The New York Rangers have drafted and acquired a lot of talented, young defensemen over the last few seasons. The development of Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, K’Andre Miller, and Braden Schneider is great for the team but has made it tough for New York’s other defense prospects, including Zac Jones to make the team.
This may be Jones’ best chance to make the Rangers’ lineup and prove that he belongs in the NHL. He needs to make the most of this opportunity.
The Rangers’ Situation on Defense
Fox, Lindgren, Miller, and Jacob Trouba make up the Rangers’ top-four defensemen, and all of them played well last season. Additionally, New York called Schneider (right-handed) up from the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League (AHL) midway through last season and he rewarded the team, playing well at both ends of the ice.
Last postseason, Schneider played alongside veterans Patrik Nemeth and Justin Braun, who are both no longer with the Rangers. However, Schneider spent a lot of the season playing alongside Jones (left-handed) when they played together with the Wolf Pack.
The Rangers traded right-handed defense prospect Nils Lundkvist to the Dallas Stars a few weeks ago and they assigned Matthew Robertson (a left-handed defense prospect) to the Wolf Pack. Both of these moves give Jones a clear shot at earning a spot in New York’s lineup to start the season and his experience playing with Schneider should only help him.
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Jones certainly has much more upside than his competition for a roster spot, as blueliners Libor Hajek and Jarred Tinordi both struggled with the Rangers last season and ended up spending time in the AHL.
What Jones Brings to the Rangers
Last season, no left-handed defenseman had more than 20 points with the Rangers. Jones can provide the team with offense on their third defense pair as he has shown great vision and a quick, accurate shot both in college at UMass-Amherst and in the AHL.
Jones is a weapon on the point during power plays. His smooth skating and stick handling help him create room for himself and force defenders out of position. He has a feel for where his teammates are and he has also shown a knack for getting his shot through traffic and on goal. He could help out the Rangers’ second power-play unit, which struggled last season.
Jones finished with nine goals and 15 assists in 29 games for UMass-Amherst during the 2020-21 season and helped them win their first NCAA title. He followed that up with a strong season in the AHL last season, finishing with nine goals and 26 assists in 52 games. Over the last two seasons, Jones has played 22 games with the Rangers and he has six assists.
Though Jones has played very well offensively, he has had some defensive struggles. He is not a very physical player at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, so he has to rely on his positioning and decision-making. Last season he tried to force some passes in the defensive zone that resulted in turnovers and he also got caught pinching in the offensive zone a few times. However, he made fewer of those mistakes later in the season and is still just 21 years old.
For Jones and the Rangers Moving Forward
After not getting consistent playing time with the Rangers last season, Jones should get more ice time this season. He no longer has to compete with Lundkvist for playing time and for now, he won’t have to compete with Robertson. He can help the team greatly if he produces offensively without becoming a liability defensively. However, if he struggles, the team can look to replace him with Robertson or a veteran later in the season.
This is a crucial time for Jones. He has a big opportunity and now it is up to him to prove to the Rangers that he can help them both this season and for years to come.