Dan Girardi’s return from an ankle injury is around the corner, and Ryan McDonagh will once again be asked to step up his game. Blue Line Station examines who New York Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault should pair with his star defenseman heading into the playoffs.
New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh’s days without an anchor at his side are almost up. His long-time defensive partner, Dan Girardi, is nearing a return from an ankle injury. The belief is that head coach Alain Vigneault will go with his tried and true lineup, immediately insert the aging defenseman alongside his prized defensive player.
In Girardi’s absence, Vigneault has been forced to change the team’s defensive pairings on a nightly basis. This brings up a seemingly endless debate: Who should be Ryan McDonagh’s partner to lead the team into the playoffs?
McDonagh has shown that he can be a strong force with Girardi at his side. However, the true extent of his abilities remain to be seen without a proper partner to his right. Let’s take a look at who offers the most to the Rangers’ should-be perennial Norris candidate.
The 22-year old defenseman has exceeded all expectations in his first full NHL season. His puck moving is second only to McDonagh’s on the defense. Meanwhile, has given the Rangers’ defensive group a look at what the future might hold.
Through 71 games this season, Skjei has accumulated 33 points (4 goals and 29 assists), including the 5th most assists by NHL rookies.
This is not to say that Skjei is the best fit to raise McDonagh’s game to the next level. Skjei would be forced to his off-side as the team’s top right defenseman as McDonagh’s partner. Given the team’s relative lack of depth defensively, it would be smartest to allow Skjei to play where he is most comfortable.
Adam Clendening represents the Rangers’ only feasible right-handed option on the defense. He has even played his way into a semi-regular role. An accomplishment with Alain Vigneault’s tendency to oppress creative, young players.
Clendening’s offensive potential has been covered ad nauseam among critics and proponents alike. Make no mistake, he is no defensive guru in his own end, but McDonagh is no stranger to cleaning up others mistakes.
If Alain Vigneault values his balanced defensive pairings as much as he claims, Clendening is easily the team’s top option. However, it seems unlikely that Clendening will be on the Rangers’ top pairing when the Rangers start next month.
Brendan Smith has settled in on the Rangers’ defense following his trade from Detroit at the trade deadline. He has supplied the team with a dependable, puck-moving option that they lacked outside of the aforementioned names.
Smith is a left-handed player, but he has extended experience playing on the right side. He was asked to do so in Detroit, as well as in college. Smith was previously one of Ryan McDonagh’s partners at the University of Wisconsin.
His ability to move the puck out of the zone and into the opponent’s is a look at how the position should be played in today’s NHL. Smith also boasts 27 games of playoff experience, something that Skjei and Clendening can not offer.
The 28-year old’s presence on the Rangers’ blue line has quickly made him the team’s most qualified partner on the top pairing. If the Rangers hope to make a push in the upcoming playoffs, Vigneault should consider making the switch to Brendan Smith.