Veteran defensemen Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein both are medically cleared to play and are practicing with the New York Rangers again after extended injury absences. Though neither will play Tuesday night in Newark against the Devils or Wednesday at Madison Square Garden against the Islanders, Girardi and Klein will be on the club’s trip later this week to California, and both should return to the lineup at some point out west.
This is crucial for the Rangers because head coach Alain Vigneault has major decisions to make with his defense corps. Vigneault must choose which d-men make up his Top Six heading into the playoffs, and what are his three best pairs.
After Wednesday’s rivalry match up with the Islanders, Vigneault has just eight regular season games left to mix and match and figure out his defense corps.
When Girardi and Klein return, the Rangers have nine defensemen to make decisions on.
Here’s a closer look.
It is safe to say that, barring injury, these three defensemen will be most definitely be in the Rangers lineup when the puck drops on the post season: Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Brady Skjei.
Two others, Adam Clendening and Steven Kampfer, are locks to be watching from the press box.
So, that is five of the nine defensemen accounted for right off the bat.
McDonagh, the Blueshirts’ captain, is in the midst of, perhaps, the best all-around season of his National Hockey League career. He anchors the top pair and plays in every game situation. McDonagh, who leads all Rangers defensemen with 38 points and a +19 plus/minus rating, averages more than 24 minutes of ice-time per game, a number that will increase come playoff time when Vigneault leans on him more heavily.
Staal rebounded this year after a poor 2015-16 campaign. The veteran spent most of the season on the second defense pairing, but lately partners with McDonagh effectively on the top pair.
Skjei is having a terrific rookie season, tied for eighth among all rookies with 33 points, which is second to Zach Werenski of Columbus among first-year defensemen. His 29 assists are fifth among all rookies and his +16 mark is second.
So, the locks are obvious.
Now it gets interesting with four players vying for the last three spots on defense.
Despite his declining play the past couple of years, and having the worst Corsi For percentage of the Rangers nine defensemen (44.63%), Girardi is pretty much a lock to be in the Top Six when the playoffs open. He is a favorite of Vigneault, who respects Girardi’s contributions to the club’s success in recent years and his warrior mentality. Until he proves himself fully healthy, coming back from a nasty, deep gash near his ankle from blocking a shot, Girardi remains a bit of a question mark.
Like Girardi, Klein is a heart-and-soul player, extremely popular teammate, major contributor in the past, and big-game performer whose skills have declined of late. Last year, Klein often paired with McDonagh five on five. This season, Klein struggled in a reduced role while playing fewer minutes, mostly on a third pairing with Skjei. His spot in the Top Six is far less secure than that of Girardi.
The final two defensemen on the roster both look to make their Rangers playoff debuts this spring. Nick Holden, acquired from Colorado this past summer, and Brendan Smith, picked up right before the trade deadline from Detroit, are versatile left-handed options for Vigneault, who can play either on the right side or left, and up or down the three defense pairings.
Both are probably best suited for second-pair duty, and neither is a lock to be in the Top Six when the post season arrives, though one would expect Holden and Smith to be in uniform for Game One of the first round.
Holden’s offensive output of ten goals and 31 points is a pleasant surprise. Not so pleasant are his struggles defensively the past two months nor his penchant for screening his own goaltender and having opponent’s shots deflect off him and into the Rangers net. His declining play is cause for concern, but it is difficult to imagine Holden missing from the Top Six once the playoffs begin, especially since he is one of only four players on the team to play in all 72 games, so far, this season (Mats Zuccarello, J.T. Miller, and Derek Stepan are the others).
As for Smith, his play has been reliable and steady since arriving from the Red Wings, more so since being moved to the second pair after beginning alongside McDonagh. It is his acquisition that creates the depth which forces Vigneault to make some difficult decisions.
It says here that when the Rangers open up the playoffs the Rangers deploy the following three defense pairs:
Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi
Marc Staal-Nick Holden
Brady Skjei-Brendan Smith
Now, that is not to say it stays this way; but Vigneault’s default always is to pair McDonagh and Girardi, and then if Girardi struggles, the coach makes changes.
Should Girardi not last on the top pair, all four of the remaining d-men have spent time alongside the team’s captain this year. The most intriguing choice, and the one with the highest risk/reward, is to pair the rookie Skjei with McDonagh, creating an elite skating duo from the back end. However, it’s hard to fathom Vigneault going down that road in the playoffs due to Skjei’s inexperience and still-growing defensive game.
In this scenario, Klein is the seventh defenseman, and a pretty nice safety net for the Rangers to have should one of the d-men struggle or get hurt
It is imperative, though, that Vigneault mix and match and try different things the last two weeks of the season once all of his defensemen are healthy, so that he has the best possible feel about who pairs best with whom.
Jim Cerny has covered the National Hockey League for more than two decades. He has handled play by play duties for the New York Islanders, hosted the NHL Live talk show, been a hockey writer for The New York Times, and spent the previous nine years as the Digital Content Producer for the New York Rangers offical team web sites and social media accounts.