Grading the Rangers defense after the first two months of the season

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The state of the Rangers defense has been one of uncertainty and instability. The season is 28 games old and we’ve seen no shortage of defensive combinations tested on the ice. David Quinn has spent the greater portion of the year trying to balance his young defense, while still incorporating everyone at his disposal. Quinn has spent time shuffling through extremely varied lineups, including the continual benching of defensemen. Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, Tony DeAngelo, Neal Pionk, Adam McQuaid, and Brendan Smith have all been benched at times this year due to poor play. In addition, the defense has seen the constant insertion and removal of Freddy Claesson and Smith as the team’s sixth defenseman. Not only this, but there are times that the Rangers have even dressed a seventh defenseman.

So what does this tell us? That the Rangers coaching staff, I’m looking at you Lindy Ruff, has no clue. They have a clue when it comes to other facets of the game, but not their defense. There has been zero consistency out of the majority of the defensemen that have dressed for the Rangers. For what was supposed to be a lost season, the Rangers have overperformed. That said, if they would like to remain in contention, they must find some sort of semblance of a solid defense. Let’s take a closer look into each player.

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Neal Pionk

Pionk has been, perhaps, the most pleasant player to watch of the bunch. Coming off a fantastic NHL debut at the end of last season, it was still to be seen how he would perform in his new role over the course of a full NHL campaign. Pionk has scored 16 points (4G, 12A) this season, which puts him on pace for 50, and from a guy supposedly not known for his offense. Pionk had been benched by David Quinn for two games in a row when the season was young and quickly got the message. Since that point, he has easily been the Rangers best defenseman. Defensively, he’s been very solid but makes the occasional rookie mistake. One more thing to note when watching his play, he no doubt exerts more effort on the ice than any of the other defensemen.

Grade: A-

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Marc Staal

Since his horrible year several seasons back, Staal has slowly brought his game back up to a solid level. He is not the defenseman he used to be, having lost some of his ability to keep up, but he still plays decent lockdown defense. In addition, he still knows how to use his long reach to his advantage, and that is a big factor in his game. Quinn often matches him up with the opposition’s upper echelon players, and Staal more often than not has been up to the task. A solid veteran with some solid leadership is a great thing for this young team.

Grade: B

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Tony DeAngelo

Despite seeing the bench multiple times this season, DeAngelo has been a fairly important piece of the Rangers defense. He has notched a respectable eight points (2G, 6A) in 18 games this season. Is this considered underperforming for an offensive defenseman? Maybe. But the key to DeAngelo’s game is his speed, finesse, and play-making ability. He has a tremendous ability to skate with the puck and open up the ice and, if he sees passing lanes, he is good at moving the puck into good areas. He is a solid player on the powerplay and is not afraid to throw the puck at the net whenever he gets the chance. He needs to shape up defensively, as he is one to commonly turn the puck over and make careless errors. But if he can work on his defense and hone his offensive skill, he may be a force to be reckoned with.

Grade: B

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Brady Skjei

Take the “r” and “y” out of his name and you have accurately described his performance this year. Bad. There’s not much more to say about the issue. His offense is nowhere near what it should be and his defense has been unsatisfying. He has turned the puck over far more often than a player with his experience should. And after signing such a large deal in the offseason, he must improve his play. 

Grade: C-

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Kevin Shattenkirk

Shatty has been another disappointment this season. The sentiment coming into this year was that he would bounce back from the surgery that prematurely ended his first season with the Rangers. Well, he hasn’t. Shattenkirk has been a defensive liability, sometimes appearing to have no idea what to do in certain defensive situations.

In addition, his leadership was supposed to be a focal point this year. Well he hasn’t done that either, having been asked by Quinn to step up his leadership multiple times this year. On the bright side, he’s Kevin Shattenkirk. He’s a New Yorker at heart and you’ve got to figure he’ll shake this slump at some point.

Grade: C

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Fredrik Claesson

Claesson has not been much of a factor this year. He has no offense, contributing just one goal. But that’s alright since he is solid in his own zone. He doesn’t do all that much on the ice that will dazzle you, but he can lockdown if needed and move the puck offensively too. Overall, he has been average. Nothing special, but nothing terrible.

Grade: B-

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Brendan Smith

That leaves us with Brendan Smith. Oh boy. Smith has quite possibly had an even worse season so far than he had last year. If he keeps this up, he might punch a teammate again (hopefully not Vinni this time). Amongst the defensemen, Smith is tied for worst plus-minus, he has the most giveaways, and also has the highest number of penalty minutes. These stats speak for themselves. He has easily been their worst defenseman and has been benched often. If you ask me, he should be sitting on that bench permanently in favor of Claesson.

Grade: F

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Adam McQuaid

Who? Exactly. McQuaid, who was acquired to be a solid, veteran tough-guy on defense hardly lived up to expectation. He lasted a very short period of time before getting hurt. During that time, he was benched for poor play and looked like a skating pile of bricks when he wasn’t.

Grade: D

Charles Wenzelberg

PROSPECT WATCH

With all this talk about the inconsistency of the Rangers defense, there is one bright spot outside of their starting lineup. For that, we travel to Wisconsin. Rangers 2018 firstround pick K’Andre Miller has been solidifying himself as one of the best collegiate defensemen in the country. In 16 games played, Miller has produced 15 points, including a fourpoint night earlier in the week.

This begs the question, should he come over next year? The typical response would be that he should stay at Wisconsin for another year; but, given the circumstances, I say otherwise. This is a defense that needs a star, and soon. While K’Andre Miller will need several years to fully acclimate to the NHL, his presence and early development at the NHL level will prove extremely beneficial to the Rangers defense. The earlier the Rangers get him going the better, because he’s going to be a force in this league regardless of how long he stays at Wisconsin.

Editor’s Note: For Zak’s article on the team’s best six defensemen, click here