The New York Rangers boast a deep offense and a long-standing elite goaltender who is returning to form. Sitting comfortably in playoff position with 77 points as of Feb. 20, there is just one thing holding them back from being a true Cup contender.
That one thing, as has been detailed many times before, is the team’s defense corps. The Rangers simply do not have enough puck-moving defensemen in their everyday lineup — particularly on the right side — to make a real run at the Stanley Cup, barring a lot of luck.
They do, however, have a young, offensively-inclined puck-moving defender on their roster. His name is Adam Clendening.
The Skill Is There
The Rangers signed Clendening early in the offseason to a risk-free one-year contract worth $600,000. The move was somewhat overlooked as the club also added Michael Grabner, Mika Zibanejad in a trade for Derick Brassard, the since-departed Nathan Gerbe and Josh Jooris, and later Brandon Pirri.
Clendening, though, played so well in the preseason that he won a spot on the NHL roster. That situation was one factor that pushed Dylan McIlrath out the door. Clendening got an early opportunity for playing time with Kevin Klein sidelined to start the season. Despite acquitting himself well, however, he ultimately became the team’s clear No. 7 defenseman, as head coach Alain Vigneault has essentially only dressed him when another defenseman has been injured or in need of a rest.
Looking at Clendening’s career stats going back to his college days with Boston University, evidence of his offensive skill from the back end has always been apparent. He posted 59 points in 77 career collegiate contests. The Chicago Blackhawks then selected him in the second round of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft (36th overall).
While he was a member of the Blackhawks’ organization, Clendening spent most of his time with the team’s AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs. He continued to show his talent there, tallying 46 points in 73 games in 2012-13 and then an even more impressive 59 points (12 goals and 47 assists) in 74 games in 2013-14.
Despite this strong production, Clendening has never really been given a fair opportunity to earn a regular lineup spot in the NHL, as he has bounced around with several organizations over the past few seasons.
Clendening Needs a Better Opportunity
After a four-game cup of coffee with the Blackhawks in 2014-15, Clendening was eventually dealt to the Vancouver Canucks for Gustav Forsling. He only appeared in 17 games for the Canucks before being traded again, this time to the Pittsburgh Penguins as part of the Nick Bonino/Brandon Sutter trade.
Clendening only skated in nine games for the Penguins before being waived and later claimed by the Edmonton Oilers, where he posted six points (one goal and five assists) in 20 contests.
Those 20 contests represented the most NHL games in which Clendening had ever played in a single season before this one with the Rangers. In a league where young, right-handed defensemen with puck-moving abilities are so highly coveted, how Clendening has slipped under the radar so frequently is truly baffling.
As of Feb. 20, Clendening, even though he is not one of the Rangers’ top-six defensemen, has played in 21 games. While not a significant number, it has eclipsed his previous career-high of NHL games played in a season. It’s still not enough for him, though, as he deserves to he in the lineup on a regular basis.
Still only 24 years old, Clendening has tallied eight points for the Rangers this season. While he is used as somewhat of a power-play specialist when he does dress, he has a five-on-five points-per-60 minutes rate of 1.25. For context, this is the second-highest such number out of all Rangers defensemen other than rookie Brady Skjei. Not bad for a guy who isn’t given an opportunity to find a consistent rhythm since he plays so sporadically and infrequently.
The offensive skills have always been there for Clendening, so that leaves his defensive acumen. While he is certainly not a top-notch player in his own end and is sometimes prone to turning the puck over (like this doozy against Toronto), his ability to quickly transition the puck out of his own end negates many of those other issues.
This skill helps the Rangers spend more time in the opposition’s zone when he is on the ice, as evidenced by his excellent five-on-five Corsi-for percentage of 54.5 percent, which leads all Rangers players who have appeared in at least 20 games. Clendening’s possession-driving abilities reduce the need to defend, which in turn serves as effective defense.
Nevertheless, Vigneault puts inferior defensemen like Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein ahead of Clendening on the depth chart. With the trade deadline approaching and the Rangers in need of help on the blue line, they seem to be ignoring an easy solution right in front of them.
Clendening might still have to work on his game in his own zone, but so too do defensemen like Girardi and Klein. When Clendening turns the puck over or loses an assignment in the defensive zone, he can at least make up for it by bringing other things to the table (i.e., possession time and offense). Girardi and Klein do not really bring those attributes.
Would playing Clendening in every game solve all of the Rangers’ defensive woes? Certainly not; Clendening is no savior. But it’s pretty difficult to argue that he wouldn’t be able to help somewhat.
Clendening is still a young player who has shown he can be effective. The Rangers, though, like all previous NHL clubs that have employed Clendening, are not giving him a fair opportunity that would likely prove to be mutually beneficial. Clendening deserves that opportunity, and if the Rangers don’t provide it for him, maybe another NHL team finally will sometime in the future.