Rangers’ Best Third Defense Pair Might Be Playing in Hartford

Amidst the growing certainty surrounding the New York Rangers’ recent approach that has them on a 7-1-0 run and sporting a gaudy 13-4-3 record, there’s increasing doubt surrounding part of their defense.

Specifically, their consistent third pairing is raising questions, ones that need to be answered sooner rather than later as the club looks to continue solidifying its newfound status as a playoff contender.

The duo of veteran Patrik Nemeth and rookie Nils Lundkvist was looked upon as a promising one at the outset of the season, the Rangers having signed the big and strong Nemeth to team with the highly-regarded offensive blueliner in Lundkvist, who finally made his much-hyped North American arrival for the 2021-22 season. That Nemeth is Swedish was also seen as important advantage in helping Lundkvist, his countryman, adapt to a new culture while also working to adjust to a much tougher league.

While the Rangers will continue to preach patience for the arrangement, enough has happened to question whether the duo represents a viable option to hold down the third pairing going forward – and whether an obvious, and potentially better, replacement pair is just a phone call away to the Hartford Wolf Pack, the club’s American Hockey League affiliate.

The fact is that Nemeth hasn’t been good since inking a three-year, $7.5 million contract in the offseason. The free-agent acquisition was part of the Rangers’ concerted offseason effort to bulk up and play tougher, and the 6-foot-3, 228-pound Nemeth, who came with a reputation for physical play and an ability to keep the front of his net clear, seemed to perfectly fit that mandate.

Nemeth, Lundkvist Struggling to Find Their Stride

The early returns, however, haven’t been encouraging. Nemeth hasn’t been stout defensively and the advertised physicality also has yet to show up with any consistency. His 37.5 Corsi for and 39.7 expected goals for percentages (courtesy naturalstattrick.com) aren’t just abysmal; they’re probably unsustainable. Frankly, this problem might represent a full-on crisis if not for the brilliance of goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who’s been responsible for covering up numerous defensively-challenged Rangers efforts this season.

The issue is nevertheless significantly magnified given that Nemeth is supposed to provide the steady defensive presence alongside the 21-year-old Lundkvist, who needs cover while he attempts to develop his game in his own end – which is probably never going to be his forte. The Blueshirts drafted Lundkvist 28th overall in 2018 to be a driver of offense and eventual power-play quarterback. He’ll probably always need to be paired with a stay-at-home type partner while hoping to become at least decent defensively.

Lundkvist’s 41.2 CF% and 41.9 xGF% this season were probably to be expected, and it’s led to coach Gerard Gallant sitting him for extended stretches late in games – particularly those that the Rangers are leading. That’s not a surprising development for a first-year player either, but it should force the front office and coaching staff to consider whether it is a workable situation over the course of this season – and if it’s the best way to properly develop a valued young asset.

Regardless of what Lundkvist’s ceiling might be, the more intriguing possibilities for the Rangers could be unnecessarily plying their trades in Connecticut’s capital, where Zac Jones and Braden Schneider are holding down top-pair responsibilities for the 12-4-2 Wolf Pack.

The Rangers have high hopes for Jones, 21, and Scheider, 20, both of whom have been impressive in their limited chances to showcase their talents for the big club. In fact, they may have shown enough to warrant a full changing of the guard on the Blueshirts’ third pair in short order.

Jones certainly looked close to NHL-ready after being signed out of UMass and recalled late last season, recording four assists in 10 games on Broadway and hardly looking out of place. The third-round pick in 2019 followed it up with a strong training camp that to some observers, made him the better choice to start this season with the Rangers over Lundkvist.

Jones’ speed and instincts are apparent, and his ability to run a power play, a skill he’s been honing in Hartford, would duplicate what the Rangers want to see – but have yet to – from Lundkvist. Put this way, who would Gallant be more confident with in the lineup late in games at present – Jones or Lundkvist?

Lundkvist’s Talents Not as Readily Apparent as Fox’s Were

Jones “flashed” in his short Blueshirts audition last season, exhibiting the presence and raw tools that were evident in leading the Minutemen to the 2020-21 national championship. Moreover, he hasn’t sulked since failing to make the Rangers out of camp, returning to the Wolf Pack and putting up three goals and 10 assists in 18 games.

Lundkvist has yet to do that, to raise eyebrows the way Adam Fox did from the very beginning or even Tony DeAngelo, through all of his troubles, did with his ability to drive play. That’s not to say Lundkvist won’t pop out eventually, but maybe it’s all just too much for him right now – new league, new country, too much expected of him at this point.

While Lundkvist’s poise and confidence are impressive, some time away from the bright lights honing his skills with the Wolf Pack might do wonders for him, and the Rangers should at least consider that option, given the fact that they may have unnecessarily force-fed the NHL to some of their brighter prospects over the past several seasons. As for Nemeth, it’s possible that his fate could be at least partially tied to Lundkvist’s; the Rangers could try to trade him next summer if Lundkvist proves unready this season and the need for Nemeth’s guidance is thus not nearly as important anymore.

Yet team brass should also consider this – Jones might prove to be just as good, if not better, a pro prospect than Lundkvist. Part of the pressure on Lundkvist stems from the fact that he represents the last hope for the Rangers to earn any significant return from the disastrous 2018 Ryan McDonagh-J.T. Miller trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The organization would be best served putting that episode completely in the rearview mirror – if it hasn’t already.

Related: Revisiting the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh – J.T. Miller Trade

Schneider’s NHL experience consists of a handful of 2021 preseason games – ones in which he didn’t appear overwhelmed. The Rangers thought highly enough of him to trade up three spots in the 2020 NHL Draft, leapfrogging the rival New Jersey Devils, to select him 19th overall.

While it was former general manager Jeff Gorton and not current GM Chris Drury who made the move up to grab Schneider, the 6-2, 210-pounder has done nothing this season to undermine the previous regime’s faith in his potential. In 18 games with the Wolf Pack, Schneider has totaled seven assists and a plus-10 rating, displaying the edgy physical presence and better-than-average puck skills and skating that made the Blueshirts so high on him.

Jones-Schneider provides the same attributes that were supposedly promised by the Nemeth-Lundkvist pairing – one slick, puck-moving player who can generate offense and man the point on the power play, and a bigger, hard-hitting partner to balance out the equation. Are the Rangers certain that swapping out their current No. 3 duo for the top pair at Hartford would result in a dropoff?

Jones, Schneider Wouldn’t Face High Bar to Improve Third Pair’s Results

Calling up two players with 10 combined games of NHL experience – all coming from one of them – to form a defensive pair would certainly be a risk. Yet the Rangers were willing to take a similar leap of faith last season, when K’Andre Miller, fresh out of the University of Wisconsin, made the team out of camp. Miller hasn’t looked back, playing 53 of 56 games last season in an encouraging rookie debut and all 20 this season, mostly teaming with veteran Jacob Trouba on what’s increasingly becoming the Blueshirts’ top matchup pair. And the Blueshirts were also willing to throw Lundkvist into the fire this season.

With Jones looking generally poised in his Rangers cameo last season, and Schneider viewed by team brass as a future fixture on the blue line, it might be worth giving them a shot – soon, if necessary. It’s also important to note that Jones and Schneider have the advantage of the familiarity of playing together, which could aid their transition from the AHL. Again, can they do worse than the 38.7 CF% and 38.2 xGF% generated by the Nemeth-Lundkvist configuration so far?

The Rangers are focused on returning to the playoffs this season, their excellent start making such a push all but imperative. Yet they’re simultaneously developing the kids, many of whom seem to be making strides. The club needs to be proactive in deciding whether Lundkvist would be better served learning the North American game in the minors – and how long it can go with Nemeth having so little impact.

Promoting two more youngsters would honor the mission of rebuilding, which despite the Rangers’ rise this season, is an effort that’s about to head into its fourth year. Yet bringing up Jones and Schneider also might make the team better in the short term – not just the long one.