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How bad has the third D-pair been?

As it turns out, it’s pretty bad. Let’s talk about it.

New York Rangers v Carolina Hurricanes - Game One Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New York Rangers have a problem. Well, they have a few problems, but one of them has been pretty glaring since the word “go” in the team’s opening series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Rangers have two defensive pairs it can trust and one d-pair that is responsible for me searching for my anxiety medication mid-game and me shrieking at volumes that really should have resulted in law enforcement checking my apartment for a corpse by now.

How loudly do I have to screech, “What the hell are you doing! No! No! JUST GET IT OUT!” before my neighbors demonstrate some basic concern for my well-being. Honestly, it’s just rude.

We’re talking, of course, about the Rangers’ third defensive pair which, for the moment, is Justin Braun and 20-year-old Braden Schneider. Before we bravely stride any deeper into this bog, it is important to make it blatantly clear that judging Schneider harshly for his performance in the playoffs is not exactly fair. Before the 2022 playoffs, he had 43 games of NHL experience and 26 games of AHL experience.

It’s not surprising that Schneider has — at times — looked overwhelmed and plays defense like a deer that has smashed through a screen door and is just knocking shit over in your kitchen while it frantically tries to find its way back out. Pots and pans go flying hither and thither. An antler impales a whisk. Eyes wide with panic, mouth agog in horror taking in this horrid, sterile, handsomely-tiled dimension that stinks of meat and murder and baked goods. You get the idea. What is surprising is how the coaching staff has failed to find a way to get passable play out of the third pair.

Rangers defensive pairs through Game 3 vs CAR

Player Player 2 GP TOI CF% SF% GF GA GF% xGF xGA xGF% SCF% HDCF% OZ Starts NZ Starts DZ Starts
Player Player 2 GP TOI CF% SF% GF GA GF% xGF xGA xGF% SCF% HDCF% OZ Starts NZ Starts DZ Starts
Jacob Trouba K'Andre Miller 10 179.55 48.29 44.14 9 8 52.94 7.22 11.67 38.22 41.62 35.06 6 51 31
Adam Fox Ryan Lindgren 7 115.67 45.71 51.18 2 1 66.67 5.02 6.24 44.56 46.22 50 24 27 15
Patrik Nemeth Braden Schneider 5 50.80 43.52 41.67 1 5 16.67 2.15 2.99 41.81 47.17 38.89 7 9 2
Justin Braun Adam Fox 9 43.18 42.53 38.78 4 3 57.14 1.34 3.74 26.4 31.91 14.29 9 8 9
Justin Braun Braden Schneider 9 52.93 36.84 32.5 0 1 0 1.01 3.2 23.93 28.89 18.52 6 16 6
Data courtesy of naturalstattrick.com

We didn’t need the Pittsburgh series (or the Carolina series) to show us that Nemeth was bad. The regular season made that abundantly clear, just as it revealed his three-year deal to be an abundantly bad idea. As for Braun, I expected better out of him. We knew not to expect anything from him outside of his own zone but his decisions with the puck and positioning in the playoffs have been downright alarming at times.

The ice feels tilted when the third pair is out there, to the tune of a -19.58 xGF% and a -12.60 Rel CF% for Braun and Schneider. Interestingly enough, despite a desperately low PDO, you could say that this most recent iteration of the third pair has gotten off, well, lucky. It sure is nice to have Igor Shesterkin in net.

Despite being absolutely demolished in the shot share, the pairing of Braun and Schneider has a -1 goal differential at 5v5 in the postseason. The Nemeth and Schneider pairing was together for roughly the same amount of time (50:48 at 5v5 vs 52:55) and had a -4 GDIFF and less terrifying underlying numbers. So, at least things are better than they were with Nemeth out of the lineup.

Honestly, I think a lot of this comes down to context. The other four defenders on this team have been making plays in all three zones. Even if they err, the optics are encouraging and make the unremarkable nature of the third pair that much more unremarkable. Together, Braun and Schneider don’t seem to have much chemistry. In the regular season, they played 64:33 TOI at 5v5 together. That’s not a lot for a pair that suddenly found itself slapped together trying to contain some of the best forwards in the conference.

And, to be honest, I’m also inclined to cut Braun some slack. He is an upgrade over Nemeth and he didn’t come at a high cost. He is what he is.

With all of this said, I keep circling back to the big picture. This team is not a Stanley Cup contender even if they are one of the last eight teams left standing. Can the Rangers win this series? Of course they can. Can they get to the Cup Final? Sure they can. It’s the playoffs — anything is possible. But this team — with its third line made up of guys who may have literally eaten a Lunchables within the last decade — is a work in progress. This is most evident with that third d-pair which, essentially, is a developing defenseman learning to swim in shark-infested waters and a veteran rental who was brought in to do the job that Nemeth couldn’t do.

It is undoubtedly a glaring weakness, but it’s a weakness that we will have medicine for in the near future in the form of Nils Lundkvist and Zac Jones. That, too, is important to keep in mind.

Still, it would be nice to see something that resembled adaptation and amendments being made to defensive tactics from the coaching staff. I don’t expect Gerard Gallant and his staff to make a skyscraper when all they have is a bucket of wet sand but I do want to see something that can hold its own against a wave or two before it gets swept away. I want this third pair to be better so that this team can continue this wild run and continue to punch above its weight.

Data courtesy of NaturalStatTrick.com.