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2020-21 New York Rangers Season Preview: The Defense

Taking a look at the Blueshirt defensemen on the active roster for this upcoming season.

Winnipeg Jets v New York Rangers Photo by Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images

As the New York Rangers head into their first game of this season tonight, they are hoping to be stronger defensively under new assistant coach Jacques Martin, and get decent results out of new additions K’Andre Miller and Jack Johnson. Last season the Rangers allowed too many scoring opportunities by failing to take care of business in their own zone, conceding the blueline too often, and not being able to control the possession game. This put extra pressure on the offense and goalies, leading to 34 shots against per game. Moreover, they landed in the bottom ten by allowing 3.14 goals against per game. With the two new Blueshirts and a cast of familiar faces, the defensemen this season have some work to do on the ice, and need to step up their game.

The projected pairs to start the season are as follows:

Ryan Lindgren - Adam Fox

K’Andre Miller - Jacob Trouba

Jack Johnson - Tony DeAngelo

Brendan Smith

It is unknown how they’ll be deployed in terms of ice time, but let’s breakdown each pair starting with each individual defenseman.

#42 Brendan Smith

Smith’s season as a defenseman was cut in half, with Quinn having him start the season as a fourth-line winger. In the 62 games he played, he scored three goals with five assists and had a CF% of 43.6, which was the worst of his career. He had 13 takeaways but 22 giveaways because he tends to lose possession of the puck under pressure. However, he brought some grit to his game that resulted in tying Lemieux for team lead with five fighting majors, and he was second of the Blueshirts with 71 penalty minutes, only one of two teammates to get multiple game misconducts. To balance things out though, he drew 12 penalties. Smith averaged the least amount of time on ice in his career at 11:06 minutes per game between being the fourth-line winger, a healthy scratch for three games, moving back to defense when Brady Skjei was traded, and the season being cut short.

I think the biggest issue with Smith’s gameplay last season was that he is a defenseman who, due to his versatility, was not playing in that position for majority of the season. Therefore, he lost time to progress in his natural role. This is the last year on his contract, and he will most likely be in the same spot as last year. We already know he will be the 7th defenseman and a fallback winger should he be needed.

New York Rangers v Ottawa Senators Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images

#27 Jack Johnson

The 34 year-old veteran was bought out of his final three seasons on a $16.25 million contract by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Rangers decision to sign Johnson to a one-year, $1.15 million contract drew considerable outrage among fans. There were many complaints against Johnson’s lack of foot speed, production offensively, and poor advanced statistics as of last season.

As a part of the Penguins’ third defensive pairing, he was fifth among their defensemen with an average of 19:28 minutes of ice time per game throughout 67 games last season. His offensive line included three goals, and eight assists, with a CF% of 46.7. He struggles with positioning and skating, but has shown some ability to bring some physicality. Johnson blocked 97 shots and took 183 hits, the most of both stats on the Penguins, and was fifth in hits among NHL defensemen.

With Marc Staal now a Detroit Red Wing, it seems that Johnson will be taking his place as the veteran skater. Not only will he be expected to be a mentor to the younger players, but the coaching staff expects him to help the Blueshirts penalty killing unit. In order to keep his legs fresh and minimize the negative draw he will be on the lineup, when he plays it would make sense for him to average around 17 minutes of ice time per game as Staal did last season.

#77 Tony DeAngelo

Last season, the 25-year-old defenseman finished with 53 points in the 68 games he played. He ranked fourth among NHL defensemen with 15 goals, and ninth among NHL defensemen with his 38 assists. DeAngelo was part of the top power play unit, going 3-16-19, and averaged 19:17 minutes a game in all situations. As a team, they generated more offense with Tony on the ice than without, although there were also chances surrendered while he was on the ice. On January 9th, 2020, DeAngelo became the seventh Ranger to record a hat trick while adding two assists, tying with Brian Leetch for the Rangers’ record of 5 points in a game.

Despite having a very good season offensively, DeAngelo lacked coverage in the defensive zone, something that clearly isn’t his strong suit.

He ranked second-worst among his fellow defensemen with a 2.92 xGA/60 per Evolving-Hockey. His actual GA/60 was 2.44, which was still the fourth-highest among Ranger rear guards. He also had 16 takeaways compared to his 65 giveaways which was the most of the Blueshirt blueliners. This certainly is an expectation when you are a puck-moving defender, but he certainly can afford to clean thing up in that regard for the upcoming season. Also, he came in at number five on the team with 57 blocked shots.

This season it would be ideal for DeAngelo to balance out his offensive and defensive acumen, and if he’s unable to improve over overcome his defensive lapses he’ll need to step it up offensively to compensate. In training camp, Coach David Quinn was testing DeAngelo out on the left-side of Trouba in order to lighten the overcrowded right-side, but that pairing has since changed, with K’Andre Miller taking the spot on the left. He’ll face an uphill battle being paired with Jack Johnson, so things could get very interesting.

#79 K’Andre Miller

The 20-year-old, 6’5”, 210-pound rookie will be joining the roster as the season opens as Jacob Trouba’s new partner on defense. Miller played two years for the University of Wisconsin, and spent time with Team USA at the World Junior Championship, and is heading directly to the NHL. In his last season as a Badger in Wisconsin, he scored seven goals and tallied 11 assists in 36 games. He turned pro last March, signing a three-year entry-level contract with the New York Rangers before joining the team at camp ahead of the playoff qualifying round. As a player, he moves quickly to outskate others and to close the spaces between them. Quinn praised Miller’s efforts in training camp by stating:

“[..] what has impressed me is how calm he’s been [...] He’s worked hard, he’s closed down people, he’s made good decisions with the puck and from a defending standpoint, he’s like a praying mantis with that stick and his arms and his legs [...] He’s tough to get around, and you think you have him beat, there he is with his stick. There’s just an awful lot to like about him.” (New York Post)

The expectations are going to be high for the left-defender but he has exuded confidence leading up to tonight’s game. His height paired with Trouba’s 6’3” stature already gives the Rangers quite an imposing pair, but it is great that both defenders also have some skill to their game. Our own Adam Herman, has been following Miller for quite some time leading up to his NHL debut, so I think it is only fair to share his insight on the rookie’s future on Broadway.

“If Miller reaches his peak, he’ll be a top-pairing defenseman and #1 penalty-killing defenseman. He’ll join the rush and do his part to advance the puck, but will leave the playmaking to his teammates. On raw ability alone, he could fit in as a depth defenseman who plays tough defensive minutes. I think it’s a very good bet that the Rangers landed an NHLer in Miller. It’s still to be determined how impactful he will be, and it might take a few years for him to really find his game at the NHL level.”

#8 Jacob Trouba

Trouba finished with just 27 (seven goals & 20 assists) points last season which was a drop off from his career-high of 50 points tallied in the season prior. He posted a paltry CF% of 45.1, but some of that has to do with the fact he spent a significant amount of time with Libor Hajek and a struggling Brady Skjei. This doesn’t excuse his poor play, because you’d expect more out of an $8 million defender, and he knows that.

Last week, Trouba spoke about how the pressure of living up to these high expectations due to a large seven-year, $56 million contract, impacted his game. He stated, “Reflecting on last year, I think I got away from how I play hockey a little bit, trying to fill a role and get comfortable.” (New York Post) Perhaps Trouba will find some comfort in playing with Miller to his left, using this season to step up as a dependable defenseman while being a guide to the younger players.

Trouba averaged the most time on the ice with 22:34 minutes a game. From an underlyings perspective, the Rangers did not have many scoring opportunities, as they were outshot by the opposing teams and outscored when Trouba was on the ice. He blocked 128 shots ranking 16th in the NHL and had 173 hits which was the most on the team and eighth in the NHL.

So although he had a consistent physical appearance on the ice, he did not play consistently which led to him not meeting the expectations of his first season on Broadway. This will be a big year for Trouba, and all signs point to him recognizing that and being ready for the challenge. He will be one of the team’s alternate captains this season, and that speaks to the impact he has off the ice which is good to see considering the youth of the overall defense group.

#55 Ryan Lindgren

Lindgren did not make the team out of camp last season, but he ended up playing in 60 games tallying one goal, 13 assists while posting a CF% of 46.7. The stay-at-home defenseman averaged 16:34 minutes on the ice but led in 113 hits taken and was sixth on the Rangers with 94 hits. Additionally, he blocked 70 shots, had 25 giveaways but 28 takeaways which made him fourth on the team.

While offensively he didn’t bring much to the table, defensively he didn’t really surrender much against. How much of this was carried by Fox’s strong play remains to be seen, but his individual heat map suggests that he did OK for himself.

Lindgren’s physical presence and demeanor certainly makes him a solid foil for Fox’s offensive abilities. Next to Fox, Lindgren was consistent but still needs to show that he can be his own man capable of succeeding. It is fair to say that he showed more last year than was expected of him, and there’s the potential he could be a fine top-four defender in the long run.

#23 Adam Fox

Fox had a very successful rookie season last year with the Rangers, exceeding everyone’s expectations. He was snubbed for a spot as a Calder Trophy finalist, and posted 42 points in 70 games with 8 goals and 34 assists, ranking him second among the Broadway Blueshirts’ defense corps and seventh overall on the team. He also ranked first on the team, in addition to defensemen, with a CF% of 51.59. His average time on the ice was 18:54 minutes. Fox is a smart player, he is able to make quick decisive decisions with great puck-moving skills that never wavered. He was also second on the team with 92 blocked shots and led the team with 52 takeaways. He is able to read plays and find passing lanes well, and it makes his pairing with Ryan Lindgren a formidable one.

One of the reasons he was believed to have not been a Calder Trophy finalist was for his lack of power play time which created a points gap between Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes. Perhaps this season, he will get an opportunity to do more in that sense which would create the opportunity to achieve more points for himself.

With Fox paired alongside Lindgren again, his new roommate for the season, they can continue to feed off of each other. The Long Island native is the one defenseman who should really just keep doing what he is doing heading into the new season.

Stats via Evolving-Hockey unless otherwise noted.