As I watched Marc Staal in last night’s preseason game against the Islanders, a moment I experienced a year ago kept running through my head.
Last November, I walked down the stairs into the Madison Square Garden press conference room following a Boston University-Cornell NCAA Hockey game. My assignment at the time was to learn more about Boston University’s defense. What I did not know was that I was actually learning about future New York Rangers’ Head Coach David Quinn.
Boston University were in a somewhat unusual spot of having seven defensemen on its roster who were drafted by NHL teams. I asked Quinn about that situation and how he balanced trying to win games along with keeping everyone happy and keeping players’ long-term goals of pro hockey in perspective.
“At the end of the day, the best players play,” Quinn responded. “People lose sight of... when a guy gets drafted it’s not necessarily for how good he is, but how good he will be. My job is to put the best six or seven defensemen on the ice that I can and put us in a position to win.”
This doesn’t stand out from the typical cliches coaches in any sport will typically spout off. But with Quinn, it was different. By the tone of his voice I inferred that he really meant what he was saying. More to the point, his actions backed up his words.
Jonathan MacLeod was a second-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning and part of David Quinn’s first real recruiting class at Boston University. The defenseman was an immediate fixture in the lineup for BU, playing in 37 of the team’s 41 games as a freshman as they topped their conference and were runners up in the NCAA Frozen Four. Through his junior season, he had played in 96 out of 119 possible games for BU, and at the end of his junior season earned the Most Improved Award from his teammates.
And so while I asked Quinn about his defensemen in general, I believe there was an implied understanding that we were discussing MacLeod in particular. MacLeod’s resume - his age, where he was drafted, and what he accomplished previously at BU - did not matter that night, as he was not in the team’s lineup for an important game. In fact, he had only played in five of the team’s 15 games despite the fact that, in college hockey, teams typically dress seven defensemen. MacLeod had lost his spot to the likes of Cam Crotty and Kasper Kotkansalo; two perfectly decent prospects, but who were teenagers just drafted in the third round a few months prior.
Pro sports are a business. So too is the NCAA to the point that it’s toxic and corrupt on a number of levels. But there is definitely a different vibe. Coaches enter the houses of recruits and look parents in the eyes, promising that they will take their impressionable, vulnerable children and turn them not only into better hockey players, but also better people. Coaches are not merely directing a group of employees on skates, but are heavily embedded in these kids’ lives. This was arguably the most important year of MacLeod’s life. As a senior, it was the final college season he would ever have at his Alma Mater. It was also his last chance to prove to Tampa Bay that they should sign him to a contract.
Yet Quinn made the extremely unpleasant, though certainly correct, decision to limit his on-ice role with the team. Boston University ended up winning the Hockey East Tournament, while Jonathan MacLeod went unsigned by Tampa Bay, as well as all NHL teams.
Single-game samples are incomplete at best and deceitful at worst, and make that doubly so for the preseason. But when David Quinn and his coaching staff look at the video of last night’s game, he’s going to see Marc Staal spending an awful lot of time in the defensive zone.
The veteran defenseman got absolutely buried by the Islanders’ top line, allowing 14 shot attempts against at five-on-five while the Rangers generated just two themselves. Certainly, this is not all Staal’s fault. Kevin Shattenkirk had moments where it was clear he is still working to get to game speed, while three forwards are on the ice who contribute to the defensive side as well.
But Staal himself still did not look good, and in fact he has struggled throughout the preseason. His numbers don’t look great, save for some good shifts against a handful of Devils’ teenagers and AHLers. He also made a mess that resulted in a goal once Taylor Hall hit the ice.
Three preseason games is just that; three preseason games. But that’s the sample size the Rangers’ coaching staff has to work with right now. While someone like Kevin Shattenkirk who is coming off an injury, or Mats Zuccarello who has proven himself season-after-season, would get the benefit of the doubt, Staal has earned none.
There were many arguments in Staal’s favor that, rightly or wrongly, offered Alain Vigneault plausible deniability. He had been a key part of the defense when the Rangers contended, and the coaching staff trusted him in important games. They were trying to win immediately, and besides, there were no defensemen in the ranks who could step in.
All of that is gone now. The coaching staff is brand new (save for sophomore Lindy Ruff), and Staal holds no nostalgic appeal to them. While the team will certainly try to win every time it steps on the ice, the coaches know they are building towards something bigger than whatever happens in October or November of 2018. There’s no denying that the Rangers have multiple defensemen - Tony DeAngelo, Neal Pionk, and John Gilmour - who are just about at sink-or-swim time in their hockey careers.
Like any head coach - really, any person no matter his/her job - David Quinn is going to make bad decisions. He’s going to appeal to experience, or emotion, or just straight up make a wrong evaluation. However, he also has the mental fortitude and desire to make decisions that might make other coaches queasy. Staal’s presence in the opening night lineup would hardly be a surprise, but if he continues on the path that he has for the last few seasons, then don’t be surprised if David Quinn sticks to his word and puts Staal in the press box. Not to show him up, or to make some sort of statement to the team. Rather, because his modus operandi is putting out the six defensemen he believes give him the best chance to win on a given night no matter what their resumes might look like or how heavy that decision might be. Just ask Jonathan MacLeod.
Some other notes related to last night’s game:
- As previously mentioned, Shattenkirk is very clearly not at full speed yet. However, he has started to have more moments where he looks like himself. Just be cognizant of his situation as the season begins, because it might take him a few weeks to get going.
- The Rangers’ systems are still an enigma to me - partly because it’s all still new and can get messy in preseason, and partly because recognizing systems isn’t my strong suit - but what’s clear is that Vinni Lettieri fits what Quinn’s coaching staff is trying do to. The Rangers clearly want to use two forwards funnel the puck to one side of the ice as quickly as possible, then have the third forward step up into the constricted space and force a turnover. Buchnevich did a tremendous job of initially forcing the play towards the left side here, and you can see Lettieri take advantage of this and create a transition chance.
There’s still one game left to play, but one would have to think he’s in pole position for a roster spot.
- Tim Gettinger will almost certainly spend the season in Hartford, but he has made an impression this preseason. His most impressive ability is how he uses his size on the forecheck. Traditionally, this would mean running over defenders, but for Gettinger it’s about keeping pace with puck carriers and using his long reach to close down, limiting space. In this clip you can see him force a turnover from Nick Leddy, who is a quick skater and quite a good puck mover. The Rangers got a sustained cycle in the offensive zone as a result.
- It’s not anything new, but Kreider, Buchnevich, and Zibanejad once again looked a cut above everybody in terms of generating offense.
- Jimmy Vesey is very lucky that the Rangers don’t have many quality wingers to push him for a job right now, because did not look good yet again. Of course, it’s a small sample and he’s learning a new system. The Rangers know they need more from Vesey and it’s the coaching staff’s job to make him a better player in March than he arrived in September. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and so let’s wait and see how he might progress.
- Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson both made mistakes last night, as they did in previous games. However, they also did not look out of place. My personal belief is that Chytil is best off getting all-situation minutes as the #1 center in Hartford rather than playing on the wing for the Rangers. However, while both will endure massive growing pains, I think they’ve both shown enough to prove they won’t be overwhelmed in the NHL.