Training Camp: The Battle for the Third Pair

A game of musical chairs

As we all know, the New York Rangers 2018 Training Camp is already underway. We also know that the Adam McQuaid trade has caused quite a bit of controversy. Why did Jeff Gorton give up a fourth round pick to acquire a below-average defenseman on the wrong side of 30? Blueshirt Banter’s own Phil Kocher believes McQuaid can help the team both today and tomorrow, but that is very much up for debate.

This article is about Adam McQuaid, but don’t worry, we’re not going to get into a debate about the value of a fourth round pick today. We’re going to talk his role on the team and the players he will be competing for a roster spot with. We’re going to look at the ongoing training camp battle to establish the third pair and the role of the Rangers’ seventh defenseman.

If we assume that Brendan Smith rebounds and returns to being a mainstay on the blue line, we have a very good idea of who four of the Rangers defensemen will be for the 2018-19 season.

“We’re going to give Brendan [Smith] an opportunity to get back on our team and help us.” - Jeff Gorton

But, after those four — Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, Marc Staal, and Smith — there are a whole lot of question marks on the blue line. The acquisition of McQuaid has only added more uncertainty.

The Kids

Let’s start with the guys who were here last year. We’ve said plenty about Tony DeAngelo this offseason, so let’s just go over the bullet points with him. He’s an exceptionally talented young offensive defenseman who can play the right side that has a lot of baggage. DeAngelo should relish the opportunity to have a fresh start under a new head coach.

Neal Pionk definitely turned some heads in his 28 games with New York last season — and that goes beyond the impressive counting stats he managed to pile up while playing for a team that resembled a sinking ship. He also had a solid performance at the 2018 World Championship with Team USA that really hasn’t received as much attention as it should have.

The former undrafted college free agent signing is exactly the kind of young player that the Rangers should be focused on testing and evaluating this season. There’s a good chance that Pionk can be a part of the solution moving forward as a low-cost bottom-four defenseman, but the Rangers won’t really know what they have unless they continue to test him. It’s not unreasonable to assume that he’ll end up on a pair with Staal like he did at the tail end of last season.

The Athletic’s Rick Carpinello likes Libor Hajek as a dark horse to make the roster out of training camp.

While it is probably best – or easiest – for a 20-year-old, especially on defense, to play at least a while in the minors rather than leaping right from juniors to the NHL, Hajek could force his way onto the team. He’s certainly on everyone’s radar and will get a really good look in camp and preseason.

Hajek had an up-and-down performance at Traverse City, but he is coming off of an 58-point season in the OHL (split between the Saskatoon Blades and the Regina Pats). He was also a standout player for the Czechs at the 2018 World Junior Championship.

It’s easy to get swept up in the hype with Hajek, but it’s also important to remember that he’s only 20. In Hartford he’ll get an opportunity to play a lot of minutes and hone his game outside of the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. There’s no reason to rush Hajek up to the NHL, especially when there are other guys like DeAngelo and Pionk who also need to be evaluated under Quinn.

Given what we saw from Ryan Lindgren at Traverse City, we can safely assume that he has very little chance of challenging for a roster spot. The best place for him right now is Hartford, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Rob O’Gara is also not ready for the NHL despite being five years older than Hajek and Lindgren. Fortunately, he’s exempt from waivers and is therefore all but a lock to start the season in Hartford.

The Veterans

The Rangers signed Fredrik Claesson, formerly of the Ottawa Senators, on July 1. Claesson, 25, has very good numbers when it comes to preventing zone entries, but he is best known for his physicality. He does appear to have a big slap shot, but don’t expect the Swede to bring a lot of offense to the table. That’s just not his game.

Claesson’s toughness and ability to play both sides makes him a solid candidate to be the team’s seventh defenseman, but he’s going to have a lot of competition for that role.

On Sept. 11, the Rangers acquired Adam McQuaid in a trade with Boston. Regardless of what you may think of the trade, it’s important to recognize that the Rangers didn’t give up a fourth round pick to acquire a player that they have no intention of using. McQuaid has a real chance to make this team and carve out a role for himself.

McQuaid’s presence is going to make it particularly tough for DeAngelo and Claesson to stick with the team. He’s a guy that a locker room and a coach can fall in love with, and there’s a chance that could matter more to Quinn and Gorton than the potential of DeAngelo and Pionk — even though it shouldn’t.

Having a lot of competition in training camp is definitely not a bad thing. But adding an element like McQuaid at the eleventh hour before camp does raise a few eyebrows, especially when there are only so many roster spots up for grabs with the big club.

Pionk is exempt from going through waivers if he doesn’t make the team out of training camp, but DeAngelo is not — and that is a problem. Losing DeAngelo on the waiver wire to make room for a 31-year old defenseman would be disastrous, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

The outcome of this particular training camp battle won’t make a much of a difference for what happens with the team this year, but it could make a huge difference on the Rangers rebuild. The bottom line is that players like McQuaid and Claesson are expendable, whereas players like Pionk and DeAngelo are not. And that must be something that Quinn keeps in mind even while he’s telling the media that he wants this team to win “every night.”