Rangers’ Rooney Excelling in Defensive Role

The New York Rangers have had a tumultuous start to their 2020-21 season but with multiple star players out of the lineup, a few unlikely heroes have stepped up. K’Andre Miller has shown incredible poise for a 21-year-old rookie and Colin Blackwell has shown a knack for scoring. One player who’s been under the radar is Kevin Rooney but he has been a consistently effective player for the Blueshirts this season.

Replacing Fast

This offseason the Rangers lost Jesper Fast in free agency. The gritty winger had developed into one of New York’s best defensive forwards with the ability to chip in offensively and provide the team with a spark. He was also an alternate captain. Although the Rangers struggled to kill penalties last season, he excelled while shorthanded so there were plenty of concerns about the penalty kill entering this season without him.

Jesper Fast New York Rangers
The New York Rangers lost Jesper Fast in free agency this offseason (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

One of the main reasons the Rangers decided to sign Rooney was because he earned a reputation as a very good penalty killer with the rival New Jersey Devils over the last two seasons. He was aggressive shorthanded and while he entered this season with just 10 career goals in 95 games, three of them came while shorthanded.

Like Fast, Rooney isn’t a very big player but he plays with physicality and grit and is effective on the forecheck. His signing also provided the Rangers with some versatility because he can play center or on the wing. Additionally, he has the ability to play on the fourth line or step in and play on a more offensive-minded line if that’s what is needed.

Rooney’s Play This Season

An injury in the Rangers’ season opener kept Rooney out for a few games and he didn’t get much ice time when he returned, playing under 10 minutes in five of his first six games. He wasn’t flashy but he did a nice job defensively and drove to the net on offense. He scored his first goal with the Blueshirts while shorthanded in an overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins and head coach David Quinn started giving him more ice time after that game.

Rooney had two goals and an assist over his next four games. This season he has three goals, two assists and is a plus-4 in 18 games. He also got more ice time with the Rangers trying to hold onto leads late in games and more ice time while shorthanded. His aggressive style of penalty killing has been very effective for the Rangers this season. He puts pressure on opponents to make tough plays and uses his stick to disrupt passes and block shots.

Kevin Rooney New York Rangers
Kevin Rooney has helped the New York Rangers improve on the penalty kill (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Thus far this season the Blueshirts have an 85.5 penalty kill percentage (PK%), which is sixth-best in the NHL. Last year they finished the season with a 77.4 PK%, which was ninth-worst in the NHL. The aggressive shorthanded play of Rooney as well as Ryan Strome, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich has dramatically improved New York’s penalty kill this season.

Moving Forward

As long as Rooney continues to play the way he has so far with the Rangers, he should stay in the Rangers’ lineup. His ability to play center increases his value, especially since fellow defensive-minded center Brett Howden has struggled this season. In a season filled with injuries, drama and a lot of key players out of New York’s lineup Rooney has been a reliable player.

Rooney’s contract with the Rangers is two years with an average annual value of $750,000. He will most likely be left unprotected in the 2021 Expansion Draft and could be the player selected by the Seattle Kraken given his solid play so far this season. The Blueshirts should be able to protect all of their top players in the Expansion Draft. However, if Rooney is still on the team next season his team-friendly contract and gritty, selfless play will make him a valuable forward.

New York has gotten some big contributions over the last 10 years from role players like Fast and Carl Hagelin. Rooney’s playing style is similar to theirs and so far he’s thriving in that role with the Rangers.

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