Discipline and Tony DeAngelo

The Rangers new young defenseman has a few things to prove on and off the ice.

For the second consecutive season, the Rangers have a new, young face on the blue line. Tony DeAngelo enters his first season in New York facing some lofty expectations because of the significant pieces traded to bring him to Broadway. The American blueliner also brings some off the ice baggage with him that the Rangers were willing to take on – as evidenced by the team pushing a not-so-subtle PR campaign with DeAngelo on social media over the past few months.

With that being said, DeAngelo is a hockey player worth being excited about. He plays the right side, has outstanding puck skills and should be a great fit in the Rangers system.

There has been a lot of talk about not judging DeAngelo by the mistakes of his youth. DeAngelo was disciplined twice by his first OHL team, the Sarnia Sting, for breaking the league’s harassment and abuse/diversity policy. Because of those past transgressions, the phrase “clean slate” has been used frequently by members of the media in regards to DeAngelo landing on his third NHL team in two years.

Regardless of how you feel about DeAngelo’s behavior off the ice, there is still the issue of his behavior on the ice. Given Alain Vigneault’s track record with young players, especially those who take bad penalties, we should expect some issues to emerge with the coach and DeAngelo. But again, this is something that Jeff Gorton and the Rangers accepted as a possibility when pulling the trigger on the Derek Stepan blockbuster that brought him here.

DeAngelo will be 22 on October 24th, which makes him even younger than Brady Skjei was last year in his rookie season. Skjei was hardly undisciplined as a rookie, but he did have a couple of rocky games before January that resulted in some time spent on the end of the bench. He took the kinds of penalties big, young defenseman take in front of the net – including getting whistled for retaliating to agitators.

Retaliation penalties and similar undisciplined infractions could prove to be an issue in DeAngelo’s first season in New York.

During this year’s preseason, DeAngelo picked up a minor penalty and a fighting major. Last season, in 39 games with the Coyotes, he had 37 PIM that included two game misconducts. For some context, Skjei had 42 PIM in 82 games with the Rangers. Needless to say Skjei and DeAngelo are very different defensemen, but it’s worth mentioning that the former piled up 115 PIM in 94 AHL games with the Crunch and Roadrunners – so it’s safe to say that discipline has been an issue for DeAngelo in the OHL, AHL and the NHL.

In his Rangers regular season debut, DeAngelo saw time in all situations. He finished his debut with 16:22 TOI, just six seconds fewer than the recently extended Brendan Smith, and he also stayed out of the box. It was a solid start to his Rangers career.

Of course, a defenseman can still be effective while taking penalties – especially if they manage to draw as many penalties as they take. But thus far that hasn’t been the case for DeAngelo. Last season he took three minors, a major and a misconduct during 5-on-5 play last season with the Coyotes while drawing only three penalties. Half a season of hockey isn’t much of a sample size and he’s a young player who is bound to make mistakes, but it’s still important to note that DeAngelo also spent a lot of time in the box in the AHL and in the juniors; in 236 OHL games he racked up 241 PIM with the Sting and the Greyhounds.

Agitators around the league often pick their targets deliberately. Players who have short fuses or a tendency to fly off the handle don’t elude the attention of the NHL’s pests for long. And whether or not it’s premature to say that DeAngelo has a short fuse, he may already be skating around with a target on his back. We saw him take an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Islanders in the preseason after trading shots with Steve Bernier.

One preseason unsportsmanlike conduct is hardly proof of a short fuse, but there are plenty of other signs that DeAngelo could land himself in some trouble. The young defenseman readily admits he intends to play with an edge to his game, although he struggles to define what that means.

“I’m going to bring an edge, that’s for sure,” DeAngelo told the New York Post last month. “But what kind of edge, I guess we’ll see. You have to keep it tame, too. I’m a pretty soft-spoken guy off the ice, as well. But on the ice, everybody gets passionate. Just have to be smart.”

The Rangers no longer have Kevin Klein on the roster, which some could argue leaves a hole on the blue line for a player who can and/or will play with an edge. But DeAngelo can’t help New York if he’s spending too much time in the penalty box or spending time in Vigneault’s dog house. Hopefully Vigneault provides DeAngelo with more leash than he has given other young Rangers in the recent past, since he has a lot of upside waiting to be unlocked. If he doesn’t though, we could see the Rangers head coach rely more on Marc Staal and Nick Holden than the youngster – yeah, not good.

Ultimately it’s up to DeAngelo to define what “playing with an edge” means to him, but chances are Vigneault will also have a say in where that line is, as he should. Communication between a head coach and a young player who has been a part of the organization for a matter of months is essential. The Rangers knew what they were getting into when they traded for DeAngelo – a young player with a checkered past and something of an attitude and maturity problem.

We should hope and expect DeAngelo to mature both on and off the ice this season with the Rangers. Being traded twice before his NHL career has truly begun must have sent a message to the defenseman from Sewell, New Jersey. And if it hasn’t, that message has to be delivered to him by Vigneault, Lindy Ruff and the Rangers front office – and maybe it already has, which is why we’ve seen the team feature the young defenseman with local roots on so much social media thus far.

The Rangers may have some exciting defensive prospects in the pipeline behind DeAngelo, but the team still needs him to pan out – his price tag and potential are both too significant for DeAngelo not to. A key step towards proving himself as an NHL regular and a player that Vigneault can trust is DeAngelo understanding where the line is and learning not to cross it. If he can do that, he will be a boon to the Rangers defense this season. It’s been a long time since the Blueshirts had this many puck-moving defensemen on the roster, so with any luck, DeAngelo will be able to keep his cool and hold onto his spot in the lineup.