Rangers need depth on defense, competition for Zac Jones

NHL: Columbus Blue Jackets at New York Rangers
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

After Nate Schmidt and Erik Brannstrom signed very team-friendly deals elsewhere in NHL free agency, are the New York Rangers running out of affordable options to compete with Zac Jones for the 6/7 spot on the blue line?

Jones was the extra defenseman on the Blueshirts roster last season, but the 23-year-old is expected to move up the pecking order and on to the third pairing in 2024-25 now that Erik Gustafsson left for a two-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings this offseason.

As things stand, Ben Harpur is in line to challenge Jones to be in the opening-night lineup on the third pair. The 29-year-old had surgery for a torn pectoral muscle last season and played only seven games with the Hartford Wolf Pack in the American Hockey League. The 6-foot-6 defender does have 198 games of NHL experience, though, including 42 with the Rangers in 2022-23.

Schmidt would have been a great option on the back end for the Rangers, but he elected for a very cheap $800,000 one-year deal with the Stanley Cup champion Florida Panthers. Brannstrom took a similar route, signing a one-year deal worth $900,000 with the Colorado Avalanche after his contract was bought out by the Ottawa Senators.

Each was an affordable left-shot option to play on New York’s third pair. Schmidt, 32, is far more experienced with 661 NHL games on his resume and could’ve played up in the lineup or on the right side if there was injury or other reasons to do so. Brannstrom is 24, with 266 games of NHL experience — a year older but with significantly more games played than Jones.

It’s unknown if the Rangers engaged with either free agent, or even someone like Adam Boqvist, the 23-year-old defenseman and former No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft who also signed with the Panthers. He was bought out by the Columbus Blue Jackets after another injury-marred season but is a slick offensive defenseman, who, like Jones, is still very young.

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NHL: Preseason-Boston Bruins at New York Rangers
Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

Instead of adding a defenseman, the Rangers are banking heavily on Jones to take the next step and finally become a mainstay on the third pair. While he showed signs of improvement when called on in limited action last season, he has never played in the capacity of a full 82-game season, plus Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Last season, Jones played an NHL career-high 31 games, had two goals and seven assists, and averaged 14:37 of ice time per game. He performed exceptionally well filling in when Adam Fox was injured early in the season and then again later in March when injuries kayoed Jacob Trouba, Ryan Lindgren and Gustafsson.

Leaving Jones with no competition would not benefit him nor his game. He needs at least one more player to compete with to ensure that he is really pushing for that sixth spot. That is what will benefit his game the most.

Another thing to consider is injury. If the Rangers lose just one defenseman, Harpur slots into the lineup. If they lose more, who comes next? Do the Rangers call up Connor Mackey or Matthew Robertson? As of right now, this is not a sustainable approach.

“They are so, so thin on D,” New York Post beat reporter Mollie Walker told Forever Blueshirts in a podcast interview this week. “The fact that they qualified Matthew Robertson is all you need to know about how thin they are at D. They don’t have a choice. The kid hasn’t even sniffed an NHL opportunity.”

The list of viable free-agent defenseman is very depleted, topped by Oliver Kylington who likely would be seeking a multi-year deal and more than a League minimum salary, plus a top-four role, after successfully returning from battling mental health issues.

So that means if Rangers general manager Chris Drury wants to provide some competition for Jones, it is going to have to be via a trade. As things stand, the Rangers have roughly $8.1 million in cap space, and still need to re-sign Lindgren, who filed for salary arbitration, and Braden Schneider.

With this in mind, and the rumors surrounding Trouba, the look of New York’s blue line is still very much unknown. While Jones is in a great spot, and primed to take the position of sixth defenseman, the Rangers still need more depth at the position.

Dane Walsh is a life-long fan of the New York Rangers. Growing up in the tri-state area, Dane has... More about Dane Walsh

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