The New York Rangers put an emphasis on defense after seasons of having sustainable offensive production. After several years of collected prospects, asset swaps, and player trades, the Rangers finally have a solid defensive core. With the group being so young, this gives the team more opportunity to shape the players into homegrown defenders and cornerstone players. In fact, there is already a glimpse of that right now.
Between Ryan Lindgren, K’Andre Miller, Zac Jones on the left side, and Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba, and Braden Schneider on the right side, the Rangers formed three steady pairs as of right now. Of course, with the options the team possesses at defense, the current pairings were not — and are not — set in stone. Yet, after a few seasons of a roster rebuild, the left side looks pretty slotted.
Indeed it was not a breeze to get to this point and there is still much growth these young players will need to experience. Despite the median age of the defensive core at 23.16 years old, much progress has been made already, but as development seems on track, some tough decisions must be made moving forward. The Rangers are jammed with options, of course, some being more favorable than others. Patrik Nemeth, Libor Hajek, Jarred Tinordi, Nils Lundkvist all made appearances this season.
However, as it stands, the pairs are getting the job done. The current six are limiting scoring chances, blocking shots, and finding the correct positioning night in and night out to make up the composition of a truly defensive defense group. Each defender plays a specific role for the team and it should be acknowledged that this talented group can pitch in offensively as well.
At 24 years of age, Lindgren makes a wonderful defense pairing with Fox, which translates to the most reliable duo the team has. While Lindgren is the defense-focused player of the two, their chemistry was forged instantly due to their previous experience with one another.
Perhaps one of the most underrated players on the team, there is nothing flashy about his game but that allows him to be extremely reliable. Despite being on the smaller size like Fox, he takes the title as one of the toughest players on the team. With 10 points in 50 games, his job is obviously not to be a contribution for offense, yet he can sneakily contribute. Ultimately he needs to be a shutdown player, and that is what he provides.
Lindgren is also very much a part of the locker room presence, his teammates voted him to win the Players’ Player Award last year, given to the team player who best exemplifies teammate qualities. As a top defenseman, his role is crucial in all areas. He was recently extended in May 2021 for another three seasons.
At just 166 games into his career, his development is extremely on pace and deserving of more credit playing alongside Fox. Despite the roster changes, injuries, and COVID absences, this pairing has been one of the constants.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, big-bodied Miller is one of the key assets the team has at its disposal. Seemingly the whole package physically — a 6-foot-4 frame, and an excellent skater, 22-year-old Miller is transitioning into a more physical role and fine-tuning smart decision making — a skill of any top blueliner.
Miller’s extremely booming shot is something he should utilize more often, powerful enough to be effective from the blue line. Though it should only be a matter of time until he is more comfortable taking the shot, his confidence continues to grow in all areas, especially recently with some tallies on the scoresheet, including a late-round shootout winner on Feb. 15 against the Boston Bruins.
Though his sample size is still limited at just 106 games played in total, Miller’s work ethic is going to take him a long way, especially as he is faced with constant competition within his own organization. As of late, the forward-turned-defenseman is already showing more confidence keeping the puck and working in the tough areas of the ice. He is a fully independent player who is not fully reliant on his partner, Trouba, despite his fresh status in the league and his shorter experience in this position.
With Trouba being the sole veteran defender, it could be tempting for young Miller to lean on his partner. Though he had some hesitations with acclimating, Miller has not regressed from the beginning of this season. As mentioned, he can bring the offense as well. His 11 points in 53 games demonstrate how defense helps out if the forwards are slumping, not only can defense keep the game tight, but they can generate production, too.
He even had some incredible looks in the earlier portion of this season, including a coast-to-coast goal, which is a testament to his skating ability. This season in particular, it is clear the sophomore already earned the trust of his teammates and his coach Gerard Gallant.
The last of the left-handed defenders and with the least NHL experience is 21-year-old Jones. Just 21 games into his career, he fell victim to the recall cycle between the team’s American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack. While up on Broadway, Gallant stuck Jones with Schneider, a long-awaited, yet young, pairing.
Indeed, having Igor Shesterkin playing incredibly solid in net allows players like Jones to ease into their responsibilities, yet being paired with a fellow newcomer tests out Jones’ skillset right away. Thus far, it has been a prosperous match. At times Gallant shuffled the pairings, but it boiled down to these two as the final duo when Nemeth was not in.
With Jones having a higher offensive propensity than Nemeth, his tendencies and size limit who he can be paired with. At 5-foot-10, he is currently a great candidate to work with Schneider, who is more of a stay-at-home defender, despite scoring a beautiful goal in his NHL debut on the road against the San Jose Sharks this season.
Though Jones’ ceiling and specialties are a bit of a mystery at this point with his rookie status, he does provide options for the team, whether it be as a trade chip or depth. He also looks increasingly confident as his tenure continues, a large difference from even last season’s 10-game stint.
In turn, these players are keeping scoring low, especially immediately after the All-Star Break. Prior to their last two games, the team only allowed six goals in those first four games following the scheduled pause. Though the Rangers are in the midst of a two-game losing streak and allowed six goals between Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev in their last two games, the young defense is using every experience for individual improvement.
The Rangers face the St. Louis Blues tomorrow night at Madison Square Garden. Gallant, in his infamous experimental nature, is exploring different defensive options at practice prior to the game.
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Rachel is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. She can be followed on Twitter @RachelNHL.