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What Exactly Is The Plan With The Defense?

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Washington Capitals v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

If anything good can come from the New York Giants and their already disastrous trade of Odell Beckham Jr., it’s that perhaps the Giants’ New York counterparts can realize the importance of having a plan.

Jeff Gorton is two years — and two full selloffs — into the rebuild and a few problems are still... well... problems. Mainly the defense. OK fine, especially the defense.

As of right now, Gorton’s plan for the defense is unknown. We know (or think, at least) he’s aware it’s a problem area since defense was a major focus point in nearly every move the Rangers made. Look at this:

Derek Stepan trade: Brought back Anthony DeAngelo

Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller trade: Brought back Libor Hajek and the 1st round pick in 2018 was used on Nils Lundkvist

Rick Nash Trade: Brought back Ryan Lindgren and a 2018 1st round pick that (was traded up and) used to select K’Andre Miller.

Michael Grabner Trade: Brought back Yegor Rykov

The 2018 NHL Draft: The Rangers used two of their three first round picks on defenseman (K’Andre Miller 22nd overall, then Lundkvist 28th overall), before using four of their final seven picks on defenseman.

If we’re being honest, it should still be a major focal point for the organization. Even after the Adam McQuaid trade, here’s who the Rangers are trotting out on defense: Kevin Shattenkirk, Marc Staal, Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith, Neal Pionk, Anthony DeAngelo, Fredrik Claesson, and the now out for the year Libor Hajek. In the immediate wings, there’s Ryan Lindgren and Darren Raddysh. Below that, there’s Sean Day and Joey Keane. Below that? It’s not even worth talking about.

As it stands, the NHL-level defensive players aren’t moving the needle much. Shattenkirk has had the unluckiest two-year stretch since Rick Nash was playing in the 2014 playoffs and even so the buyout talk is insane. Skjei is here for the foreseeable future, and there’s hope (whether reality or optimistic remains to be seen) that he can turn things around when the defense isn’t a complete tire fire. DeAngelo has proven himself to be a top four defenseman on this team but can’t get out of his own way. Claesson should be valued by the team, but it’s pretty clear the organization sees him as nothing more than a depth piece. Staal isn’t going anywhere and Smith needs to be bought out or sold for pennies on the dollar (with salary retained) if they want to get him out.

That leaves DeAngelo and Pionk, who have completely role reversed since the start of the year. This summer the media banged the Pionk drum so hard you’d think they were in the parade, and no one batted an eye when he was on the opening night roster and DeAngelo wasn’t. Despite concerns that Pionk’s defensive game wasn’t anywhere near NHL level, and that last year’s offensive explosion was likely a fluke, David Quinn hasn’t stopped pushing Pionk on the top pair despite continued failures in that role. Today DeAngelo represents a competent two-way defenseman who has literally been one of the best transition players in the league and is putting up a better PPG metric than half the league’s defense.

Why do I bring this all up?

Here’s why: Skjei, Smith, Staal, and Shattenkirk are all signed through 2021 where only Skjei will be on the team beyond that. Both DeAngelo and Pionk are RFA’s, and that will be a very difficult navigation period for Gorton — one that will answer some questions about his long-term and short-term talent evaluation. Pionk should likely be sold at the draft for the highest possible return, with this year-and-a-half-long stint answering the question of whether or not he’s a long term solution. DeAngelo should be kept, although his off-ice issues probably require a bridge to protect the team from a long-term investment they can’t get out of; even if it’s probably the smarter move.

Claesson is also an RFA this summer, but this simple situation is more complicated because of the logjam the Rangers have at the position. Claesson is a perfect bargain depth defenseman who can play hockey well on the cheap. The Rangers, apparently unconvinced about this, dangled him at the deadline and don’t seem to have a regular spot for him for in the lineup. So we’ll see what happens there.

This is where the question of a plan comes into play. Rykov is expected to come over this summer, but will probably need a year to season with the different ice surfaces in the AHL. K’Andre Miller — coming off a positively brilliant freshman campaign in Wisconsin — isn’t expected to make the jump to the pros this year. Same goes for Lundkvist, despite his massive success in the SHL this year.

Those three players and Hajek are the only real prospects who should be on your radar for a potential NHL role over the next few years. And only Hajek has a shot at being one next year.

Waiting doesn’t solve any problems either since Shattenkirk, Staal, Smith, and Skjei are all signed for at least two more years — Skjei the only one extended beyond 2021. If Gorton keeps both DeAngelo and Pionk and removes one of the four above this summer, that’s still five defenseman slotted to play next year. That doesn’t include Hajek. Or Claesson. Or to a lesser extent Lindgren. And that’s just this summer if Gorton doesn’t try to add a more quality defenseman via trade (Jacob Trouba) or free agency (Erik Karlsson).

Running eight healthy defenseman for most of the season this year resulted in DeAngelo and Pionk turning into a “one or the other” situation, two healthy defenseman sitting most every night, a series of 11F/7D lineups, and guys like Adam McQuaid getting quality minutes over kids who could have gotten some NHL experience. That shouldn’t be a viable option at all for next year, but that would require some type of movement.

The easiest solution seem harder than it is. Some would look at a trade of Pionk this summer as “giving up” on him, but there’s enough evidence to say it’s smarter to cut bait while there’s trade value there instead of making a long or even short term investment.

From there it gets a little harder. Smith could have some value to a team if the Rangers eat cap. Any Shattenkirk trade would be selling for pennies on the dollar at this point, and I’m not sure I can see any semblance of logic in moving on from him at this stage in the game. Skjei probably has value, but that would require the team to to take a step back from a player they valued highly enough to not bridge less than 12 months from his extension. There would be egg on Gorton’s face for that one as well.

Something has to happen one way or another. If not this year, then certainly next, but the more time the Rangers waste, the more drastic the situation becomes. No answer at this point is “right,” and there really is a minimum of two moves that need to be made to settle things out at six players.

We don’t know the plan. Fans never really do.

Hopefully Gorton’s plans are better than Dave Gettleman’s ...