If there’s one thing the New York Rangers have done very well so far in their rebuild, it is acquiring talent on the blue line. Their pipeline of defensive prospects has been very deep due to smart drafting and trading. This is even excluding graduated prospects like K’Andre Miller who is having a strong rookie season, Ryan Lindgren and one of the current frontrunners to win the Norris Trophy in Adam Fox. It also does not include a quality prospect in Joey Keane, who they traded last season to acquire winger Julien Gauthier.
The most recent of the prospects to make his NHL debut, Zac Jones, has looked solid in the small sample of NHL action he has, including scoring his first NHL assist in only his third game. The former third-round pick signed his entry-level contract right after winning a championship with UMass Amherst as a sophomore.
Jones showed a considerable amount of skill, smarts and skating ability during his two seasons playing in the NCAA. He quickly made himself one of the more interesting Ranger prospects to watch after his great rookie season. He put up three goals and 20 assists in 32 games as a freshman, which is excellent production. His sophomore season was him picking up right where he left off. This season saw Jones scoring nine goals with 15 assists in 29 games.
It is still too early to make any definitive decisions regarding Jones, as his NHL career consists of only a handful of games. It is worth noting he is already showing signs of increased confidence. He has shown poise with the puck, a tendency to make smart and simple plays while recovering when he does make mistakes. Not bad for a 20-year-old kid who’s used to college hockey.
The fact that he is so young plays to his advantage as the Rangers brass assesses their talent pool. Realistically, they have a few guys who could fill an NHL roster spot down the road. They only need one more spot as Lindgren and Miller are cementing their spot with the team. Jones is one of the younger defensemen in the Rangers’ pipeline. Only Braden Schneider, Hunter Skinner and Matthew Robertson are younger — Robertson is the only other left-hander and is only younger by a few months.
Jones is also showing some promise in the NHL, but a sample size of three games is far too small to base his NHL viability. Before the Rangers make any decisions, they should give each prospect a stint in the big leagues playing meaningful minutes.
Players Who Could Become Trade Pieces
Since the Rangers have more left-handed defenders than they do available roster spaces, they will have to move some of their assets. This is why giving each one of them NHL reps and meaningful minutes is so important; that way, the organization knows what they have. The last thing they want is another Ryan Graves situation where they trade a prospect without giving him a shot and he becomes a quality player in the big leagues.
The one with the most value is likely the big defenseman Robertson of the Edmonton Oil Kings in the Western Hockey League. In his fourth full season with the Oil Kings and the third one he dons one of the “A’s” on his sweater. He has played at a point-per-game pace this season with three goals and 15 assists through 18 games. The 6-foot-4 blueliner has great size, which, when combined with his hockey IQ, can make for a capable two-way defenseman if he continues to grow as a player.
At only 20 years old, he also has plenty of time before he will reach his full potential. It’s that potential that could be enough for the Rangers to hold one to him and see just how high he can go. He has shown he can succeed at the juniors level, but now the question becomes whether or not he can do it in the AHL, where we can expect him to play next season.
The third spot at left defense could become a battle between Jones and Robertson — the winner stays in the big leagues and the loser finds themselves as a trade piece in the near future. Since both are young and talented defensemen, they still have decent value on their own. Either one would make for a nice deal sweetener. He is still an unknown commodity since he has not stepped on the ice as a professional hockey player yet, so trading him away during the offseason would be a very risky move.
The one most likely to go is Reunanen, the former fourth-round pick back in 2016. He has some professional experience in North America, primarily in the AHL. Reunanen is primarily an offensive-minded defenseman, but has rounded out his game and is still a capable defender. His biggest weapons are his skating and his willingness to put pucks on net.
Reunanen rose his stock as a prospect considerably this season due to success overseas. He started on loan with TuTo in the Finnish Mestis league with a heavy workload and eventually earned a call up to HPK of the Liiga. He came over to North America to join the Hartford Wolf Pack and continued his strong season of hockey. Through 20 games with them so far, he has three goals and 12 assists for 15 points. He is fourth on the team in points and leads the defensemen in points.
He did have a quick cup of coffee with the Rangers when Fox found himself on the NHL’s COVID protocol list. (From ‘Tarmo Reunnen’s whirlwind first day with Rangers was a success,’ New York Post, March 17, 2021). It was only one game and he only saw a mere 8:57 time on ice, but he made the most of it and had a good game. In addition to that, the 23-year-old notched his first NHL point, an assist in the game. He did get recalled recently, so we should see more of him at the tail end of the season.
He would make for some strong trade bait because of his offensive skills. The fact that he is on the older side for a prospect is why the Rangers could look to move him. He still has room to round out his game, but it is getting close to the point where he is what he is. If the Rangers feel Jones or even Robertson is their future, there is no sense in keeping a player buried who could be serviceable on someone else’s roster.
Hajek has a decent amount of NHL experience already at age 23. Most of it has been a struggle for the Czech defender, but let’s not forget his impressive five-game audition during the 2018-19 season. It looked like the Rangers had scored a reliable third-pair defenseman in addition to a first-round pick for the price of former captain Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller.
Fast forward two seasons later, and now the situation looks much more grim for Hajek, who has continued to struggle and has been fighting for his spot in the lineup. He has essentially been reduced to the seventh defenseman, especially with Jones around and playing well.
Hajek is eligible for the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft later this year and could be selected. There could be other options on the Rangers that entice the Kraken. Of course, they could also use him as a trade package to direct the Kraken to select someone else as a few teams did with the Vegas Golden Knights.
Hajek showed flashes that he could be a capable defenseman but has failed to recapture that form. Sometimes all a player needs is a change of scenery — Hajek could be one of those players. He’s still young, so that could be an enticement to some general managers.
The Rangers have some important decisions coming up, and addressing their surplus of defensemen is one of them. They have options, but the last thing they want is to give away an excellent player because of poor talent assessment. The Rangers might even go in another direction and move someone else entirely, but it would be redundant for the team to have four players vying for one spot.