With the 2020-21 NHL season fast approaching, the New York Rangers still have decisions to make regarding their back end. Outside of Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox’s dynamic pairing, the Rangers have many defensemen battling for a spot on the final two pairings.
The departure of long-time Ranger Marc Staal left a void on the left side that has not been vacant since his NHL debut in 2007-08. Management raised eyesbrows when they signed Jack Johnson to a one-year deal, leaving him and Brendan Smith as the Rangers’ two left-side options with NHL experience.
Finnish product Tarmo Raunanen was invited to camp but seems to be a roster longshot. Libor Hajek has been in and out of the Rangers’ lineup since 2018-19 but has shown to be shakey in the defensive zone. First-round selection in 2018, K’Andre Miller left Wisconsin and signed his entry-level contract, but is it smart to rush him to the big club without the proper NHL seasoning?
The lack of a standout option to man the LD spot on the second pairing has left fans, and the coaching staff, perplexed. Jacob Trouba seems to be locked into the RD spot on the second pairing. The veteran defenseman has to raise his game from his first season in New York, but who will his new partner be, and will they help elevate his game?
Rounding Out the Top 4
The initial solution was for Tony DeAngelo to switch to his off-side and play on Trouba’s left. DeAngelo, who had a career-high 53 points in 68 games in 2019-20, would help increase Trouba’s offensive output while giving the veteran increased speed on his opposite side.
From Vincent Z. Mercogliano’s article on Lohud, head coach David Quinn offered his thoughts on why DeAngelo makes the most sense to play with Trouba.
I thought that we had a good balance with Lindgren and Fox,” Quinn said. “I think they did a good job together. I think they feed off each other and read off each other well. They played an awful lot of hockey together last year, so it just made the most sense. Tony obviously lost (Marc) Staal, his partner from last year, and I just think it gives us a chance to put our top-four defensemen together,
DeAngelo has had success during his Rangers tenure and is determined to prove that the two-year, $9.6 million contract he signed will give his team offensive production and defensive stability. He also enables Quinn to utilize his best four defensemen in most games, rolling the first two pairings much more frequently than the third.
But there’s something to be said about fewer minutes and spreading out ice time over three pairings. That luxury is evident in teams that have had postseason success, and having three reliable pairings will serve the team well in the long run, despite a prototypical top-pair that will eat the heavier, more important minutes.
Fortunately, these problems tend to solve themselves, as seems to be the case here, with Miller’s emergence.
Miller’s Magnificent Camp
Miller has opened eyes at this Rangers’ training camp, utilizing his reach and skating ability to shut down gaps and taking away the forwards’ time and space. A left-handed shot who is 6-foot-5, Miller is a physical specimen who could solidify that opening on the left side.
What was thought to be a developmental season for the first-round selection with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate in Hartford might turn into a rookie NHL season. With the American Hockey League not set to play until Feb. 5, the Rangers could be forced to play the young defenseman so he doesn’t stagnate on the taxi squad.
But with the way Miller has handled himself during camp, playing him might be the Rangers’ best option on that left side. According to Greg Joyce of the New York Post, Quinn had some high praise for the Minnesota native.
I thought K’Andre Miller was really good tonight,” Quinn said after the scrimmage. “He just moves so well, he takes up so much space, he’s got such a long reach, he closes on people quickly. His puck decisions, to me, have really been the surprise to all of us. We knew he made some good decisions, but to adapt as quickly as he has so far — and again, let’s keep it in check, it’s bubble practices and now it’s training camp — but he’s certainly shown a lot of things you look for in a defenseman,(from ‘K’Andre Miller playing way into Rangers lineup,’ New York Post – 01/08/21).
If Miller’s play does, in fact, propel him onto the opening-night roster, look for him to be slated on the left of Trouba in a top-four role. In turn, DeAngelo would go back to his natural side and play with Johnson, giving the Rangers three suitable pairings.
It is important not to rush Miller into NHL action, but if Quinn and his staff deem the 20-year-old to be ready, he should be given every chance to solidify his spot. Ultimately, I see the Rangers’ opening night defensive pairings looking like this:
Ryan Lindgren – Adam Fox
K’Andre Miller – Jacob Trouba
Jack Johnson – Tony DeAngelo
This group would make the Rangers’ defensive corps the most mobile it’s been in quite some time. Sure, there may be some rookie lapses and veteran miscues, but ultimately, this group gives the Blueshirts the best chance at winning.
With Smith and Anthony Bitetto waiting to replace any fallen soldiers, New York has options on the backend, with a core that may surprise people this season.
Brendan Azoff is a THW contributor and podcast host dedicated to covering the New York Rangers. His passion for hockey started when he first laced up the skates at three, growing into his love for writing and talking about the greatest sport in the world. His podcast, The Backcheck, breaks down the Rangers, Islanders, and NHL news and can be found on The Hockey Writers Podcast Network and Belly Up Sports. Brendan has been writing about the Rangers and the NHL for over two years, with his content also found on Puck Prose, Blue Line Station, and E2G Sports. If you want to connect with Brendan and stay up-to-date on his posts, follow him on Twitter. He is always available for content ideas and interviews, don’t be afraid to ask!