Jack Johnson is no lock to make the Rangers opening night roster

A lot has been made of the Rangers signing Jack Johnson to a one year deal worth $1.15 million this offseason. The signing was due in part to John Davidson’s and new assistant coach Jacques Martin’s past with the 6-1 and 227 lb defender.

Jack Johnson no lock to make the opening night roster

Jack Johnson will be 34 years old when the puck drops on the 2020-21 NHL season. The veteran will be battling with five other defenseman for two spots. Ryan Lindgren is the only certainty to make the opening roster on the left side.

jack johnson rangers
Jack Johnson joins NYR (Getty Images)

Any advantage some believe Johnson has coming in could evaporate quickly come January 3 when Rangers camp opens. That’s because he will be in competition with two other veterans in Brendan Smith and Anthony Bitetto. To make matters harder, three kids are also pressing for spots in K’Andre Miller, Libor Hajek, and Tarmo Reunanen.

If you ask me, unless Johnson stands out among this group he will wind up the 7th defenseman at best.

Brendan Smith and Anthony Bitetto

The Rangers signed 30 year-old Anthony Bitetto to a taxi squad friendly two year deal at $737,500. He played 51 games for the Winnipeg Jets last season and picked up 8 assists. Overall, he has 183 NHL games under his belt. It is unlikely the Rangers view him higher than Johnson on the current depth chart.

Brendan Smith on the other hand has a better chance of making it over Johnson. First off, he is versatile and could play 4th line wing minutes. He is willing to fight and that may be necessary in this rivalry filled division with a condensed schedule. At 31 years old, Smith only has one season left on his deal and putting him on the taxi-squad will still come with a cap hit of over $3 million. If you ask me, Smith actually has more advantages to land a spot on David Quinn’s roster.

Libor Hajek and Tarmo Reunanen could push out the veterans

Let’s start with Libor Hajek. The Rangers really want to see what they have in the 22 year-old before re-signing him and possibly exposing him to Seattle in the expansion draft.

He made quite an impression during the 2018-19 season where he played 5 games and scored a great goal before having his season end early due to a separated shoulder.

Libor Hajek
Libor Hajek (NHLI via Getty Images)

Coming into this last season, Libor made the team out of camp and was partnered on left defense with Adam Fox. The two rookies had some puck management issues and were separated with Hajek finding himself playing mostly with Jacob Trouba. He will need to do better this time around to make it and stick.

The name Tarmo Reunanen was not one many New York Rangers fans knew much of back in 2016. Selected 98th overall in the fourth round, only prospect connoisseurs were aware he existed. Now, Rangers fans are hearing it more and more as it looks like the 22 year-old is ready to make a serious pitch for a starting job.

He is emerging in the Finnish elite league as a top pair defender. Reunanen is not only playing big time minutes averaging over 26 per game, he’s excelling on both sides of the puck.

Unlike the others vying for a spot, David Quinn knows him the least. Tarmo would need to be head and shoulders above the rest to make it, but he may be able to do just that.

Is it K’Andre Miller time yet?

The 20 year-old first round pick, 22nd overall in 2018 is a blend of skill, speed, and power. K’Andre Miller is what every team dreams of having on their blue-line in this decade.

new york rangers
K’Andre Miller impressed in Phase 3 (Charles Wenzelberg)

At RTP training camp, he was the non-roster player the Rangers chose to have partake in practice and scrimmages. They did this knowing full well he was ineligible to play in the playoffs because he signed his ELC for 2021.

What everyone saw at the MSG Training Facility is that he belonged. Tony DeAngelo said as much on an episode of the “Watch Your Tone” podcast. The kid didn’t look out of place playing with the big boys and his skating opened eyes of his future teammates as well.

He could overtake everyone and make the team, the only issue boils down to performance bonuses. The Rangers already are accounting for nearly $4 million in bonus cushion with their cap.

Still if JD, Jeff Gorton, and David Quinn think he’s ready they can put him on the roster and let him fly. Should he slip, they can send him to the taxi squad without issue because he’s waiver exempt.

Ultimately, there’s a lot going on with the Rangers left side defense that clearly shows Jack Johnson isn’t a lock to make it.

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

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