Rangers options to replace Erik Gustafsson in lineup, on roster

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

When Erik Gustafsson signed a two-year, $4 million contract with the Detroit Red Wings in NHL free agency, it raised two questions for the New York Rangers. First, who will replace Gustafsson on the third defense pairing? And second, who will fill the 6th/7th defenseman role on the Rangers roster?

When compared to the Jacob Trouba trade/no trade saga or the quest to find a right wing to play with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, these other question marks at the bottom of the defense corps are relatively minor.

In fact, when considering just their group of defensemen, the Trouba situation is at the top of Rangers concerns. That’s followed by working out a contract with restricted free agent defenseman Ryan Lindgren, who filed for salary arbitration Friday. Next on the list is hammering out an easier deal with restricted free agent defenseman Braden Schneider, who should land an affordable bridge contract.

Then there’s filling Gustafsson’s spot in the lineup on the third pair and on the roster. Though it was pretty much a given that the Rangers would let Gustafsson walk after this past season, it should be noted that the Rangers got their money’s worth out of the 32-year-old.

Gustafsson signed a one-year contract last offseason to reunite with his former coach Peter Laviolette, this time in New York. At $825,00, Gustafsson had 31 points (six goals, 25 assists) averaging 17:23 in ice time over 76 regular-season games last season. He then played all 16 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and had three assists.

There’s no doubt his production slipped as the season progressed. In fact, Gustafsson was at his best when he moved up the lineup to replace the injured Adam Fox for 10 games in November. He had 11 points (one goal, 10 assists) in those 10 games, playing on the top pair and No. 1 power-play unit.

Still, Gustafsson was a solid value signing for New York.

But it’d appear the Rangers had an in-house candidate in mind to replace him on the bottom pair next season, though his roster spot will be up for grabs at training camp.

Related: Former Rangers forwards reunite with Red Wings

Rangers options to replace Erik Gustafsson after defenseman signs with Red Wings

NHL: Preseason-New York Rangers at Boston Bruins
Ben Harpur — Eric Canha-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s take a look at how the Rangers can replace Gustafsson in the lineup and on the roster in 2024-25.

Zac Jones

The Rangers have a young third-pair option in place to take Gustafsson’s lineup spot next season. Zac Jones appears ready for the opportunity and certainly is champing at the bit for consistent playing time.

The 23-year-old did play in an NHL career-high 31 games last season, spending the entire year on the Rangers roster. He played well early in the season when Fox missed 10 games but really excelled in March when his playing time spiked when Trouba, Lindgren and Gustafsson were injured.

Jones is not big (5-foot-10, 176 pounds) but he moves the puck quickly and efficiently, and is a smart player. He had two goals and nine points in 2023-24 and would appear to have much more upside offensively.

The youngster needs work in the defensive end and it’s fair to question how he would’ve handled the heavy forecheck from the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference Final, for example.

But he’s the clear favorite to replace Gustafsson in the lineup and get his first opportunity for consistent playing time in the NHL. Especially after the Rangers did not sign an affordable, more experienced defenseman (Nate Schmidt, Erik Brannstrom for example) to compete with Jones for playing time in camp and once the season starts.

Ben Harpur

It’s easy to forget that Ben Harpur remains in the Rangers organization after the veteran defenseman missed most of last season with a pectoral injury that required surgery in November.

The 29-year-old has one season remaining on his contract with a salary-cap hit of only $787,500. So, that right away makes him an intriguing fit to fill the 6th/7th defenseman role in New York. Plus his size (6-foot-6, 230 pounds) and experience (198 NHL games) makes him an option to battle Jones for playing time.

There is a world where Jones and Harpur make the Rangers out of camp, with the youngster getting more playing time and Harpur stepping in as needed, particularly against more rugged opposition.

Harpur played 42 games for the Rangers in 2022-23 and held his own playing regularly from mid-December on, especially when Lindgren was sidelined for an extended stretch with an upper-body injury. He doesn’t do anything fancy but a healthy Harpur could capably fill the 6th/7th defenseman role next season.

Casey Fitzgerald

The Rangers did sign one free-agent defenseman so far this summer. Casey Fitzgerald comes to New York on a two-year contract that carries a $775,000 cap hit. The 27-year-old also brings 63 games of NHL experience with the Buffalo Sabres and Panthers, and did play two games for Florida during the 2022-23 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The son of New Jersey Devils general manager, and former NHL forward, Tom Fitzgerald isn’t big (5-foot-11, 183 pounds) and is a right shot, so he might not be the perfect fit for the 6th/7th role. But he was signed to compete for that spot, so this will be an important training camp for him.

At worst, the Rangers added a good defenseman that can lead youngsters like Victor Mancini and Matthew Robertson at Hartford in the American Hockey League.

Connor Mackey and Brandon Scanlin

Grouping Connor Mackey and Brandon Scanlin makes sense since each played one game for the Rangers last season and also were important defensemen in Hartford.

Mackey is older (27 to 25) and has 40 games of NHL experience with the Calgary Flames, Arizona Coyotes and Rangers. Scanlin made his NHL debut with the Rangers on March 26 against the Philadelphia Flyers and was solid in Hartford, with 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) and a plus-4 in 64 games.

Each defenseman is big — Mackey is 6-foot-3, 204 pounds and Scanlin is 6-4, 218 — and a left shot, making them good fits behind Jones. It would likely take a lot to happen for one of these blueliners to crack the opening-night roster with the Blueshirts, but they’ll be in the mix during training camp.

Adam Boqvist

Adam Boqvist remains an unrestricted free agent after the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t extend him a qualifying offer. The 23-year-old has 209 games of NHL experience and was the No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 draft by the Chicago Blackhawks.

The rub here is that Boqvist always seems to be injured, including last season when he was limited to 35 games. But he has skill, producing 22 points in 52 games in the 2021-22 season and 24 points in 46 games the following season.

He’s a right-hand shot but could be worth taking a flyer on if the Rangers are convinced he’s healthy and would sign a contract under $1 million for next season.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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