The 2019 NHL Entry Draft is about a month away, signaling the period during which next season’s rosters will begin to take shape. For the New York Rangers, this draft is not likely to contain any players that would suit up on defense for them next season.
When the Rangers rebuild began at the 2018 trade deadline, general manager, Jeff Gorton focused primarily on acquiring defensive prospects. As it is often said, defense wins games.
Gorton was successful in this mission, but he and his coaching staff will now be left with some difficult decisions regarding who makes the team and who doesn’t. It’s a good problem to have. Let’s take a look at how the defense may shape up come opening night.
Some Veterans In, Some Out
The arrival of fresh faces on defense signals that at least one of the Rangers’ older players will not be on the opening night roster. As much as his play has declined over the years, Marc Staal is not likely to be that player. In fact, while this likely won’t happen, don’t be surprised if his name is discussed for the vacant captaincy.
Staal still holds a hefty salary cap hit, but he is one of the senior members of the Rangers and one of few players that remain from the 2014 Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Kevin Shattenkirk will likely make the opening night lineup. While he has been fairly disappointing over the past two seasons, he still possesses skill and has value. His play is likely to improve once the team starts to improve as a whole. Shattenkirk could end up being traded, but that is unlikely.
That leaves us with Brendan Smith. There are several things that may occur regarding his status on the Rangers. The likeliest option would be a buyout, which would save the Rangers several million dollars over the next few years and give them more cap space to use in free agency.
They could also bury Smith in the AHL on the Rangers affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack. This would be a tough call to make, not because Smith is too good for the AHL but because he would be receiving way too much money for a minor league player.
He could also be traded. Smith does not have a ton of value, with a bloated contract and several poor years in New York. But the Rangers should still be able to acquire a late round draft pick for him, as long as they retain a percentage of his salary.
Skjei & Fox Locks for Opening Night
Brady Skjei and Adam Fox will be in the Rangers’ opening night defensive lineup, no doubt. Skjei’s first full season in the NHL was impressive. After that, he seemed to dip a little, struggling to put up the numbers he had previously.
This season, he was stabilized by the presence of Adam McQuaid, who was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets at the trade deadline. Despite this, he still managed to have a decent season when all was said and done. Skjei is not going anywhere and is poised to lead the defense this year.
Adam Fox, while unproven and just recently acquired, will make the team. Fox is a fantastic puck moving right-handed defenseman. He has impressed at all levels and was a Hobey Baker finalist during his time in college.
Fox is currently playing for Team USA, along with teammates Skjei and Chris Kreider, at the 2019 IIHF World Championship.
Prospects & Youngsters Poised for Battle
The preseason is going to be interesting. Anthony DeAngelo and Neal Pionk will be fighting to keep their spots in the Rangers’ starting lineup, assuming they are re-signed. Both are restricted free agents, as is Frederik Claesson, who is not likely to be given a qualifying offer.
There’s a decent chance that Pionk gets traded, given the recent acquisition of Fox. The Rangers would have Fox, Shattenkirk, and DeAngelo on the right side moving forward.
Libor Hajek, Ryan Lindgren, and Yegor Rykov will be engaged in a battle for a roster spot. Hajek looked comfortable before he got injured this season and seems to be a good defensive defenseman. Yes, he had terrible numbers in the AHL, but it’s hard to do otherwise on a team that was a dumpster fire.
Ryan Lindgren also looked pretty decent during his few games with the Rangers this season. He showed some guts, displaying physicality as well as a willingness to carry the puck through the neutral zone.
Yegor Rykov was just inked to a two-year entry-level deal that includes a KHL assignment clause for year two. Rykov was impressive in the KHL, but received little playing time for SKA St. Petersburg before being traded to HC Sochi. He was originally a 2016 fifth-round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils, but was acquired in the Michael Grabner trade.
I believe the Rangers’ opening night defensive lineup will look something like this:
|1st Pair||Brady Skjei||Anthony DeAngelo|
|2nd Pair||Marc Staal||Adam Fox|
|3rd Pair||Libor Hajek||Kevin Shattenkirk|
|7th Defenseman||Ryan Lindgren|
All of this will change if the Rangers agree to a contract with unrestricted free agent Erik Karlsson. I don’t think signing Karlsson to a massive contract after a couple seasons when he was banged up is the best decision, especially given the number of young defensemen in the system. That money would be better spent elsewhere.
Still, if he does join the Rangers, that would likely push Anthony DeAngelo into the 7th defenseman spot. There’s still a lot that can happen between now and next season, but the above is a real possibility of what the Rangers’ opening night defense may look like come October.