What are the New York Rangers’ plans for Zac Jones and Erik Gustafsson?
The New York Rangers drafted Zac Jones in the third round of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, and thus far, the 22-year-old defenseman has played 38 games over three seasons. One of the main reasons he has yet to crack the lineup as a regular is the log jam in front of him with Adam Fox, K’Andre Miller, Ryan Lindgren, and Jacob Trouba patrolling the blueline.
Besides a few bona fide NHL stars, Jones has yet to make an impact when playing with the Rangers, scoring eight points with one goal. Additionally, he is minus-11, which means he’s been a liability when he gets a call-up. The Rangers’ front office is still deciding whether to commit to the youngster, despite renewing his contract for two seasons.
Rangers sign Erik Gustafsson to shore up defense
When free agency kicked off on July 1, general manager Chris Drury was busy working the phones to alter his roster after losing superstars Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko. Although the team underperformed in the postseason after going all-in at the trade deadline, Drury needed to retool to take advantage of the youthful core assembled on Broadway.
One of the most under-the-radar moves the Rangers performed so far was acquiring free agent Erik Gustafsson, who spent parts of last season with the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs. After seven seasons and 379 games, the Swedish defender is about to dress for his seventh team.
Although he only has 39 career goals, Gustafsson has developed a reputation for setting up his teammates, routinely collecting 30 assists when he dresses more than 60 games in a season. Considering the Rangers have some offensively gifted stars like Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, and Artemi Panarin, those players will appreciate another defender capable of contributing on the scoreboard.
According to projected lineups at DailyFaceoff.com, Gustafsson is penciled in to be on the third pairing sharing the ice with Braden Schneider and picking up extra ice time on the second power-play unit. Jones’ name is not listed in the projected lineup, so barring an outstanding training camp, it appears he’ll start the season with the Hartford Wolf Pack in the AHL.
Will Zac Jones or Erik Gustafsson see more ice time with the Rangers?
The Rangers renewed Jones’ contract on June 16 for $812,500 and, within two weeks, signed Gustafsson to a deal worth $825,000. Despite an NHL experience gap of 341 games, the Rangers will only pay these players a difference of $12,500.
The question is why New York has two players on similar deals who play the same position in the lineup. Although the answer is obvious, the situation may only please some fans looking at today, not the future.
Jones is still developing and can use more time in the AHL to grow into a top-four defender who can contribute on offense. Of course, the team is not worried about that right now, with Fox averaging 58 points a season. Right now, Jones can work on rounding out his game, which is significantly different in the AHL, where he is plus-12 in 106 career games.
While the Rangers wait for him to have a breakthrough, Gustafsson will slide into a bottom-pairing role for a season and help the team anywhere he can. Although a portion of the fanbase will say the best way to get Jones to where he needs to be is to throw him to the wolves now and deal with the growing pains. However, management wanted to protect their asset and had to avoid giving him a guaranteed roster spot to achieve that goal.
Of course, Jones could have a great training camp and crack the lineup, but his place is secured in Hartford even if he doesn’t. And, barring any injuries or significant dip in production, he’ll play some games in the NHL. Neither Jones nor Gustafsson will win the Norris Trophy, but both have the tools to be a solid third-pairing defenseman who can collect some points.
Even though Gustafsson is serving as a bridge to the future, the Rangers can’t rush everyone to the Garden because everyone knows the franchise doesn’t have a good track record in that department. Overall, these two players are interchangeable, and given a certain matchup or injury; it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they share the ice at some point in 2023-24.