New York Rangers: Lack of options may force defensive youth movement

Apr 6, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs defenseman Neal Pionk (4) makes a shot during the second period of play against the Harvard Crimson at United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 6, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs defenseman Neal Pionk (4) makes a shot during the second period of play against the Harvard Crimson at United Center. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports /

The New York Rangers need to find a way to revamp their aging and ineffective defensive group. But with salary cap issues and bad contracts, their options are limited. To make meaningful changes, the team may have to consider a youth movement.

The Rangers are surely considering buy outs of overpaid and underperforming veterans Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. But if they buy one or both of them out, they’ll have dead cap money on the books through the middle of the 2020s. They would feel the impact of buying those players out for years to come.

They could try to trade one of them to the Las Vegas Golden Knights, but that would likely come at the expense of the Rangers’ first round draft pick in this year’s draft. This is a weak draft class, but the Rangers wouldn’t have a pick until the fourth round, as their second and third round picks are gone.

The farm system is in need of good prospects, so the Rangers would like to hold onto this pick. They have made shrewd signings outside the draft, with players like Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich, but they haven’t had a first round pick since 2012 (Brady Skjei).

Related Story: Time to Buyout Staal and Girardi

Cap Issues

I think it is likely that at least one of Staal or Girardi will be on the roster. If they can’t move him, Kevin Klein is another dwindling asset who has one more year under contract. With those players sucking up cap space, it’s hard to see how the Rangers can squeeze in a big free agent fish like Kevin Shattenkirk.

Additionally, Mika Zibanejad is a restricted free agent and is a candidate for long term deal. Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg are also RFAs. JT Miller, Kevin Hayes, and Jimmy Vesey will be RFAs next year. If the Rangers give the farm to Shattenkirk, some of these core players will have to go.

In order to avoid trotting out the same tired group, the Rangers will have to find cheaper options. Some of those cheaper options will have to come in the form of unproven rookies. The Rangers may have to look to three young players to be part of a shakeup on defense.

Related Story: Roundtable - Predicting Changes on Defense

Back Channel to Russia

The first is Alexei Bereglazov, a big, physical defenseman the Rangers signed out of the KHL in April. He’s not a great puck mover, but he can skate and he can contribute on the offensive end. Bereglazov improved in all three of his KHL seasons and he is only 20-years old.

Bereglazov is left handed, but is comfortable on both sides. He sounds like the type of player the Rangers would like to stick next to Ryan McDonagh at some point – a strong defender who can skate and won’t be an anchor like Girardi. But it’s not always easy for KHL players to make the transition to the smaller North American rinks, especially for defensemen.

Related Story: Rangers Can't Give Away First Round Pick to Dump Girardi or Staal

A Homegrown Solution

Next is Ryan Graves, a homegrown, stay-at-home defensemen who has gradually improved at Hartford. Though not known for his offense, Graves has a hard slap shot and does score some goals (8 and 9 in his last two seasons).

Graves isn’t the greatest skater, but he is a smart player and uses his size and strength to make up for a lack of speed. He’s improved at every level and has always managed to find an important role.

The 22-year old Graves is sure to get a chance to compete for a spot this season. His ceiling is probably on the second pair, perhaps with his good friend Brady Skjei (although they’re both lefties). He’s a younger, stronger and cheaper player who could take on the duties of Staal/Girardi.

Related Story: Alexei Bereglazov Signing is Ideal for the Rangers

From the College Ranks

The third player is Neal Pionk, signed out of UMD in May. Unlike the other two, Pionk is an offensive minded player. Pionk is 21 and he’s right handed, if you can believe it.

Although on the small side (listed at 6 feet, which might be generous, and 190 lbs), he plays with an edge. Pionk racked up 104 penalty minutes in his final season on the Sioux City Musketeers in the USHL, before heading the NCAA.

Pionk played two seasons for UMD, scoring 34 points in 42 collegiate games. After an outstanding showing in the NCAA championships, he drew a lot of interest from the NHL. Although he may need some seasoning before joining the big club, many scouts think the Rangers got a steal in Pionk. The Rangers sure hope that those scouts are right.

Final Thoughts

The Rangers desperately need big changes on the blue line next year. Salary cap issues and limited options with their players under contract will make it difficult to improve the group via the usual channels of free agency and trades.

Next: Rangers' Complete Off-Season Plan

The team may be forced into taking a long look at some youngsters. Alain Vigneault has been hesitant to trust rookies in the past, but unless Jeff Gorton can pull off some magic, he might have to.