The Best Defensive Core?
In a trade deadline push, The New York Rangers, in 2015, acquired Keith Yandle. This trade effectively propelled the Blueshirts to have one of the strongest defensive cores in the entire NHL. With the likes of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Dan Boyle, and Lundqvist to back them all up, the Rangers defense became impenetrable, giving up only 192 goals, second only to Montreal with 189 goals against.
With a rebuild in progress, the Rangers look to return to their former glory and have done a tremendous job in loading up their pipeline with young defenders with tremendous upsides. Players like Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, and Tony DeAngelo have all proven that they deserve NHL time however players such as K’Andre Miller, Nils Lunkqvist, Libor Hajek, Yegor Rykov, and Matthew Robertson will all be fighting to prove their worth this upcoming training camp.
With players like Marc Staal and Brendan Smith on their way out, there is some space for the Rangers to experiment with their future. Marc Staal, one of the cornerstones of the Rangers defensive core for the past 13 seasons, has been on a steady decline. The 33 year old defenseman has seen a decline in playing time from his peak in 2010 - 2011 of 25:44 avg TOI to a time of 17:39 avg TOI in the 2019 - 2020 campaign, the lowest in his career. With one year left on his 5.7 million dollar deal, it would not make sense for the Rangers to sign a 33 year old, whose play will only get worse. Similarly, Brendan Smith, seems to be the odd man out on the Rangers blue line. Prior to the Brady Skjei trade to Carolina, Smith was scratched regularly. When he wasn't scratched, Smith had a hard time cracking 10 minutes of ice time. Clocking in as low as 5:44 TOI. Even accounting for Smith’s versatility of being able to play on the wing as well as on the blue line, his value to the current and future roster is fairly low.
With some openings in the lineup in the near future and the Rangers push towards youth development and speed, it is clear that the Blueshirts will be looking at their pipeline for some help.
K’Andre Miller is an extremely exciting prospect who was just signed to an entry level contract last month. The 22nd overall draft pick in the 2018 draft managed to register 18 points in 36 games with a #59 ranked University of Wisconsin Badgers. Although K’Andre has been producing points, his physical frame and defensive mind are what makes Miller stand out. Although Miller has a great frame, 6’3’’ 205lbs, he has solid mobility and is a very strong skater. According to Future Considerations “[Miller] defending against more agile attackers… handles them by being physical and using his length…” Similarly, Steve Kournianos, The Draft Analyst states “Watching Miller smoother in one end and skate effortlessly in the other makes me think his learning curve is not steep at all.” K’Andre is a great signing for the New York Rangers, and has a solid chance of cracking the lineup this upcoming season.
Photo by Tom Lynn
Along with K’Andre Miller, Nils Lundkvist is one of my favorite defensemen on this list. Lundkvist is a poised offensive player who is strong on the puck and a great passer. Lundkvist led Sweden to a bronze medal in the 2020 WJC with a team-leading 7 assists at the tournament. Lundkvist also played his draft year in the SHL, which for a 17 year old is no small feat. It is also great exposure to the physicality of playing against fully developed hockey players. In his latest season in the SHL, Nils put up 31 points in 45 games, making him second in team scoring. Nils is also 1 of only 3 U-20 defensemen to score 10 goals in one SHL season and ranks 1st in all-time assists by any U-20 defensemen in the SHL. I see the Rangers offering Nils an entry level deal very soon and am confident he will crack the lineup this upcoming season.
Libor Hajek, who has had some NHL time this season, is also an option to fill in some gaps in the NHL roster. The 2016 second rounder had a stint early in the season until he got injured 27 games into the season. After returning from his injury, Hajek showed some signs of rust and was sent down to the minors to regain his confidence, in hopes to bring him back to the big squad sooner rather than later. However, he was never recalled and finished out the season in the AHL. Hajek has also been fairly inconsistent before his knee injury, with a corsi rating of 32.7%, the worst of any player on the roster (min. 20 games played). Additionally, in the long run, with players such as Rykov and Robertson rising the ranks, the competition for Hajek to crack the lineup will become even harder.
The Rangers have a solid group of young defensemen who are ready to prove their worth at the NHL level. Some will make it and others won’t, nevertheless we hope that one day these homegrown talents will be able to help us attain the strongest defensive core in the league once again.