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Trades That Could Improve Rangers Defense

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Anaheim Ducks v Edmonton Oilers - Game Four Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

So much has been discussed about where the New York Rangers defense went wrong and the issues that became more glaring as the season and postseason progressed.

Dan Girardi’s game has deteriorated, despite him playing with the Rangers’ top defenseman Ryan McDonagh. His game is fundamentally flawed, as his role of a shutdown defensemen is ineffective. He bleeds shots because of ill-timed blocked shots and blocked shot attempts.

Marc Staal’s play has diminished in recent seasons and the once reliable homegrown Ranger has become a defensive liability. Kevin Klein also regressed this season, which was as to be expected from his last two seasons, but it was something that this already weak defense could not afford.

Nick Holden’s offense on the surface looks like a strength for the Rangers’ blue line, but his risky play has been more problematic than anything. In his own zone, Holden’s decisions have been costly, including his pinches at inopportune times and interference with Lundqvist in the crease.

How the Rangers proceed with their defense this offseason is crucial. It has already been established who the Rangers should look to replace, but the question stands – who replaces them?

The Rangers have two ways of acquiring NHL-ready defenseman for next season: free agency and trades.

In looking at defensemen the Rangers should acquire in a trade, analyzing their 2016-17 season in comparison to the Rangers current roster of defensemen (Adam Clendening, Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith, Kevin Klein, Nick Holden, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, and Dan Girardi) can help decipher whether they would be an improvement to the Rangers’ current lineup – keeping in mind that some of the accomplishments and possession statistics of these defensemen were influenced by their teammates.

The Ducks are in a Bind

Jeff Gorton and the Rangers could look to capitalize on the team’s inability to retain all of their valuable assets at the expansion draft. The Anaheim Ducks are a prime example of a team that will find themselves in a bind. As it stands, their best chance to protect their assets on defense would be to protect eight skaters/one goaltender. However, that likely results in Jakob Silfverberg being exposed (and subsequently drafted by the Golden Knights unless they are bribed by the Ducks). Even after assembling their team to follow that protection scheme, they still would struggle to protect all of their defensemen because of Kevin Bieksa’s no move clause.

The Ducks’ best opportunity to protect all of their valuable assets would be to either buyout Bieksa or ask him to waive his no movement clause and trade one other defenseman for a forward – allowing the Ducks to protect seven forwards/three defensemen/one goaltender.

Who the Ducks move depends in part on Cam Fowler, whose contract expires in 2018. If the Ducks and Fowler do not see a future, they could move him. However, if Fowler intends to re-sign, then defensemen Sami Vatanen or Josh Manson could be on the move.

The Rangers have been linked to Vatanen before, so the potential of him being dealt to New York seems to be within the realm of possibility. Manson is another plausible option for the Rangers.

The 25-year-old Vatanen is signed through the next three seasons with a $4.875 million cap hit. In the final two years of his four-year, $19.5 million contract, he has a modified no trade clause. Manson, who is also 25, has one more season left of his two-year, $1.65 million contract ($825,000 cap hit per season).

Vatanen scored 24 points (three goals, 21 assists) in the regular season this year and six points (one goal, five assists) in the postseason. In 265 career regular season games, he has accumulated 122 points (32 goals, 90 assists).

On the other hand, Manson scored 17 points in the regular season (five goals, 12 assists). Then in the postseason, he earned three assists. In his 181 game regular season career, he has 35 points (10 goals, 25 assists) to his name.

Manson and Vatanen compare well to the defensemen currently on the Rangers roster. Starting with their offensive contributions, Vatanen’s (55.67) and Manson’s (57.32) exceed all of the Rangers’ regular season Corsi for per 60 other than Clendening’s. Manson’s shots for per 60 (30.72) and scoring chances for per 60 (9.80), surpasses all of the Rangers’ as well, while Vatanen shots for per 60 (29.12) trails Klein, Clendening, and McDonagh. Also, Vatanen follows Staal, McDonagh, Skjei, and Klein in scoring chances for per 60 (9.11). Vatanen’s expected goals for per 60 (2.62) would rank third on the Rangers (behind Clendening and McDonagh) and Manson’s would rank first (3.03).

NHL: New York Rangers at Anaheim Ducks Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively, Manson or Vatanen would be improvements over some of the Rangers’ current options. With Manson on the ice, the Ducks had few shot attempts against (49.99 Corsi against per 60) – which trailed only Clendening on the Rangers roster. Vatanen’ 58.07 Corsi against per 60 was an improvement over Staal (58.59(, McDonagh (62.64), and Girardi (66.02).

Manson’s shot attempts against (25.61) was better than all Rangers defensemen other than Clendening. Vatanen’s (29.88) followed Clendeing, Skjei, and Klein on the Rangers. Additionally, both Manson (7.67) and Vatanen’s (7.74) scoring chances against are more favorable to all Rangers blueliners other than Clendening, as are their expected goals against per 60 (Manson 2.26, Vatanen 2.39).

Either Vatanen or Manson would be an improvement on the Rangers’ right side in their top four. The only caveat is that Vatanen will miss the start of the season, due to sustaining a shoulder injury that will require surgery. However, this does give the Rangers the opportunity to experiment with some of their young defensive options – including Neal Pionk, Alexei Bereglazov, and Ryan Graves.

Exploring the idea of Ekholm

Another team that may look to move a defenseman before the expansion draft is the Nashville Predators. As it stands, the Predators will be protecting four of their core defensemen – P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm. If the Predators were interested in moving a defenseman to allow them to protect seven forwards, instead of the four they would be allotted if they went with four defensemen, Ekholm seems like the most likely option.

Acquiring Ekholm is something of a long shot because he is so valuable to the Predators, however for the right asset the Rangers could make it happen.

The left-handed Ekholm is 27-years-old. If the Rangers do move Staal, then Ekholm could replace him on the left side. However, if they are looking to replace a defender like Girardi, then maybe the Rangers could shift Ekholm, McDonagh, or Skjei to the right side for balance. Obviously the Rangers need right-handed defensemen, however if given the opportunity to acquire Ekholm, they should certainly pursue it.

Brendan Smith was a valuable and recent example in handedness being given too much importance when analyzing and discussing defensemen and defensive pairings.

This season, Ekholm scored 23 points (three goals, 20 assists) in 82 regular season games. In the postseason, Ekholm has been outstanding for the Predators, earning eight assists thus far. All in all, he has 85 points (19 goals, 66 assists) in 309 NHL games.

Although Ekholm is not known for his offense, with him on the ice the Predators generate a high number of shot attempts for. Ekholm’s 59.06 Corsi for per 60 exceeds all defensemen on the Rangers other than Clendening and his shots for per 60 (31.87) is better than all of the Rangers defense. Offensively, the area that Ekholm did not contribute to as much was scoring chances for, as his 7.69 scoring chances for per 60 is lower than most of the Rangers defense. Nonetheless, his expected goals for of 2.56 is commendable, ranking behind Klein, Clendening, and McDonagh.

Anaheim Ducks v Nashville Predators - Game Six Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

On the other side of the ice, Ekholm’s Corsi against per 60 (51.37), shots against per 60 (27.67), and scoring chances against per 60 (6.5) was lower than all of the Rangers current defensemen other than Clendening. Ekholm’s expected goals against per 60 of 2.15 was lower than any other New York defenseman though.

Ekholm’s value is only increased by his low cap hit. He has completed one year of his six-year, $22.5 million contract ($3.75 million cap hit). Ekholm would be a huge improvement over Staal ($5.7 million cap hit) and Girardi ($5.5 million) in all three zones. But what would it cost to convince the Predators to part with him?

Grabbing McNabb from the Kings

The 26-year-old Brayden McNabb is another option for the Rangers to consider. We know the Rangers scouted the Los Angeles Kings this season – possibility considering the option of McNabb.

The left-handed defenseman is signed through next season with a low cap hit of $1.7 million – only $500,000 more than Holden.

McNabb scored four points (two goals, two assists) in his 49 regular season games. In 238 career regular season games, he has 50 points (seven goals, 43 assists).

On the surface, McNabb may not be the most appealing option since he only scored four goals this season. But a deeper look reveals that there is a lot more to his value than modest counting stats.

With McNabb on the ice, the Kings possessed the puck often (which is hardly a surprise) – generating a high number of shot attempts for and shots on goal (68.26 Corsi for 60 and 60.29 shots for per 60 – both ranking higher than any of the Rangers defensemen). Similar to Ekholm, McNabb’s scoring chances for per 60 are not overwhelming (8.35). However, his 2.85 expected goals for per 60 outshines any defenseman on the Rangers.

Clearly there is more to a defenseman’s offensive value than just his counting stats.

McNabb’s play defensively is also noteworthy. With him on the ice, the Kings allowed fewer shot attempts against and shots against than any Rangers defenseman did on the ice their team (44.96 Corsi against per 60, 22.78 shots against per 60). The only Rangers defenseman to compare to McNabb’s 6.87 scoring chances against per 60, is Clendening’s 5.97. Lastly, McNabb’s low 1.97 expected goals against per 60 is more impressive than any of the Rangers.

*Chart via HockeyViz

Any of Vatanen, Manson, Ekholm, or McNabb would strengthen the Rangers defense. All of these players have lower cap hits than Staal and Girardi, and while they have cap hits more comparable to Klein and Holden, their performances eclipse theirs.

And in case his play this season wasn’t obvious enough, all of this only confirmed how impressive Clendening’s limited season was with the Rangers – making him an option for the Rangers to consider next season as well. He can play on both sides of the ice and was clearly impactful when compared to the Rangers other blueliners.

Of course the Rangers have more trade targets than the aforementioned four defensemen – like Trevor Van Riemsdyk who has to be exposed by the Blackhawks because of the three no movement clauses they have on defense. And there is always the free agent market.

What’s most important is establishing that the Rangers do have options, especially if they find ways to part ways with their weaker defensemen. Any of these defensemen could slot into the Rangers top four alongside either McDonagh or Skjei. It would directly address the team’s greatest weakness.

But acquiring highly-coveted defensemen on the right side of 30 won’t come cheap. If Gorton pursues a trade to bolster the blue line, it will likely cost the Rangers a valuable player currently on the roster and/or picks.

So, just how serious is Gorton about fixing the defense? We’ll soon find out.

*Data is at 5v5, courtesy of Corsica.hockey.