With the NHL trade deadline a mere three weeks away, the New York Rangers find themselves with a glaring need for one or two forwards who can slot into the middle six, if not the top six, in order to bolster the depth of their offensive attack.
While this area is an obvious one for them to address — and especially so after their two most recent games where they scored a total of two goals — the notion that they need to add depth to their blue line might now be null and void. Patrik Nemeth has returned from injuries and the lingering effects of a bout with COVID-19, and, most recently, the birth of his baby boy (congratulations to the Nemeth family!). The more notable player on defense, however, is 21-year-old Zac Jones.
As was recently touched on here in an article about why the Rangers need to say no to acquiring Montreal Canadiens defenseman Ben Chiarot, the emergence of Jones and his effective pairing with fellow rookie Braden Schneider points to the Rangers really not needing to ship out assets for a defenseman at all.
Nemeth, 30, provides the Rangers a veteran, stay-at-home presence, but he has struggled mightily for most of the season. His on-ice expected-goals-for share (xGF%) of 39.24 percent at five-on-five (per Natural Stat Trick) points to these struggles; put simply, with Nemeth on the ice, the Rangers give up far more scoring chances than they generate for themselves. Of course, it’s impossible to quantify the degree to which the aforementioned trials and tribulations Nemeth has had to deal with this season have impacted his performance on the ice. His most recent game was a positive sign that he might be poised to turn things around.
Nevertheless, Jones offers the Rangers a more dynamic player who can change the complexion of their attack. Jones’s game has much more offensive flair, and gives the Rangers an additional puck-mover from the back end that can aid in their transition game and ability to create more offense – something they could sorely use. Adding Jones to the mix with Schneider, Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, K’Andre Miller, and Jacob Trouba gives the Rangers a nice blend of physicality, defensive responsibility, and offensive, puck-moving abilities.
In particular, the pairing of Jones with Schneider is very complementary, with Jones able to jump into the play knowing that Schneider’s defensive leanings should keep the Rangers out of too many dangerous situations. The numbers support this idea, as the Jones-Schneider pairing has produced an xGF% mark of 50.24 percent in a little over 65 minutes of ice time. Essentially breaking even here is all the more impressive on a Rangers team that generally struggles in this department as a whole. As Jones and Schneider both continue to grow more comfortable as full-time NHL players, their results should continue to improve.
While head coach Gerard Gallant, like many other coaches, often appears to feel more comfortable giving playing time to veterans, Jones’s skill set and his chemistry with Schneider, even in a limited sample, should ultimately force Gallant’s hand to make Jones the regular sixth defenseman. Then, a healthy Nemeth as the seventh defenseman gives the Rangers the insurance they need. Sure, a cap hit of $2.5 million for two more years after this one might be a bit high for a spare defenseman, but the Rangers can worry about that in the offseason, when cap space will become a more critical issue for them.
Thus, in having Nemeth as an insurance policy and Jones as a lineup regular, it would be a waste for the Rangers to give up assets for another body on the blue line. Jones represents the ideal solution for them both in the short-term and long-term, so it’s time for the Rangers to stop being so tentative with young, skilled players, and give him an extended chance to shine. They should then place their pre-trade deadline attention fully on adding impactful forwards.