Through six games the New York Rangers have the second-to-worst record in the league, or the second-best record in the #FallinforDahlin sweepstakes depending on your worldview. This is not what fans or the bookmakers had in mind, but the fact remains that the Rangers are 1-5-0 and have lost their last three games.
A lot has been said about Alain Vigneault since the start of the season, but today I’d like to focus on the craziness that has been the defense – to be more specific the number of pairings Vigneault has already tried.
To date nine pairings have skated together for at least 10:00 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time with five seeing roughly 25:00 or more of 5-on-5 ice together.
Rangers Defense Pairings By TOI
For context, here is what the Rangers’ top four pairings looked like at the end of the 2016-17 season.
1. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh - 783.85
2. Marc Staal and Nick Holden - 681.82
3. Brady Skjei and Kevin Klein - 479.47
4. Adam Clendening and Brady Skjei - 210.07
The TOI numbers clearly indicate that AV found pairings he liked and stuck with them, and based on the moves made this offseason, you would think the template was self explanatory for at least two pairs – replacing Klein with Smith and Girardi with Shattenkirk.
This year the Rangers have not done a good job taking care of the home plate area, and that’s something that needs to change.
The mixing and matching of defense pairings could be causing some coverage and communication problems, but regardless the team needs to tighten things up.
Focusing on this year, the first thing that stands out is that Ryan McDonagh has been put through the ringer for no apparent reason; the majority of his time has been spent alongside Marc Staal!
McDonagh is a first-pairing defender, an elite one at that, and this was going to be the season the rest of the hockey world really can see that. This was the season he was finally free to play his game and not have to worry about looking over his shoulder as a babysitter.
Instead, to date, he’s been given multiple partners, and he’s played both the left and right side. In terms of coaching decisions, where to play and who to pair with McDonagh should the second easiest decision to make, (the first easiest of course being who starts in goal).
In hindsight, the Rangers paired a struggling Dan Girardi at the end with Ryan McDonagh in an attempt to hide a glaring weakness. The powers that be felt it better to take the biggest weakness and pair it with the biggest strength in an effort to balance, rather than leave him to his own devices on the third pair in a sheltered role. I don’t intend on re-litigating that now, but will say that the case study should have at the very least provided Vigneault a blueprint on what to do and what not to do with his defenders this season.
The second thing that stands out is the fact that the pairing of Steven Kampfer and Nick Holden has seen the fifth-most minutes 5-on-5 to date. But based on their performance in those minutes, especially together, that ice time is just mind-blowing.
The more I see Holden-Kampfer against the Tarasenko line, the less I understand what the idea behind this is. pic.twitter.com/8MKCJ6LcNH— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) October 11, 2017
Holden is at best a seventh or eighth defender on this team, and Kampfer is directly behind him.
Part of the reason this pairing has seen as much time as they have is due to the benching of Brendan Smith for two games. Interestingly enough, despite missing two games, he is on the Rangers’ top pairing along with Brady Skjei in terms of time spent together.
Smith played with Skjei in the playoffs and they were great. Here's a nice assist on one of Skjei's goals #NYR pic.twitter.com/YpJKoR9XqU— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) August 1, 2017
That is a pairing that should continue to see a lot of time together going forward, as it was the Rangers’ top duo in the 2016-17 playoffs.
The third thing that stands out is that Kevin Shattenkirk has spent time with Staal. Shattenkirk came to New York to play big minutes, and to be a top-four defender.
Jeff Gorton said as much during the introductory press conference.
"It's clear we feel he's a top-four defenseman in the league. We feel we have very good left-hand defense that he could play with any one of them and have success. In particular Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skjei have done really well on the left side. Whatever way we go we think it's going to work out well for him, but we're obviously bringing him here to play him a lot."
Deploying him in any other role is a waste of his talents; he is an elite offensive defender who is at his best when paired with a mobile partner that is competent in their own end of the ice. Staal is not that type of player, and the Rangers will not get the most out of their $26.6 million investment if this trend continues.
Speaking of deployment, here’s another great chart from Micah Blake McCurdy showing the Rangers’ overall deployment to date.
It is interesting that Shattenkirk hasn’t been deployed in more of an offensive role, and that’s something I am interested in monitoring going forward.
Going forward the Rangers have to make some decisions, and better that they come sooner rather than later. The first decision involves Tony DeAngelo, a player that went from healthy scratch to top pair in just under 24 hours.
When the Rangers acquired DeAngelo, they knew he was a gifted skater with top-end offensive abilities, and that his defensive game needed significant improvement. They also knew that he was only 21-years-old and that the player he is in October of 2017 isn’t exactly the player he is going to be for the rest of his career.
Thus far DeAngelo hasn’t been put in the best situation to facilitate his success. To be successful, DeAngelo needs to skate with someone who is a rock defensively to balance out the missteps he’s bound to make along the way. His most frequent partner to start the season has been Staal, who isn't exactly the best defensive presence to cover his mistakes. Going forward, McDonagh or Smith should be considered to skate alongside DeAngelo instead to help develop his game, and overall balance the defense pairs.
Collectively the team hasn’t played well as a unit, and there is a reason why they have the record they do. However, the frantic switches on defense are nonsensical, as parings take time to jell; once they do amazing things can happen.
Skjei and Smith were a logical pairing heading into the season, as was McDonagh with Shattenkirk. Due to the fact that Neal Pionk was sent to Hartford to start the season, AV was left with DeAngelo, Staal, Holden, and Kampfer for the third pair. Ultimately, it was DeAngelo and Staal together to start the season. Pionk had a strong camp, played well at Traverse City and looked like he belonged though, and maybe should have been in consideration instead.
ICYMI @NPionk95's move and OT winner for #NYR! pic.twitter.com/NUTfv3uk3J— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) September 19, 2017
If the Rangers were to deploy their best defense going forward, and I know this is highly unlikely, this is what it would look like based on playing styles.
Ryan McDonagh- Neal Pionk
Brady Skjei - Kevin Shattenkirk
Brendan Smith - Tony DeAngelo
This grouping would feature a blend of speed, offensive ability and defensive prowess on each pair. It would also allow for flexibility, because there isn’t a reason why Pionk and Shattenkirk couldn’t swap at times, and there would be availability for Skjei and Smith to take a few rushes depending on what was going on in the game as well.
This isn’t going to happen because there doesn’t seem to be the stomach for putting $5.7 million in a suite upstairs. I am not saying he deserves the Adam Clendening treatment, but the Rangers have some better options at their disposal.
This scenario also leaves one of Patrick Roy’s “better defensemen” as the eighth man, although moving him for something isn’t the worst of ideas as it would clear some space and breathing room for other defenders. You should notice that at this point I haven’t even mentioned Alexei Bereglazov, and he’s someone who could enter the discussion at some point after polishing things up in Hartford.
In short, the Rangers are better than their record shows. I truly believe that once the defense pairings are stabilized in terms of deployment and ice time, there will be an improvement in their end results. Right now, not only does the team need to play the six best defenders, but Alain Vigneault needs to let them play to their strengths. There’s just no reason for this much blending this early in the season.
At the bare minimum, injuries withstanding, each pair should see at least 10 games together. Ten games is a good sample size to make an educated decision, and there is no reason to make a knee jerk change in the sake of winning because the season is so young. Vigneault needs to show patience and not panic, because the more he talks about “trying to win games,” the more it looks like he has bigger concerns on his mind.
Let us see what happens tonight against the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.