Despite all the promise, New York Rangers defense a question mark heading into the season

The New York Rangers were an exciting team last year thanks to the MVP finalist performance of Artemi Panarin. Unlike many free agent signings in Blueshirts history, he got better after landing a giant contract.

Panarin finished the season with a career high of 95 points and would’ve easily eclipsed the century mark if not for COVID-19. The undrafted boy from Korkino, Russia was made for the bright lights of Broadway.

So much to look forward to

Of course, Mika Zibanejad put to bed any questions that he’s not just a number one center but an elite NHL talent. At 27 years-old, he is set to terrorize goalies for years to come as he scored a whopping 41 goals in 57 games. If not for a neck injury and COVID-19, Mika would’ve notched 50 goals.

Then there’s the kids with Kaapo Kakko, the #2 overall pick in 2019 showing signs of what he will be in the near future. And now NY has Alexis Lafreniere, a generational talent being the first overall selection by the Rangers since 1965.

The talent pool is stocked as well with Vitali Kravtsov, K’Andre Miller, and Nils Lundkvist all gearing to play later this year or next.

In goal, the Rangers said goodbye to a legend and embraced the future. The Czar of New York, Igor Shesterkin exploded onto the scene and propelled the Rangers into the qualifying round. In 12 games he notched 10 wins and showed the hype around his KHL and AHL numbers was legit.

RELATED: Rangers will need both goalies to shine next season

The defense cannot rest

new york rangers defense
Lindgren crushes Eberle (USA Today)

When it comes to concerns it is still the Rangers defense. Will the top four be better this season? The answer is yes and that could be enough. Jacob Trouba struggled to acclimate himself early last year and was a -12. That was the first time in his career he was on the wrong side of plus minus.

Trouba will likely have a new partner, as David Quinn will move Tony DeAngelo from the right side to Jacob’s left. The pair should be offensively dynamic, especially if Trouba isn’t forced to be the puck carrier for the unit.

They will still have some trouble in their own zone since DeAngelo is not known for being a shutdown guy in his own end. That doesn’t mean he can’t play defense as some suggest, it just isn’t what makes him the newly minted $4.8 million blue-liner.

The Rangers second pair is their best. Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox haves shown a chemistry on the back-end likely not seen since Brian Leetch was paired with Jeff Beukeboom. These two can only get better together.

RELATED: Ryan Lindgren and Brad Marchand feud

Third pair defense is a problem

The Rangers, should they move DeAngelo to the top pairing will only have lefties on the third pair. At the moment two veterans will likely see playing time in Jack Johnson and Brendan Smith.

Both players have regressed heavily over the last few seasons. Should they be paired together, it will take one hell of a defensive schema from new assistant Jacques Martin to make it work. That and the fact the whole team needs to play better defense as a unit of five. A concept lost on many fans who love to find a scapegoat on the blue line almost every year.

Scapegoats like Tom Poti, Marek Malik, Marc Staal, Brady Skjei, should I continue?

There could be hope on defense

Two young players have a real chance to make a difference. A pair of 22 year-olds by the names of Libor Hajek and Tarmo Reunanen could not only challenge for jobs by earn them.

Hajek has real promise but needs to play with his size. At 6-2″ and 196 pounds he can be a physical force. Sadly, he’s getting reputation of being injury prone. He also can play offensive hockey because he has a great shot.

Reunanen on the other hand has seemed to blossom in the last year. The Rangers fourth round pick in 2016 is emerging as #1 defenseman in Finland’s top league, Liiga. He’s averaging around 25 minutes per game and is thriving, picking up points and shutting down opponents regularly.

RELATED: NYR fans better learn the name Tarmo Reunanen

No matter what, the 2021 Rangers will be better

Regardless of the question marks on defense, this iteration of the Blueshirts will be better. That’s just not the belief of this writer but a panel of writers over at The Athletic.

They looked at all teams and gave them a rating for the following factors:

  • U25 core and prospects
  • Management and coaching
  • Ownership and market
  • Salary Cap Situation

When it was all said and done, the Rangers (8.0) ranked third overall barely behind the Toronto Maple Leafs (8.2) and the Colorado Avalanche (8.2).

Not bad Rangers fans. Not bad at all.

A rival executive was recently chatting about the Rangers and their collection of young talent, predicting stardom for Alexis Lafreniere, while admiring young defensemen like Adam Fox and Tony DeAngelo. There was certainly a hint of jealousy in his voice when he talked about how the Rangers are able to land players in free agency. It’s only going to get easier now because the hardest part is over. The rebuild landed high-end young talent. The Rangers made the toughest decisions with veterans of another era. It’s about to get really fun in New York.

The Athletic

Take a look Athletic’s what the 2021 NHL season will look like

Anthony Scultore has been covering the New York Rangers and the NHL since 2014. His work also appears at... More about Anthony Scultore