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Jeff Gorton Got The Answers He Needed On Defense

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

By all accounts this season was boiled down to two thoughts in the same line of thinking: 1) develop as much youth as you can, and 2) answer whatever questions about said youth you had for long-term decision making.

David Quinn’s efforts were questioned a lot in the early going, as we tried to sort out what his thought process was as he made some decisions we’d consider on par with the previous regime. Anthony DeAngelo, Filip Chytil, and Pavel Buchnevich were the biggest gripes, with all seeing extended stays in the press box or in limited minutes. Stories were written, speculation was speculated, podcasts were podcasted.

In the end, we found out there was more than we knew — which is always true, but this time it actually came out. Quinn has done a lot more self reflection than we’ve seen in a long, long time. Alain Vigneault never looked in the mirror once, John Tortorella might have — but public admittance of it on Broadway only happened in the rares of circumstances, and Tom Renney often changed his mind about things, but we never knew why. Quinn is the first man behind the bench in over a decade to admit to the media where he screwed up, why, and what he was going to do about it. Most recently it came in the form of questioning himself on Lias Andersson’s usage and ice time. These things are good. We want more of these things.

This isn’t about Quinn and reflection, though.

When the DeAngelo benching saga hit a fever pitch we finally confirmed there were tangible reasons behind it; maturity issues that were figured out and dealt with. All summer we banged the drum that DeAngelo and Neal Pionk needed to be in the opening night lineup, and they needed to be given every opportunity to fail at every turn. Why? Because the season was always going to be a throwaway and you may as well answer whatever questions you have about players that need to be kept when there’s no consequences.

That also ended up being one of the biggest questions we needed answers on. Pionk and DeAnglo are restricted free agents this summer, and until the end of the year DeAngelo remained the only NHL asset the Rangers had on their roster. Now that we’ve had basically a full year worth of evaluation on both of them, we’re entering the critical stage of this evaluation: What to do with them moving forward.

In almost every way, DeAngelo surpassed Pionk on the ice this year — and the one way he didn’t might not even be real: perceived effort. DeAngelo has become the DeAngelo the Rangers expected when he came back in the Derek Stepan trade. As of this writing, he has 27 points in 54 games, which is a 41-point pace over 82 games. Pionk, despite a torrent start to the year, sits at 23 points in 65 games — and has just four points in 29 games since the new year.

That wouldn’t be as big of a deal for Pionk if the rest of his game was standing out, but it isn’t and really hasn’t been. And for all the smug “we knew this was the case” MSM comments come Pionk’s selection in the opening night lineup, the current swap in fates between the two has mostly gone unspoken.

But let’s go to the stats. (Stats are from every game leading up to the Pittsburgh loss on Monday. That game was not included.)

In almost every way, DeAngelo is the superior defenseman. Using relative metrics (relative because by all accounts the entire team’s defense is bad, so we’ll instead measure a player’s stats against the team average) DeAngelo is a top four player in possession, goals for, and expected goals. His numbers in terms of creating offense at 5v5 blow Pionk (and most of the team) away. The only defenseman who even comes near DeAngelo’s 5v5 production is Kevin Shattenkirk — who might be the unluckiest man on the planet.

Pionk produced fewer 5v5 primary points than any other defenseman who spent more than 100 minutes on the ice — yes, that includes Adam McQuaid. Same thing for general points per 60 minutes on the ice. DeAngelo is a better possession player, the goals share is significantly tilted in his direction, and the Rangers expect nearly 1.52% more goals with DeAngelo on the ice than Pionk.

The only area where Pionk is at a massive advantage is on the power play, where he’s been significantly better at earning primary points than DeAngelo is. Their TOI on the power play is also similar, despite DeAngelo playing in far less games. But is the power play advantage really worth it — the P1 metrics are drastic, but also slightly skewed because of how little time either spends on the ice during the man advantage — when Pionk can’t defend in his own end?

The end result here is DeAngelo has easily earned the contract extension that’s coming his way. I said on this week’s podcast (Ep. 133) that much like getting an inspection when buying a house, having the information isn’t good enough if you don’t make intelligent decisions based off of it. The Rangers have the answers they need on both Pionk and DeAngelo; both of which are RFAs at the end of the year. With an already clogged lineup, and defensive players in the pipeline, is there really a need to keep both DeAngelo and Pionk? Fredrick Claesson will be looking for a new deal this summer, and should be kept. Even without him, the Rangers have too many defenseman for too few roles, and that doesn’t even include keeping one of DeAngelo and Pionk. We’ve been through this before, so I don’t need to rehash that article, but safe to say it would be in Gorton’s best interest to move on from a defenseman or two this summer.

He only needs to keep one of Pionk/DeAngelo. The decision was murky at the beginning of the year based on reputation and perceived effort. The answer should be easy now: It’s DeAngelo and it’s not even close.