Four games into the 2020-2021 — 21? How does this work? — season and we’ve already seemingly hit a point of critical mass when it comes to the New York Rangers and their defense.
The Rangers have seven defenseman who are rotating in and out of the everyday lineup. In no particular order Jack Johnson, Jacob Trouba, K’Andre Miller, Brendan Smith, Adam Fox, Tony DeAngelo, and Ryan Lindgren. Of those seven players, two have never been good in their own end (DeAngelo and Johnson) and one is forcing everyone to look at the number of years left on his extension and wonder if Lindy Ruff wasn’t the issue (Trouba).
This is a big enough problem in and of itself, but it’s worse when the Rangers seemingly can’t get out of their own way. As an example, not only was DeAngelo re-inserted into the lineup against Pittsburgh on Friday for Smith, he was paired with Jack Johnson.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that that pairing likely won’t work. The thing is, DeAngelo is a very gifted offensive defenseman with the puck on his stick. He can carry the puck into the zone with ease, can spot the open man, get to soft areas of the ice, and create offense. DeAngelo is really, really good at those things. The thing is, any defenseman who is good at those things, often takes risks and makes sacrifices with positioning to do them, so pairing them with a player who is more sound in their own zone — or at least fast enough to get back — would be ideal. Johnson is neither of those things, and never has been. So why, exactly, is that a match David Quinn so desperately wants to see?
That doesn’t even go into, like, how he got to the decision to put Johnson in over Smith in the first place.
*Heath Ledger Joker voice*— Rob Luker (@RLuker12) January 22, 2021
It's not all about Jack Johnson... it's about the other skaters too... pic.twitter.com/D0KsLEd0nN
The media has been putting out the “Johnson was requested by Jacques Martin who knows him from Pittsburgh” narrative, which, whatever. Sure coaches have their favorites, and I’m sure Johnson is a great leader and works hard in the room and in some way shape or form endeared himself to Martin. That doesn’t matter. Quinn is the head coach, and he makes the calls. There’s something to be said for trusting your people, but it’s another thing when what they’re telling you very clearly isn’t true.
It isn’t just on defense, though. Kaapo Kakko has made enormous strides in terms of analytics, but can’t seem to get more ice time than Brett Howden. In fact, only Julien Gauthier, Brendan Lemieux, Phillip Di Giuseppe, and Kevin Rooney have played less than Kakko. That’s a huge red flag, especially since Kakko has looked like a different player this year, both via eye test and on the stat sheet.
Again, what is Quinn’s plan?
In addition to DeAngelo being in over Smith, Quinn also said Gauthier was a “game time decision” for reasons he would handle internally. Again, based on the fancy stats, I’m not sure what he’s not doing on the ice.
David Quinn is not playing two players who have been pretty good this year pic.twitter.com/qALHbowb4S— Michael (@alexIafreniere) January 22, 2021
These stories — and the inevitable swarm of “U R NOT AN NHL COACH” — are exhausting. Quinn has to, you know, start to do this whole development thing when it comes to key parts of this lineup.
There are good things.
Miller staying in the lineup despite his struggles the first game was a breath of fresh air, and he promptly rewarded Quinn by showing everyone just how good he can be the next two games. Adam Fox Currently leads the Rangers organization in ice time. Pavel Buchnevich (who is exiting the “kid” category) has been used like one of the best forwards on the team ... which he is.
Then there’s other stuff. Kakko, as I mentioned above, but also Alexis Lafrenière who lost his power play spot to Howden after one (1) game. Johnson remaining in the lineup. The pairings not making sense on defense. The ice time allocation. The continuous love of Howden. Filip Chytil being used in a similarly bizarre fashion as Kakko. It doesn’t make sense.
Adam wrote a great piece on where Quinn needs to go from here, but it’s worth mentioning there’s no more safety net. The Rangers don’t need to make the playoffs this year for Quinn’s oversight to be successful, but the kids do need to take a major, noticeable step forward. That means Chytil, Kakko, Lafrenière (we’re skipping the “rookie” stuff here, this kid should be an instant impact player this year), and a program of growth for Miller. To this point there’s been little of that with those four players.
Quinn has handled the kids in a much better way than his predecessor ever did, but one of my biggest AV complaints was that I could never see the path he was trying to take. With Quinn, sometimes it’s visible and sometimes it’s not.
That’s a problem, because when you have precious cargo like Lafrenière, Kakko, Chytil, Miller, and Fox, you can’t waste prime development years.