Battle Brewing to Fill the Rangers’ Roster on Defense

While the New York Rangers’ overall rebuild remains a work in progress, the club can’t be anything but thrilled with how rapidly its young defense corps grew in 2020-21.

K’Andre Miller, seen as a project when the Blueshirts moved up to draft him 22nd overall in 2018, proved NHL-ready and will look to continue fulfilling his considerable potential next season. Ryan Lindgren showed that 2019-20 was no fluke, putting together another strong second full season. Oh, and Lindgren’s fellow young partner on defense was OK as well – all Adam Fox did in his second season was win the Norris Trophy.

Add in 27-year-old veteran Jacob Trouba, and the Rangers’ top six D-men just might be set for a while. Next up is the third pair, which is completely unsettled – but will allow for a competition that should provide an opportunity for the Rangers to add more key talent and further shape the team’s identity on the backline for years to come.

K'Andre Miller New York Rangers
Rangers rookie defenseman K’Andre Miller (Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

It’s worth noting that the front office will probably look to add a veteran defender on a one-year contract who could play extensively on the third pair in 2021-22, adding some stability to the defense. However, at least one spot will be open, and the long-term battle for it (or both spots) will involve high-end young prospects. The question for the organization will be what specific skills they want from the club’s bottom blue-line duo.

So let’s take a look at what the Rangers can expect to see in training camp as youngsters vie for the two coveted openings. This analysis doesn’t consider a trade in which some of these neophyte defenders depart or the signing of someone like 44-year-old Zdeno Chara, who wouldn’t join the team to sit in the stands.

Third-Pair Right Defense

This could prove to be the toughest decision for the Rangers, who have two extremely promising prospects ready to fight it out: Nils Lundkvist, the puck-moving, offensively proficient Swede who at long last will arrive in North America, having finally signed an entry-level contract after being drafted 28th overall in 2018; and Braden Schneider, the big bruiser for whom the Rangers moved up three spots to take 19th in 2020.

The Blueshirts have been patiently waiting for Lundkvist, watching from afar as he dominated the Swedish Hockey League the last two seasons. The tantalizing potential of the 5-foot-10, 174-pounder was apparent during that time, as he totaled 25 goals, 38 assists and a plus-60 rating for Lulea. He led SHL defenseman in power-play goals with eight. Lundkvist’s 78 points are the most in SHL history for a defender who’s under 21.

Nils Lundkvist New York Rangers
Nils Lundkvist after being drafted by the Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The time is now for Lundkvist to try his hand at the best hockey league in the world.

“Despite his young years, Nils is already a complete player, but who will get even better,” said Hall of Fame defenseman Borje Salming, who chose Lundkvist as the winner of the trophy that bears Salming’s name as the best blueliner in the SHL. “He moves the puck quickly, has a great shot on the power play. Is effective in own zone. It’s so easy for Nils – he plays ice hockey.”

The idea that a defensively sound, offensively productive player with big potential – and a big endorsement from one of the best blueliners ever – is on his way from a country that produced defensemen such as Salming, Nicklas Lidstrom and Erik Karlsson has to be an exciting one for the Rangers. There’s perhaps another motivator for the club to see Lundkvist grab the job, as well.

Lundkvist was drafted with the first-round pick that came in the blockbuster trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning in February 2018, the first big deal after the Blueshirts announced to fans their intention to embark on a rebuilding project. That deal, to date, has been a disaster for the Rangers.

Libor Hajek, the defenseman who was the supposed centerpiece of the trade, has yet to develop, though he did show some promise in extended duty last season. Center Brett Howden, like Hajek, a second-round pick, 37th overall, hasn’t lived up to his pedigree. Vlad Namestnikov is long gone after an unremarkable stint on Broadway as a depth forward. Karl Henriksson, taken with the 2019 second-round pick in the deal, is toiling in the SHL and doesn’t appear to be on an NHL track.

Libor Hajek New York Rangers
Rangers defenseman Libor Hajek (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Lundkvist looks like the Rangers’ last chance to deliver an impact player from the trade. The current front-office regime didn’t make the deal that sent Ryan McDonagh (now playing an integral role for a Lightning club that’s one win from a second straight Stanley Cup) and J.T. Miller (finally fulfilling his potential with the Vancouver Canucks) away. That said, new general manager Chris Drury and the whole organization are rooting for the Blueshirts to get something out of the lopsided swap.

Despite Lundkvist’s potential and the front office’s desire to see someone from the Lightning trade become a fixture in a Rangers sweater, the 20-year-old from Pitea, Sweden, will face serious competition for the third-pair right-side spot from Schneider.

Former team president John Davidson and ex-general manager Jeff Gorton spent a third-round pick to jump from the 22nd spot to 19th and select the player they wanted last year, fearful that the rival New Jersey Devils would take Schneider at 20. That decision certainly looked like a good one in 2021-22.

Schneider, the type of big, physical defender the Ranger so desperately need, was named the Western Hockey League’s East Division Defenseman of the Year. His offensive game continued to develop, as he recorded five goals and 22 assists in 22 games for the Brandon Wheat Kings – a season after he totaled 42 points – and posted a career-best plus-18 rating. Schneider also got his feet wet in the AHL, playing two games and recording an assist for the Hartford Wolf Pack.

At 6-2 and 210 pounds, the Rangers might have a younger – and even better – version of Trouba on their hands, perhaps ready to compete for a spot on Broadway. With size and a nasty streak, the front office sees Schneider making life difficult for opposing forwards for years. He just needs to win a spot with the big club first.

“Good spot to get (Schneider). Not too high. I had him at 18 for what it’s worth,” one scout said after the draft. “Very good defensively. Will anchor a shutdown pair.”

If the Rangers end up trading for a star center, Lundkvist or Schneider will likely be requested to be in the deal, if not demanded. Including one of them in the swap would end the battle on the right side, but it would also be extremely painful, at least in the short term. The club has procured two outstanding future right-defense options, but with Trouba signed long-term and Fox’s star on the rise, it seems probable that only one of them will wear a Rangers sweater for the long haul.

Third-Pair Left Defense

There will be plenty of high-end competition for this spot as well. Zac Jones, who won a national championship with the University of Massachusetts and then made his Rangers debut shortly after, playing 10 games and recording four assists, might be the front-runner.

The third-round pick in 2019 was so impressive for the Minutemen that the Rangers were willing to burn a year of his ELC with the hope that the speedy, puck-moving defender might help them reach the playoffs. That didn’t happen, but the invaluable NHL experience puts Jones in a prime position to make the team in 2021-22. With 12 goals, 35 assists and a plus-29 rating over two years in college, Jones is a rising young player who’s likely to play somewhere in the NHL next season.

Like Lundkvist on the right side, though, Jones might still face stiff competition from a bigger defender who brings a different skill – and might have equal promise.

In addition to possessing the WHL East Division Defenseman of the Year, the Rangers organization also boasts the WHL Central Division Defenseman of the Year in Matthew Robertson. The 6-4, 210-pounder has wowed scouts with his skating, puck-moving ability and big shot from the point, and he also plays with a physical edge. Robertson, whom the Rangers selected in the second round in 2019, totaled 22 points in 22 games with a plus-26 rating for the Edmonton Oil Kings last season. He recorded 13 goals and 34 assists in 60 games for the Oil Kings in 2019-20. He’s ready for a shot at the NHL level.

Matthew Robertson New York Rangers Draft
Rangers defenseman Matthew Robertson at the 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Hajek shouldn’t be forgotten about as a darkhorse here, either. There’s minimal buzz around the 23-year-old native of the Czech Republic, but Hajek was a first-round pick of Tampa Bay and has had the most time in the NHL, playing 77 games over the past three seasons.

Hajek’s development probably wasn’t aided by pairing him with Trouba to start the 2019-20 season on what was the club’s ostensible top defensive duo at the time. However, he did show glimpses of his talent in 2020-21, playing 44 games and finishing with two goals, two assists and a plus-2 rating. Playing mostly on the third pairing, he exhibited his smooth skating and better defensive positioning and was a plus-3 over the Rangers’ final three contests, playing more than 18 minutes in each.

Still, Hajek faces a tough road to a regular spot with the Rangers. Injuries, a failure of the other left-side prospects to be ready for the NHL and the Blueshirts failing to sign a veteran blueliner such as Chara could change that. Hajek is likely to be in the mix regardless of the situation, as the Rangers should have an open protection spot on defense for the expansion draft and will probably use it on him.

Rangers’ Third Defensive Pairing Should Deliver Versatility

Regardless of which players perform best in the battle for a third-pair assignment, the team’s goal here should be a duo that brings a range of skills. A Jones-Lundkvist alignment would provide great skating and offensive ability, but the lack of size would leave them vulnerable to big forwards overwhelming them in the offensive zone and in front of the net. Similarly, teaming Schneider with Robertson would give new coach Gerard Gallant a pair with plenty of brawn but might result in a tandem that can be consistently beaten by quicker forwards – though this matchup might be more feasible, given the better-than-average mobility of both defenders.

Ultimately, the best potential matches might be Robertson-Lundkvist or Jones-Schneider. Both duos look pretty good on paper, and Gallant and the Rangers would be thrilled to face such a difficult choice for their bottom defensive pair. It’s also possible that one of these players could make an easy transition to their off side, thus creating even more options for the coaching staff.

Team Canada 2021 World Championship
New Rangers coach Gerard Gallant (l.) coaching Team Canada at the IIHF Men’s Ice Hockey World Championship in May (Photo by GINTS IVUSKANS/AFP via Getty Images)

Chances are it won’t come to that. What’s more likely is that at least one, and probably more, of those five players will need some seasoning in the AHL. One or more of these players might win a job convincingly. Also, if the Rangers add a veteran to help temporarily solidify the blue line, some of the kids would have to start 2021-22 with the Wolf Pack, even if they’re ready for the NHL.

Yet those decisions are coming, even if not as soon as the start of next season, for a Rangers organization that possesses an embarrassment of riches on defense. Not all five of those players will be long-term Blueshirts. Even though the open spots on the blue line happen to be on the third pair, the prospects the Rangers have projected as more than fifth and six defensemen.

That’s exciting, but Drury and company will have to make the right decision on who’s a keeper and who can be moved out to fulfill the Rangers’ considerable needs up front. Giving away a big-time talent will hurt – even if that talent would only get third-pair matchups and minutes on a team with too much prospect wealth and not nearly enough room on defense.

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