Coming into the preseason, we knew that the bulk of the blueline was known. Ryan Lindgren, Adam Fox, K’Andre Miller, Jacob Trouba, and Braden Schneider were all going to find themselves on the roster. It was the final spot available on the left side of the third defensive pairing that has been up for grabs all summer long, and we have seen two clear candidates start to fight for that final spot on the defensive core.
Let’s start with the veteran Erik Gustafsson. Coming off a season where he put up 42 points in 70 games, this man can be a force offensively. Now, the drawback with this, like so many talented offensive point producers on the back end, is that Gustafsson is just as scary in the defensive zone for completely different reasons. This is an offensive dynamo who has struggled in his own end for the bulk of his career.
In the other corner, we have Zachary Jones. A former third-round pick of the New York Rangers back in 2019, the Richmond, Virginia native has struggled more than he would like to get game time with the big club. After making the roster out of training camp last year but being sent down after failing to make a mark after 16 games, the Rangers instead opted for Ben Harpur until they picked up Niko Mikkola.
Between these two, there’s been just one spot, and so far, the nod seems to be going to Gustafsson, who has been playing with Braden Schneider on the third pairing. Whether or not that remains the case, we will have to wait and see. Head Coach Peter Laviolette has been open about not wanting to make decisions too quickly following his appointment as the new head coach of the Rangers a few months ago.
There is a case for having both on this roster. Jones has the talent to be a good third-pairing defenseman, bordering on being a top-four defenseman in this league. Erik Gustafsson will put up points and be able to quarterback the second powerplay unit when Fox needs to come off and rest. With Jones no longer being waiver-exempt, this is going to be a close fight to watch for the rest of the preseason.