The New York Rangers have a logjam at defense and Russian signing Alexei Bereglazov throws an added wrench into the gears.
With July coming to a close, the New York Rangers need to start thinking about solutions to their problem on defense. For once, that problem isn’t an inept group—GM Jeff Gorton’s summer moves have vastly improved their top-four. Instead, the Rangers have five or six defensemen battling for the last three roster spots.
Among them are veterans Nick Holden and Marc Staal, along with newcomers Anthony DeAngelo, Neal Pionk, and Alexei Bereglazov.
Signed in May as a free agent from the KHL, Bereglazov is a unique problem for the Rangers. Though a bit of an unknown as far as NHL talent goes, the Russian has an out-clause in his contract. If he doesn’t make the Rangers, he can leave his contract and return to Russia.
Losing him for nothing so soon after signing him can’t be high on the Rangers’ list of priorities. But is Bereglazov worth a spot on the roster?
The Russian bear
At this point, the veteran defense options for the New York Rangers are known quantities. Neither Holden nor Staal is a good option these days, but the trio of Pionk, DeAngelo, and Bereglazov are untested.
DeAngelo, likely, has a spot on the right side. As a key piece in the Derek Stepan trade, he has the inside track to the starting six.
But Bereglazov especially is more unknown. Playing in the KHL, while the second-best league in the world, meant that many audiences in North America have never seen him before. Thankfully, a big highlight video recently surfaced, giving many their first look at the big defenseman.
Bereglazov is big (6’4″, 200-plus pounds), but skates well. Unlike many of that build, he’s fluid and quick on his skates. As befits his size, he defends the blue line well, using his reach.
He’s not a world-beater on the offensive side of things, though he can chip in from time to time. This past season, he set career highs in assists (18) and points (19) in the KHL.
Perhaps more importantly, he took his game to new heights in the Gagarin Cup playoffs this year, posting six assists in just 13 games.
Holding the blue line
Between his vastly improved skating and play and his out-clause, there should be little doubt that Bereglazov will have a spot with the New York Rangers this season.
He brings size along with speed. Like Brendan Smith, he’s a lefty who can play on the left or right side. He can score the odd goal, and elevates his game in the postseason.
Ideally, Bereglazov will start the season as the Rangers’ seventh defenseman, giving him time to adjust to the smaller North American rink. While that adjustment is an issue for many European players, it’s even tougher on defensemen. Angles change, gap control gets dicey, and there are more board battles down low.
Giving Bereglazov the necessary chance to get his game in order would be good, and it leaves him as a useful option in case of injury. If, mid-season, he earns a full-time spot in the lineup, that would be even better.
The fact of the matter is, Bereglazov is one of several smart moves that Gorton made this spring in an effort to fix the defense. With so many competent defensemen hanging in the wings, the Rangers will almost certainly be better in front of Henrik Lundqvist.