The New York Rangers seemingly have their top six defensemen set in stone for the 2020-21 season, at least as far as the personnel. As they figure out the pairs, there will also be speculation as to who the team carries as the seventh defenseman. Last season, the seventh defenseman was primarily Brendan Smith, even though he saw plenty of action at wing for the fourth line. (from ‘Rangers’ Brendan Smith overcame self-inflicted obstacles to save career,’ New York Post, 04/07/2020) When the Rangers traded Brady Skjei, Smith went back to manning the blue line alongside Jacob Trouba. As of right now, the Rangers have six defensemen on the roster so there is plenty of speculation as to who will be No. 7 on the depth chart.
Given the team’s current depth, the seventh defenseman will likely be a left-hander. The Rangers are already stacked on the right side with Trouba, Adam Fox and Tony DeAngelo. Trouba is being paid to be the No. 1 defenseman, Fox was arguably the team’s best defenseman in terms of two-way play and DeAngelo was posting elite offensive numbers, making the odds of any of them exiting the lineup minimal.
On the left side however, Ryan Lindgren was solid last season, Jack Johnson struggled defensively with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Smith was the extra man. While the Rangers do have $4.8 million in current cap space, they also face a risk of a performance bonus penalty of just under $4 million, so it would be safe to assume they are done dipping into the free agency pool.
The Likely Candidates
The start of Libor Hajek’s NHL career has been strange. His short stint in the NHL during the 2018-19 season was a very good showing for the young blueliner. He was calm and poised with the puck, looking for the safe but effective play. He was fairly solid in his own end and showed quite a bit of promise. Then he separated his shoulder in his fifth career game which ended his season early. Hajek came back the next season and made the team out of camp but looked like a very different player. He was jumpy and sloppy with the puck, often missed defensive assignments and just overall looked way out of his league. He ended up injuring his knee last season and upon returning was put in the AHL to get back on track. He never did and finished the season with the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Hajek did travel to Toronto with the Rangers for their short trip to the bubble but did not see any game action. He played most of his time with Jacob Trouba so perhaps he was just not ready for such a large role. As the seventh defenseman, his role will be much smaller so hopefully, for the Rangers, he handles that assignment much better.
It will allow him to play in more sheltered minutes against a lower level of competition than against a team’s top players. The main benefit is the continued development of a 22-year-old who was a big part of the trade that sent the last Ranger captain, Ryan McDonagh, down south to the Tampa Bay Lightning. As of right now, it looks like the Rangers lost that trade by a landslide.
The 30-year-old defenseman was signed this offseason in hopes of bolstering the defensive depth while adding a little bit of grit. He is the only other defenseman in the Rangers organization with any kind of NHL experience, having been an AHL call up for six previous seasons. He set a career-high of 51 games played last season with the Winnipeg Jets and had eight assists. The Rangers want to become a team that is tougher to play against and Bitetto’s physicality will certainly add to that identity.
He has quite a bit of NHL experience, but the trade-off in utilizing him means less NHL experience for one of the young defensemen in the pipeline. The Rangers are still in the development phase of their rebuild, and some of the youth could gain valuable experience from practicing with the top guys and even filling in for a few games, learning to succeed at the top level of hockey. Bitetto makes the most sense if the team is looking for a win-now mentality, but the preliminary round of the playoffs showed that the Rangers are still not close to being a Cup contender.
A Dream Scenario
While graduating two more of the top prospects would be very exciting and seeing K’Andre Miller in action on the big stage would be a dream for the Rangers it might not be the most realistic one. Miller has yet to play a second of professional hockey, joining the organization after finishing his sophomore year of college. His excellent freshman campaign set the hype but this is not a prospect the Rangers should be rushing. He has incredibly high potential due to his size, strength, athleticism and skating abilities.
While spending the season taking an important role is probably best for Miller, there is still the chance he walks out of training camp on the NHL roster. He also went to the bubble to practice with the team and the coaches were impressed by his performances. He will no doubt get a long look at camp this season and be put in several roles during the preseason to see how he handles playing professionally. If he continues to impress and earns the spot it could still be a great learning experience for him. The odds of this are low but seeing Miller in a Rangers jersey would be a sight to behold for the fans.
A Dark Horse Candidate
Reunanen is a prospect that has not been talked about much but has been making a case for himself recently. Reunanen has been playing some fantastic hockey in Finland, after some dominant time in the Mestis league he has earned a promotion to Liiga, coming off two strong games there. Reunanen has been putting up points and eating big minutes this season. He logged a massive 28:58 in his last game, a 3-2 shootout loss where he scored the game-tying goal with under a minute left in the game. Reunanen has great offensive potential and seems to be putting it all together.
Reunanen is kind of a dark horse candidate because of his low profile as a prospect, but his excellent season has been sparking up some conversations. If he can carry the momentum into North America, there is a very good chance Reunanen can find a role for himself with the Rangers. He got a long look at last season’s training camp and was one of the last cuts, he could very well see the same deal this time around.
The Rangers have plenty of internal options to fill the seventh defenseman role and have different types of players vying for the job but the only one can win it. The Rangers will be considering it very carefully and the decision may not be as easy as it seems but the role could potentially be very important for the player that walks away with the job.