As the dog days of summer officially set in, New York Rangers brass has finished most of their summer assignments.
That is, with the notable exception of Alexis Lafreniere, who has not signed the assumed bridge deal awaiting him.
Now, all that is left is to await the beginning of training camp. The “back to school shopping” of the NHL offseason.
This raises the question of who should fill which roster spots. More notably, which player should the Rangers insert alongside youngster Braden Schneider for the upcoming season?
Entering the 2023-24 campaign, the club has essentially three options to fill on the left side of Schneider on the back end.
Those three names are Zac Jones, Erik Gustafsson, and Ben Harpur. Each brings a different style of play, and none enter as the consensus pick to fill the position.
Zac Jones has played 38 games across 3 seasons with the club in a very limited role, averaging just 15:18 time on ice per game.
Jones plays a very similar game to Adam Fox, relying on intelligence and adept puck-moving skills rather than imposing physical attributes.
Jones does possess a bit more speed, something that was clearly lacking in last year’s squad, but his lack of size is a bit concerning.
The Vegas Golden Knights, champions of the 2022-23 season, did not deploy a single member on the back end below six feet tall.
Jones is listed as a generous 5’11”, and weighs 185 pounds soaking wet.
Only one, Shea Theodore, weighed in below 200 pounds. Should the Rangers include Zac Jones on the blue line for 2023-24, it will mean having two defensemen below six feet.
While size is not the end-all-be-all, having a strong defender on the third pair who specializes in preventing opposing attackers from entering the zone and offering a punishing presence in front of Igor Shesterkin would be preferable.
Neither of which are Jones’ strong suits.
Another option could be Erik Gustafsson. Signed as a free agent this offseason, Gustafsson accumulated 42 points (7 goals, 35 assists) across 70 games in the 2022-23 season with the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs.
More importantly, only 11 of those points, all assists, came via the power play last season.
Gustafsson owns a strong shot from the point, as well. He is quite capable of getting pucks to the net to create rebounds and scoring chances.
Unfortunately, the shortcomings that face Zac Jones also plague Gustafsson. While capable offensively, Gustafsson’s defensive zone coverage is spotty at best.
In sheltered minutes against weaker opponents, Gustafsson can be a useful presence. However, with Schneider still finding his footing in the NHL, it is likely he will be the 7th option on the back end to start the season.
Finally, the option that saw the most action with this Rangers team last season is Ben Harpur.
The hulking 6’6” defenseman had his ups and downs last year. At times, it seemed he was overmatched, failing to use his size and strength to his advantage.
Then came the heralded performance near last season’s trade deadline. While trying to accrue cap space, the Rangers deployed only 5 defensemen for a handful of games.
In that time down the stretch, Harpur played admirable with his notable performance against the L.A. Kings on February 26th in which he played 28:04 time on ice.
Ideally, Harpur fills the role of the extra defender should the club call upon him. That may not be possible if neither Gustafsson nor Jones can take the reins.
Additionally, with Peter Laviolette behind the bench, he may prefer a more traditional third-pair option, prioritizing a defensive-minded player.
In a perfect world, the Rangers will start next season with Zac Jones accompanying Schneider on the blue line.
However, with the plethora of obstacles, Jones faces (some he can control and some he cannot), it is likely that one of the other two will win the final spot.