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Defensive Decisions Need To Come Sooner Rather Than Later

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NHL: New York Islanders at New York Rangers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

You didn’t need to look hard to see the problem before the year even started. With eight healthy defenseman on the roster — seven if you thought Steven Kampfer wasn’t going to be a David Quinn staple the way he was an Alain Vigneault one — it seemed as though we were going to talk about this from the start.

Things got even more confusing when general manager Jeff Gorton decided he needed to acquire Adam McQuaid, despite already having seven other defensemen we expected to fight for a role on the roster. It added to an already confusing situation.

My two biggest issues with the trade had to do with sacrificing assets to get someone of McQuaid’s skill level:

Why Gorton felt the need to sacrifice a fourth round pick to help Boston unload his salary is beyond me. It’s troubling that even this deep into a rebuild the Rangers’ brass felt a move like this was worth moving assets. Sure, more than likely a fourth rounder turns into nothing, but guys like Johnny Oduya, Paul Martin, Josh Gorges, Mark Fayne, and Dennis Seidenberg were all on the market and cost nothing more than the cap space the Rangers currently have an abundance of. Entering the trade market to acquire a veteran presence feels unnecessary, and doing so for the sake of adding toughness alone feels just downright stupid.

And what his presence did to an already crowded blue line:

Before he was brought in, the Rangers had two wide open spots on defense (assuming Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith, and Marc Staal all made the team). We plugged in guys like Anthony DeAngelo (who we argued at The Forum had to get a starting role on the team so the Rangers could see what they had in him) and Neal Pionk — with Libor Hajek, John Gilmour, and everyone else sitting firmly in the “long shots” category. It was simply and easy.

Now, with McQuaid in the picture, things are a bit more complicated.

The Rangers deciding to go into the season with eight defenseman, and then doubling down and continuing that trend long term was a mistake. Aside from Marc Staal (who has yet to see a healthy scratch), there’s been a revolving door of defenseman in and out of the lineup, but for the most part it’s Anthony DeAngelo, Fredrik Claesson, and Brendan Smith who have been rotated in and out of the lineup to make room.

While the DeAngelo situation has been talked about in depth already, it still can’t be completely overlooked. Regardless of the reasons why the Rangers feel he should be in the press box more often than not (be it a talent evaluation or off-ice issue), Gorton and company were very clearly not prepared for how to handle him or what to expect from him despite acquiring him in the most important trade of Gorton’s tenure at the time. Wring your hands over him not playing all you want — as I have — but the team has handled him poorly from the get-go. And as a reminder, the red flags about his off the ice stuff existed for years before Gorton got him. DeAngelo, once again, did well in an opportunity on Tuesday and had two goals bringing his season line up to 4-8-12 in 29 games.

Smith has been a more confusing case. His underlying numbers aren’t terrible, but as I argued on the podcast this week (Ep. 122) almost all of his big mistakes end up in the back of the net so they’re immediately more memorable. His bad habit of taking penalties at the worst time has also been a factor, and, well, no one cares if he’s sitting for Claesson or DeAngelo.

Claesson is the most interesting case. By almost every metric he’s been the best defenseman on the team, and it’s not really close. Even eye-test people agree he should be in the lineup daily, and yet, he can’t find his footing there despite being good at every turn for an already bad defense. In fact, there have been (logical) arguments that Claesson should be extended this summer.

Part of the issue right now is that the Rangers are, you know, carrying eight defenseman which means two guys have to sit every night. The other issue is head coach David Quinn jumped at the chance to get a healthy McQuaid back into the lineup, so he’s not one of the defenseman who is sitting.

The reasoning behind McQuaid’s impenetrable shield is unknown, although it boils down to one of three options: 1) Quinn legitimately things he is good, 2) Quinn knows he isn’t great, but thinks his toughness helps more than it hurts, 3) He’s being forced to play him so he garners enough value to allow Gorton to recoup some of the assets he lost to get him in the first place. Those three reasons go from super bad to cleaning up the mess your boss made, but it doesn’t make the situation as things stands any better.

The carousel of players is just the half of it.

That Neal Pionk and Marc Staal continue to be paired together is shocking. For how quickly Quinn has gone about adjusting his forward combinations to try and get things to work, his lack of attention to this pairing has hurt everyone involved. Pionk isn’t good enough to handle Staal’s lapses, and Staal — who hasn’t been as bad as year’s past — isn’t good enough to handle Pionk’s either. It’s also putting Pionk, a young player who the coaching staff is obviously very high on, in a position to fail.

What’s more, Pionk’s offense — which was the saving grace of his pretty dreadful underlying numbers — has dried up. He has six points in the last 20 games, and the struggles on the back end are piling up in the back of the net. Per Corsica at 5v5 there isn’t a single defenseman (outside of McQuaid) with a worse raw Corsi or relative Corsi. Beyond Brady Skjei’s -5.19 relative expected goals percentage, Pionk is the next worst at -3.06. The relative numbers are jarring, because the team is already bad, and he’s been far worse than their average.

When he was on pace for 50-points you ignored the statistics. Now? Especially after the Islanders game, it would be a shock if he didn’t get a seat.

So what fixes the problem?

A trade will help, preferably one involving McQuaid. The media seemed sure that McQuaid would be a desired commodity among contenders come February, something I harbored doubts about. The fact that he got hurt doesn’t help, especially when considering his injury history, but I think the Rangers would be lucky if he brought back the 4th round pick they shipped out, let alone an upgraded selection. And since the Rangers already sunk the cost into him in the first place, it’s almost worse to sit him and remove any chance of getting anything for him. The issue hasn’t been the ideology of him earning trade value, it’s been who has had to sit to make it happen.

Furthermore, a seemingly perfect solution (the Claesson injury) that alleviated the pressure of the situation, was handled by calling up Ryan Lindgren — which added another defenseman to the list. (On Ep. 123 Mike and I discussed what Lindgren’s callup signals about DeAngelo and Libor Hajek). Sure, Claesson and supposedly Pionk are hurt right now, but that’s still seven healthy defenseman for six slots. If the Rangers are here to focus on guys like Lindgren, DeAngelo, Pionk, and Skjei that’s great. In a way, it’s exactly what should have been happening from the start. That hasn’t been the case to this point, though, and more often than not a kid is sitting to make the lineup happen.

Tuesday night the man sitting out was Smith. We don’t know who it will be next time, but we do know there will be a next time.

And there won’t stop being a next time until the team removes at least two defensemen from the mix.