Rangers’ Defensive Logjam Needs Breaking This Summer

With a new wave of young, talented blue liners on the way, blazing their path has never been more important

The New York Rangers’ summer of change is well underway. The second overall pick is secured and will presumably be used to select one of Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko — whomever the Devils don’t. The team’s new President is on board, too, what with the Blueshirts having locked down John Davidson to a five-year deal on Friday afternoon.

Still, for all the progress that’s been made, major changes still lie ahead. Most notably, perhaps, in free agency. Artemi Panarin, come on down?

Yet as JD’s front office continues the hopeful transition of the organization from rebuild to contention, addressing the defensive logjam the team is currently saddled with has to be priority number one. This June’s Entry Draft could even provide the perfect stage to begin alleviating it.

Assuming that no personnel changes are made between now and next year’s training camp, the Rangers have six defensemen — Kevin Shattenkirk, Marc Staal, Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith, Adam Fox, and Libor Hajek — under contract who can reasonably be expected to break camp with the team next season. Given how poorly this past season’s defensive squad performed, however, this would be miles from “improvement,” even before addressing the new extensions due to restricted free agents (RFA) Fredrik Claesson, Tony DeAngelo, and Neal Pionk.

In a word? Untenable.

Oh, and we’ve yet to broach the strengthening suggestions that New York has eyes for Erik Karlsson, and he, perhaps, eyes for New York in return.

It’s all but a foregone conclusion that the Rangers’ front office will look to move multiple defenders this summer. They might even heavily entertain the idea of a buyout or two should they fear weak trade winds for players like Smith and Shattenkirk. Both Larry Brooks and Brett Cyrgalis of the New York Post have been beating the buyout drum on the latter for what feels like months now, in fact.

”Too dramatic a scenario? Not really, for if the 30-year-old defenseman does not markedly improve his play this final month, management will have no other choice than to seriously consider a buyout of No. 22’s contract halfway through its four-year term,” Brooks said back in early March, referencing the idea that Shattenkirk “is fighting for his Rangers life.”

Cyrgalis reiterated a similar sentiment while praising the Rangers’ hiring of John Davidson as the team’s new President on Friday afternoon.

Brooks doubled-down himself in recent weeks, noting that the 30-year-old is “on the clock,” following the team’s acquisition of Adam Fox.

But Shattenkirk isn’t the only viable candidate to move on from — a sticking point for my colleague, Tom Urtz Jr. when discussing this very topic a couple of months ago.

At the crossroads where disappointing performance and inadequate salary meet, for example, Brendan Smith — who is still on the hook for another couple seasons at $4.35 million against the cap — is probably sweating like a whore in church. Though versatile enough to play as a competent depth defender who was even be deployed as a forward at points this past year, there’s no squaring the monetary cost of keeping the 30-year-old at anything even close to his current AAV.

A Smith buyout would cost the Rangers approximately $3.145 million on next season’s cap (freeing up around $1.2 million against his full freight), followed by two more years at a very manageable $1.1 million and change.

There’s also Marc Staal to consider if only to check the box that says “we considered it.” The de facto captain is clearly in decline but is probably a long shot in either a trade or buyout scenario given the level of protection he has against the former by way of a full No-Movement Clause. Not to mention the value he clearly has to the coaching staff as a veteran presence, however overblown you feel that may be.

While I’m not sure you’ll find an honest fan who couldn’t admit to the disparity between Staal’s AAV and what on-ice impact he may still have, this one feels far-fetched for all the wrong reasons — none of which we influence or control.

Should the Rangers shock the world, though, a buyout of Staal would cost them $3.7 million against next year’s cap (a $2 million savings), followed by two additional years at $1.2 million.

Or, outside of the obvious, just how married are the Rangers to the likes of Tony DeAngelo and Neal Pionk?

DeAngelo seems to be putting it all together, albeit a bit late for a playoff of his talent level, but never stops feeling like a personality who is one or two mistakes away from burning another bridge — perhaps his last.

Conversely, though much of the fanbase would surely like to move on from Pionk — who ranks among the absolute worst in every meaningful analytics category as an NHL defender — how likely are the Rangers to give up on a 23-year-old? Unless, of course, his arbitration-eligibility forces an uglier turn than the second half of his last year took?

Karlsson or not, it’s clear that the Rangers have an awful lot of debris with diminishing value clogging up the path to their blue line, and given their desire to seemingly improve overnight, something’s gotta give.

For their most important young prospects such as K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist, who are at least another year away each, that debris will likely clear in time to to blaze a path for them. But for players like Fox, Hajek, DeAngelo, or even Yegor Rykov, who reportedly signed his entry-level deal, clearing the decks some would go a long way in assuring not only they’re given legitimate chances to stick, but in would-be roles that won’t stifle their early growth — the value of which has a visible expiration date relative to the length of their entry-level deals.

With the Stanley Cup Final series schedule now set, the buyout window this season will open no later than June 15. Otherwise, 48 hours following the conclusion of the Final. In it, we’ll get our first real taste of just how aggressive JD’s front office plans to be in addressing roster composition this summer. But the Draft, where trades often occur with both great magnitude and frequency, can dot that aggression with an exclamation point.

In fact, if Jeff Gorton has any serious aspirations of turning his club, who finished with the sixth-worst record in the league last season, into anything close to a playoff team next year, it’ll need to.