The Rangers Six Best Defensemen Are…
For as much as David Quinn has his team playing the right way so far this season, there are still a couple of things that I would like to see the coach clean up.
One of those things is his defensive lineup night after night. Quinn has preached accountability since becoming the 35th head coach in franchise history. We’ve seen the head coach sit players for a game or two after lackluster performances, and those players have generally responded positively, most notably Pavel Buchnevich before his injury.
But when it comes to the team’s defensive corps, you are talking about seven guys fighting for six spots, and barring consecutive bad performances that warrant some time in the press box, you can make an argument for all seven to be in the lineup. Aside from Marc Staal, every Rangers defenseman has spent at least one night watching from the rafters as his teammates were on the ice. Let’s take a look at what the best possible combinations would be for David Quinn to employ on a regular basis.
Neal Pionk and Marc Staal
Say what you will about the 31-year-old native of Thunder Bay, Ontario, but he has been a very nice compliment to the upstart Neal Pionk. Staal has been the stay-at-home defenseman that has allowed Pionk, when he decides to, to rush up the ice and join the offense. To say that Staal may not be as good as he once was is not such a novelty, an athlete’s skill generally decreases as they get further and further into their careers. But Staal has not been as abysmal as social media would lead you to believe. Has he made mistakes? Sure, he is human. But we haven’t seen the mental breakdowns or significant turnovers like we saw under Alain Vigneault during his final two years as Rangers head coach.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) November 25, 2018
As for Pionk, this kid looks like he can be the real deal. A smooth skating defenseman with a good shot, strong hockey sense, and an ability to defend against some of the NHL’s best talent. Pionk has been the benchmark for the Rangers defensively this season. He is first in blocks, takeaways, average time on ice per game at 22:45, points-per-60-minutes at 1.80, shifts per game at 28.6 and second in hits. If he can continue playing the way he has been over the course of the rest of the season and beyond, the Rangers will have found a huge steal when they signed Pionk out of UMD in the summer of 2017. It is also worth noting that Pionk is a restricted free-agent at season’s end, and he could be in line for a nice payday come next summer.
Tony DeAngelo and Brady Skjei
I want to start with the “veteran” Skjei for this one. Despite a solid start to his career, Skjei has not had the easiest time adjusting to David Quinn’s defensive system. Offensively, Skjei has done his part in contributing eight points from the back-end. Defensively, however, there have been times where Skjei seems a little lost, at least in my eyes. It could just be Brady having to learn a new system and he is still adjusting from Alain Vigneault’s defensive schemes. But the fact remains that Skjei still has some work to do this season. There is no doubt in my mind that Skjei will right himself and regain his status as the team’s top defenseman, but as of now, that crown belongs to Neal Pionk.
When the Rangers acquired DeAngelo in the trade that sent Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to Arizona, Jeff Gorton was hoping to get back an offensively gifted defenseman that could skate like the wind. And you’d have to say that when DeAngelo has been on the ice, he has been just that. He still has some work to do in his own end, but his skating ability and offensive awareness have helped the Rangers putting pucks in the back of the net. If DeAngelo can continue building on his defensive game, he will be an instrumental piece in any future success the Rangers have.
Fredrik Claesson and Kevin Shattenkirk
If I’m being honest, I was torn with whether or not Fredrik Claesson or Brendan Smith should be paired with Kevin Shattenkirk. Both LHD has been solid for the Blueshirts and the question became as follows: would you rather the steady, no-frills play of Claesson, or the sometimes risky, physical style of Smith? For a defenseman, I’d much rather a guy that will make the safe play rather than the risky one. In addition to Claesson being that guy, his steadiness on the back-end would allow Kevin Shattenkirk to be more proactive in the offense, should he want to jump into the play. Claesson has one less hit, three fewer blocks, and five fewer giveaways than Smith in seven fewer games played. That doesn’t mean Claesson would have an equal number of giveaways, but it does mean that Claesson can play the same physical game as Smith while being more dependable in the defensive zone.
Shattenkirk was scratched for one game this season but hasn’t been spectacular in the 23 games that he has been on the ice. From an offensive standpoint, Shattenkirk has one goal and seven assists for eight points. Defensively, Shattenkirk is tied for third in blocks, is tied for second in giveaways with 14 (DeAngelo is last with 21) and second in takeaways. Shattenkirk hasn’t been going against the opposition’s top line every night, which has certainly helped him be more effective on the ice. Shattenkirk is a solid middle-pairing defenseman and his offensive skills are what made him such a hot commodity when the Rangers signed him prior to last season.
Extras: Adam McQuaid and Brendan Smith
As I mentioned earlier, Smith’s higher-risk game is not something that I want to see from my defensemen. Jumping into the rush is one thing, but potentially stepping up for a big hit and being out of position, or allowing an odd-man rush to make a hit is not something I want when a steadier defenseman in Claesson is available.
McQuaid may be getting the short end of the stick because he’s been injured, but in a time when skating ability for a defenseman is key, McQuaid isn’t as fleet of foot as the three RHD mentioned above. McQuaid would be a good seventh defenseman for this team, but to be in the lineup every night, for me, is the wrong move.