Why Zac Jones is an answer for Rangers on defense next season

NHL: Preseason-New York Rangers at Boston Bruins
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The New York Rangers defense corps should look a little different next season.

Erik Gustafsson is set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1 after the conclusion of his one-year, League-minimum deal. Braden Schneider and Ryan Lindgren need new RFA deals.

The Rangers are expected to easily re-up with Schneider, likely on a bridge deal coming off his entry-level contract. But there are more questions surrounding the futures of Gustafsson and Lindgren.

There’s a possibility Gustafsson will be re-signed but odds are the Rangers will move on. Lindgren is a year away from unrestricted free agency, so he’ll be seeking security with his next contract, meaning a nice raise on his current $3 million AAV and length to the deal. The Rangers should have some concerns on a long-term contract with Lindgren because of his injury history and style of play that likely will take a major toll on his body.

So, in all likelihood, Rangers general manager Chris Drury will be looking at at least one opening in the top six.

Related: 5 best Rangers contracts after NHL salary cap increases

Zac Jones could be Rangers regular on defense next season

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

There are always options in the open market, but the Rangers have an excellent replacement waiting in the wings in the form of Zac Jones.

The former third-round pick out of UMass will enter his age-24 season with just 69 games played in the NHL across four seasons. Yet, he showed plenty of promise this past season as New York’s seventh defenseman, building confidence that he can be a regular in the near future.

Jones broke into the NHL back in April of 2021 after garnering some excitement, helping UMass to an NCAA title as a sophomore just 12 days before his NHL debut. Despite some lingering hype, Jones failed to carve out consistent playing time as young talent like Schneider and K’Andre Miller quickly earned key roles next to regulars like Lindgren, Adam Fox, and Jacob Trouba.

He posted just eight points and a -11 plus-minus in 38 games across his first three seasons, bouncing between New York and its minor league affiliate in Hartford.

This past season, you could see the growth in Jones’ game, as he stuck in New York all season. Jones appeared in an NHL career-high 31 games, including a stretch of 13 straight from March 9 to April 1 because of injuries to Lindgren, Trouba, and Gustafsson.

He didn’t break out as the offensive force many expect from him, but Jones did score two goals in 31 games after managing just one in his first 38. He posted nine points this season after amassing eight through his first three.

Jones also had a positive plus-minus (+1) for the first time in the NHL and impressed with confident puck-moving abilities and D-Zone play that he’d never consistently displayed before.

The metrics didn’t exactly love him. His 47.13 xGF% and below-average defensive rating (per Evolving Hockey) were not necessarily inspiring. However, he did plenty to pass the eye test and looked like he was finally settling in for the first time in a Rangers uniform.

For what it’s worth, Jones was plus-8 after the turn of the calendar, playing sharp hockey down the stretch and even earning the praise of coach Peter Laviolette.

“He worked hard every day, you guys saw, it, that was never an issue,” Laviolette told reporters in late March. “He’s skating really well. He’s moving the puck really well. He’s competing on the puck really well. He sees the ice. His skating has been noticeable. He’s been a really solid player for us.”

Jones did not appear in the Rangers’ Stanley Cup Playoffs run, as Trouba, Gustafsson, and Lindgren returned from their injuries and were able to play in all 16 games. Even with some of the defensive core’s struggles throughout the postseason, it would have been a bold move to sub Jones in for a largely veteran and experienced unit.

However, as the focus shifts towards next season, Jones affords Drury the benefit of having an adequate replacement waiting in the wings.

Jones will hit the books next season at an $812,500 salary cap hit. Drury got good value from Gustafsson’s one-year, $845,000 deal this season, but he’ll likely see a bit of a pay raise and it’s debatable whether he did enough to warrant a return in New York.

As the Rangers enter the offseason with $12.45 million in cap space, using Jones in a starting capacity would afford Drury the ability to be more creative and flexible with the way he uses that space.

Gustafsson, and Lindgren for that matter, are known quantities. With full NHL seasons under their belts, there’s not too much growth and development left for them to do. Jones, however, still offers the prospect of potential.

If he plays the way he did in March and April, that alone would warrant a top-six role in the Rangers’ D-corps next season. However, at just 24 years old and with fairly minimal NHL experience, there’s plenty more that Jones could grow into if afforded the chance to play game-in and game- out.

He’s a smaller framed defenseman at 5-foot-10 and 176 pounds, which could be spun as a deterrent given the way the Florida Panthers took advantage of their physical edge during the Eastern Conference Final, when they defeated the Rangers in six games..

However, the problem of physicality lies more with the forwards than the defensive core. Miller (6-foot-5), Schneider (6-foot-3), and Trouba (6-foot-3) all bring above-average size and physicality to the table. However, Rangers’ defensemen across the board struggled with moving the puck out of the D-Zone, particularly against Florida’s forecheck.

Jones’ speed and puck-moving ability, two of his strongest traits, could be a big asset for the Rangers next season as they look to construct a roster that can reach the Stanley Cup Final.

Lou Orlando has spent the past two seasons as a New York Rangers beat reporter for WFUV Sports. The... More about Lou Orlando

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