When the New York Rangers acquired Tony DeAngelo from the Arizona Coyotes last summer — seemingly at their explicit request — it was clear that Jeff Gorton saw something in the young defender that made him worth targeting. It’s taken more than a year — one that was both up and down and temporarily stalled by an ill-timed late-season injury — but it sure appears Gorton was onto something.
Though he’s played in just three preseason contests ahead of this coming season, the version of DeAngelo on display through them has been something of a revelation. He appears both confident and assertive; his poise with the puck (as evidenced best by his stretch pass Monday night) is second to none. He’s also not been one to shy away from physical contact. Be it finishing his checks or being a presence in between-the-whistles scrums, DeAngelo has been there for all of it; aligning his game seamlessly with first-year head coach David Quinn’s “Fast, Physical, Relentless” mantra.
For DeAngelo, whom the clock was ticking loudly on, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Despite an inflated volume of ice time given his way to close out the Rangers’ lost season last year due to the Rangers’ February sell-off, DeAngelo’s game left more questions than answers. Ones not so easily explained away by his mere eight assists in 38 games. A flash of brilliance here was often dashed by a blown assignment there, often canceling out what good he was producing in the first place. It didn’t help that he suffered an untimely season-ending ankle injury on March 12.
Those questions had both fans and media alike questioning not just his future with the team, but given his advancing age, even the league. He is still a prospect, but for the soon-to-be 23-year-old there comes a point in which a player of his pedigree needs to prove something of substance. But a pair of events since the end of last season — Alain Vigneault’s firing and Quinn’s hiring — could be all DeAngelo needs to make right by what Gorton saw in him.
Quinn has preached for a much more aggressive brand of hockey since his hire – words he’s only doubled down on through the first two preseason contests. He even expressed early contempt for his team’s response — or lack thereof — to Eric Gryba’s hit on Boo Nieves. A collision that left the hopeful center with yet another concussion.
“Listen, we have to protect each other, we have to stand up for each other, we’ve got to support each other,” Quinn told the media following his team’s 5-2 loss to the Islanders on Saturday night. “We’ve got to do that from now until the day the season ends.”
Despite the outcome, Quinn’s Rangers did appear to react to his liking. Cody McLeod fought Scott Mayfield mid-way through the first period and Brandon Crawley ended up in a mini-bout with Casey Cizikas after exception was taken to Cal Clutterbuck’s hit on Peter Holland. Overall, the team played a physical game, standing in contrast to their first preseason contest – the same in which Nieves was taken out with only some verbal sparring from Jesper Fast in response.
But Quinn’s desired style of play goes beyond fists and fracas. He has also mandated an up-tempo offensive game that’s tailor-made for a puck-moving defenseman such as DeAngelo. It’s a style the young rearguard has shown early results playing under, even with the caveat of these games not being a true measure of any one player’s NHL readiness or the quality of competition they face.
Nice lead pass by Tony DeAngelo springs Mika Zibanejad, who finds Chris Kreider for a tap-in. Rangers lead the Devils 3-1 early in the 3rd pic.twitter.com/hYsyGPvsJL— Steve Kournianos (@TheDraftAnalyst) September 25, 2018
In fact, DeAngelo’s first pass — reminiscent of Michael Del Zotto’s rookie season — could in and of itself earn him one of the few available roster spots on the Rangers’ blue line. And that’s not yet accounting for his tremendous skating ability or tenaciousness; both of which are likely opening the eyes of the Rangers’ front office. It also says nothing of his underlying numbers which only strengthen his case that much more.
Pushing for a full-time NHL role for a third time since being drafted 19th overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, DeAngelo’s combination of supreme skating and offensive instincts are particularly borne out by his relative possession metrics. Despite being limited to just 33 contests last season, his 5.15 relative Corsi for percentage lead all Rangers defenders last season and was a sizable jump over his 1.4 CF% rel from just a year prior with the Coyotes. He also owned a 5.0 relative Fenwick for percentage despite operating with a lowly 93.8 PDO rating.
Couple all of this with Quinn’s reputation as a strong developer of talent, and it’s hard to buy any argument for an opening night roster that doesn’t include the 22-year-old defender, who could very well be an early pillar in establishing Quinn’s culture and philosophy on Broadway.
DeAngelo’s game isn’t without warts because, well, no one’s is. But offensive defenders tend to get exposed more than their stay-at-home peers due to the knife’s edge of risk they are often playing on. There’s still much for him to learn about defending in his own end. Turning the puck over less often, for example, would help. So would fewer Twitter battles (if any at all). But you have to have the puck to give it up, and having control of it with his improving skill set is an important first step to establishing him as a full-time NHL player and could help spring him into a fixture on the Rangers’ blue line for years to come.
With only Kevin Shattenkirk truly ahead of him on the right side of the ice, DeAngelo’s early preseason play has complicated matters. Matters already compounded by the late summer addition of Adam McQuaid — another righty — while Neal Pionk, man-on-a-mission Brendan Smith, and possibly Frederick Claesson are also in the fight for an opening night roster spot. But in this case, that complication is a good thing, both for the Rangers, who, like it or not, have much riding on that trade that cost them Derek Stepan, and for DeAngelo himself, who is perhaps riding his last real shot at making right by it.
As my colleague Joe Fortunato pointed out, it’s possible that the flare and fanfare of preseason won’t actualize for DeAngelo come the start of the season, just as they failed to last year as well. But both the Rangers and DeAngelo have every reason to make sure it sticks this time around. Waivers are no longer an option to send him to the AHL, nor would he survive the open waiver wire should they still try to get him through.
Now free of the tempestuous nature of Vigneault and guided by arguably the best coach available to get his game righted, there are no excuses left. Thankfully, for all parties involved, DeAngelo’s play is strongly favoring his inclusion on this roster on merit alone, and that’s nothing but good news, even if it did come down to the wire.
Stats via Corsica.hockey unless otherwise noted.