The New York Rangers have eight defensemen on the roster and only one player is injured. If you forget about the Flyers game, the remaining seven are playing well. Deciding who to sit is a good problem to have.
Going into the season with eight defensemen, it was going to be an elimination game. The assumption was that David Quinn would give them all playing time and end up with the six regulars, one depth player and the eighth either going to Hartford or the waiver wire.
There were a lot of question marks. How would Brendan Smith respond to his stint in the minors? Would Marc Staal continue to regress? Could Brady Skeji rebound from a mediocre sophomore season? Who was Fredrik Claesson? Was Kevin Shattenkirk fully recovered from major knee surgery? Could Neal Pionk continue scoring while improving his possession numbers? Where would Adam McQuaid fit in? Would Tony DeAngelo’s defensive shortcomings make him the early candidate for demotion to the AHL? With bottom feeder expectations, Adam McQuaid and Fredrik Claesson looked to be dealt at the trade deadline.
The season started predictably. The threesome of Shattenkirk, Staal and Skjei were dependable regulars. DeAngelo stuck around because he needed to clear waivers, but found himself riding the pines. Staal and Sjkei started every game while Quinn rotated the rest of the defense corp including Shattenkirk. Quinn’s benching strategy seemed to pay off with Pionk, Smith and Shattenkirk responding well to sitting out.
As the Rangers got off to a slow start, fate and timing came into play. There were injuries to Fredrik Claesson and Adam McQuaid that forced David Quinn to play DeAngelo. In what is probably the biggest surprise on the blueline this season, the 23-year old defenseman has turned his season and possibly his career around and has become an asset on defense.
There are good stories throughout the defense corps. Fredrik Claesson, the team’s only free agent signing, has surprised many with his steady play and great locker room influence. Brendan Smith lost a lot of weight and came to camp in great shape and is slowly rebuilding his reputation. Even Kevin Shattenkirk has seen a revival now that he is fully over his major knee surgery. And everyone’s favorite target, Marc Staal, has been a solid presence on defense. .
Right now, the primary defensive pairings are set. Here are the top pairings by minutes played (all stats from corsicahockey.com):
- Pionk-Staal 227 minutes
- Skjei-DeAngelo 141 minutes
- Shattenkirk-Smith 123 minutes
- Claesson-Shattenkirk 116 minutes
- McQuaid-Skjei 90 minutes
- Pionk-Skjei 71 minutes
Considering that the Rangers have been outshot in 14 out of 22 games, it’s not surprise that the possession stats for these defense pairings are pretty bad. The Corsi percentages for all of these pairings are well below the magic 50% mark. The Pionk/Staal rating is a horrible 39%, Claesson/Shattenkirk are at 44% and Skjei/DeAngelo lead the way with 46%.
With a healthy defense corps, it is a perfect time for Quinn to experiment with his pairings to see which twosomes are most effective. After practice on Thursday he hinted that a rotation is in the future: “I think that depends on who’s playing well. if all seven are playing well then maybe it’s a little bit of a rotation. if some guy’s play slips and he gives a reason not to play…that takes care of itself. I think all their play will dictate whether it will be a rotation or whether there will be six who have separated themselves from the other two.” He did say that lefty-righty considerations will not be a factor in the rotation game.
What to look for
One thing will definitely not change. Neal Pionk will continue to quarterback the power play. Pionk is in second place among NHL defensemen with 11 powerplay points, behind only Keith Yandle and John Carlson, both with 13. . No other Ranger defenseman has more than two points with the man advantage. Although Pionk has the worst possession numbers (41% Corsi) of any Ranger defenseman, his powerplay prowess will ensure his presence in the starting lineup.
Don’t be surprised to see Marc Staal as a healthy scratch, especially when the team has back-to-back games. With Kevin Shattenkirk finally showing signs he is the player the Rangers signed, he will probably stay in the lineup. Fredrik Claesson has been a steady influence on the blue line and deserves to keep playing. That means that the primary candidates for regular rotation are Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith, Tony DeAngelo and Adam McQuaid (when he returns to action).
Another option is the idea of a lineup with 11 forwards and seven defensemen. It would allow the team to play two offensive D-men on the powerplay. We’ve explored the idea of Tony DeAngelo moving up to forward. With Cody McLeod and Pavel Buchnevich out for several weeks, that option may be better than an AHL call-up like Steve Fogarty or Tim Gettinger.
Considering that the Rangers defense was much maligned coming into the season, the performance of this group of eight has to be seen as a good news story. They are responding to coaching and while not the strongest defense in the league, they are not an embarrassment. The key question is whether they have hit a ceiling or will they continue to improve.