Today marks one month until a full two years have passed since New York Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton swung a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes, swapping a second-round pick and a conditional third-rounder for defenseman Adam Fox. At the time, Fox was an undersized defenseman from Harvard who had an incredible offensive upside. He registered 48 points (9 G, 39 A) in 33 games during that collegiate campaign, finishing as a finalist for the coveted Hobey Baker Award.
At 5’11 and 181-pounds, there was concern that the Jericho, NY native’s game would not translate to the NHL-level as well as it did to the collegiate game. Well, now, 23 months after the Rangers acquired number 23, that is a concept most people can’t help but laugh at. Since making his NHL debut in 2019-20, Fox ranks seventh amongst defensemen in points with 71 and sixth in assists with 60.
What’s even more miraculous is that he is just 23-years-old, and is producing offensively while carrying the burden of being the Rangers’ number one defenseman. He is averaging 24:32 TOI per game, which is ranked 16th in the league amongst defensemen. Miro Heiskanen (24:52) and Zach Werenski (24:36) are the only two defensemen age 23 or younger to have more TOI than Fox. He plays on the first power play and penalty kill units, eats minutes at even strength, and is out there in every clutch situation imaginable, in just his second NHL-season.
His continued dominance on the ice has culminated in the NHL recognizing the young blueliner as the first star of the week for March 22-28. According to the New York Rangers stats and info Twitter account, Fox is just the eighth defenseman to hold that honor since its implementation.
The honor comes after posted an absurd 11 points in four games, including a five-assist night in Philadelphia, where he joined Brian Leetch as the only two Rangers’ defensemen to post five assists in a single game. But as miraculous as his offensive numbers are on a nightly basis, it’s his outstanding defensive instincts that have catapulted the skilled d-man to a Norris caliber defender.
Defensive Intelligence Way Beyond His Years
Something is exhilarating watching Fox lure a forechecker into the corner just to evade him with relative ease. Sure it’s not as flashy as Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar’s dashing speed, but it is equally as effective. In fact, Fox’s habit of utilizing his teammates makes those he plays with better every time he steps foot on the ice.
It’s that ability to evade pressure that allows him to alleviate pressure so effectively. He has mastered the art of the reverse, and the cohesiveness of Fox and Lindgren allows the two to transition from defense to offense effortlessly. But what Fox can do without the puck on his stick is equally as impressive. As Wayne Gretzky once said, “ninety percent of hockey is mental, and the other half is physical,” and Fox surely has the mental aspect of the game down to a science.
Fox rarely makes a glaring mistake – in fact, that I cannot recall one off the top of my head – an indication of just how good he is. What continuously plagues the NHL’s young players seems not to faze him, a prime example of the intellect and mental fortitude that will propel Fox to stardom at hockey’s highest level. Thus far in 2020-21, the Rangers have an expected goals for percentage (xGF%) at all strengths of 63.42. That total ranks fifth amongst defensemen at all strengths who have over 100 minutes on ice.
His defensive prowess has forced the Rangers’ coaching staff to utilize him seemingly every other shift, accumulating in a whopping 809:19 total TOI through 33 games played. Mika Zibanejad is second on the team with 688:25, nearly 121 minutes fewer than Fox. The New York native plays often, but his effort never waivers, exemplified by his most recent heroics at the end of a hard-fought 2-1 loss to the Flyers.
The team-first mindset to sacrifice your body three times at the end of a losing effort epitomizes the belief that Fox is not only the anchor of the Rangers’ blue line for the foreseeable future but the leader of this team as well.
The Best Since Leetch?
What makes a defenseman elite, outside of a phenomenal two-way game, is the ability to read plays and disrupt them before they formulate into a chance. Fox can interrupt passing lanes so efficiently that he victimizes point-hungry forwards time and time again. It is noticeable, especially on the penalty kill, as you can watch seemingly open passing lanes filled in the blink of an eye by Fox’s lightning-quick stick.
When you consolidate the defensive reads, puck possession attributes, and offensive firepower together, you seemingly have the best defenseman to wear the diagonal lettering since Brian Leetch. And in a new article by Rick Carpiniello with The Athletic, Leetch himself commented on the communication he has with the Rangers’ young phenom:
I’ll text him after some plays and say, ‘That was awesome … great game … keep it up,’” Leetch says. “I’ve sent him a couple of texts about (maintaining) his consistency, which is what he’s doing. … That’s what keeps elevating you from a good player to a great player — keeps moving you up the charts — when you do it game in and game out. That’s what he’s doing.(from ‘Is Rangers defenseman Adam Fox turning into Brian Leetch 2.0? Leetch 1.0 weighs in,’ by Rick Carpiniello of The Athletic – 03/29/21)
Now let it be clear that Fox still has a lot of work to do to have a career that replicates the fantastic career of Leetch. But the fact that the Hall of Fame defenseman already sees the parallels between Fox and himself has to instill jubilation into every member of the Blueshirts faithful. Both players possess immense talent on both sides of the puck and can dictate a game.
For Fox, the most important thing he can do is to avoid complacency and continue to improve. It’s not as easy as it sounds, especially when you look at how he compares to an elite defenseman such as Victor Hedman analytically in just his second season.
Two different players, polarizing in their own right and equally as effective. It won’t be fair to assess the trade until Carolina’s draft picks have some time to develop, but it is hard to believe that this move will be viewed as anything less than a heist when we reflect on it several years down the road.
And for the price of a second-round pick and a conditional third, the Rangers were able to secure an elite number one defenseman whose ceiling seems limitless.