden has one more year left on his contract and will be turning 31 at the end of next season. If he wants to stick around with the Blueshirts, he will have to play like he did for the first half of this season over a full 82 game schedule. Grade: C+
Brendan Smith – After being acquired for two draft picks right before the trade deadline, Brendan Smith needed to learn a new defensive system in just two months. And from what we saw in those two months, the Rangers need to offer the unrestricted free agent a contract. The 28-year-old was a steady force in his brief time with the Blueshirts this season and was unafraid to drop the mitts when called upon. Smith, along with his defense partner Brady Skjei, were promoted to the second pair during the postseason when the Staal and Holden pair struggled. Smith has the combination of skating and defensive abilities that make him a very attractive free agent, and one the Rangers should definitely send a contract offer. Grade: B+
Brady Skjei – After making his debut in the 2016 playoffs, the Rangers were looking to get a big boost on the blue line from the young defenseman. And their expectations were met, and maybe even exceeded. Skjei made the defensive plays in his own end, used his skating ability and speed against some of the league’s more shifty forwards, and jumped up in the rush when the right opportunity presented itself. Skjei hit the rookie wall midway through the season but bounced back to finish strong. Skjei has the makings of a top-pairing defenseman, and that is something the Rangers will be hoping to see for years to come. Grade: A-
Kevin Klein – Following a productive 2015-16, expectations for Kevin Klein were high. Klein had been steady in his own end, shown an ability to jump into the rush and stick up for his teammates. But this season was a complete 180° turn. Klein looked slow, out of position, and became a liability in his own end. Klein will be in the final year of his contract next season, and if he plans on being with the Blueshirts after next year, he will need to find a way to get his game back. Grade: D-
Adam Clendening – The Rangers signed the journeyman defenseman after he had spent the previous three seasons with four different teams. Here’s the issue with Clendening. While he is an offensive presence from the back end, he does not have the defensive skills necessary to be a consistent presence in an NHL lineup. Clendening falls somewhere between a fourth line forward and a so-so bottom pair defenseman. And while a lot of fans were calling for Clendening’s insertion into the lineup, the fact remains that he is not good enough in his own end. The way I see it is like this: if you are a defenseman who does not play good DEFENSE, then how many points you may produce from the blue line becomes far less important. If a defenseman doesn’t play defense, then he shouldn’t be on the ice. Grade: C-
Steven Kampfer – The Rangers reacquired Kampfer in a deal with the Florida Panthers for the big and brawny Dylan Mcilrath. While many fans wanted Mcilrath to remain in the organization, his skillset did not mesh well with the speed game that Alain Vigneault wants his team to play. Kampfer came in as an extra defenseman, and when he was called upon to step into the lineup, he performed well. He was good in his own end, despite his smaller frame, and used his skating to get himself in good positions. His solid play this year earned him a contract extension through the 2018-19 season, and he can be a nice piece as the seventh defenseman on this team. Grade: C