I listed my top-25 off-season questions last week. Throughout the summer and early-fall, I will cover each of those questions, hoping to finish before the draft or free agent, Rather than place a link to each one in the first paragraph, I will post the link following the completion of each blog in the table below that contains all 25 questions.
In this blog, I tackle question #7: "With Nils Lundkvist and K'Andre Miller in the pipeline, does New York have enough D to get to the next level?"
New York heads into this off-season with major uncertainty on the blueline. Adam Fox and Ryan LIndgren are set as a pair. Jacob Trouba, given his salary, is most likely back and we all hope for a better sophomore year as a Ranger after he struggled at times his debut campaign on Broadway. Beyond that is where it gets dicey.
Tony DeAngelo, as covered in my blog, see link below, may not be back in New York next season. His salary demands could price ADA out of the Blueshirts' plans or off-ice events might play a part in where he is next season. If ADA is back on Broadway, which to me is the more probable end result, the question then becomes with whom and on what pairing does he play. We talked during the season that moving ADA to his off-side, which is the left side, makes sense due to the presence of Trouba and Fox on the right side coupled with the pipeline that exists. DeAngelo has some experience on that side, but he will need to improve defensively and show he can swap sides for that change to occur. If that move is not made, New York still needs a top-pair blueliner opposite Trouba, which may be an off-season target.
Then the glimmer twins, Marc Staal and Brendan Staal. Each could be back next year or both could be gone. One via trade and one buyout. I think at a minimum, one of the two are gone, leaving another hole on the blue line, though that term is up for debate, even though I felt Staal was better this year and Smith played fairly well despite being miscast on the top-pair next to Trouba after Brady Skjei was dealt.
Miller and Lundkvist are the jewels of the system. Miller will open 2020-21 in Hartford. But as we saw in training camp, coupled with the comments from John Davidson and Jeff Gorton, he is a quick study brimming with talent. Miller will need time in the AHL, learning the system and fine tuning his game. Working with Kris Knoblauch and possibly Gord Murphy, see below, will only accelerate his time table. If Miller gets off to a strong start, we could see him in New York a month or so into the season, like we did this year with Lindgren. Granted, we don't know when the AHL will truly start and how the NHL season will go, but Miller could be up with the parent club not long into the schedule. When that happens, I would not be shocked if he ends up on a pair with Trouba, which to me is his eventual landing spot, though probably not right away.
Lundkvist is opening 2020-21 back in the SHL. The hope is when that season ends, he will sign his ELC and join the Rangers. As of now, the season is slated to start December 1. I still think that date gets moved back a bit. The later the season starts, of course, the later it ends, maybe allowing Lundkvist to see a third of the year in New York, presuming the team would immediately insert him in the lineup.
While Miller (lefty) and Lundkvist (righty) lead the D pipeline, New York has several intriguing prospects playing at various levels with varying degrees of expectations. Tarmo Reunanen, a lefty, puck-moving offensive blueliner drafted 98th overall in 2016, is playing in the Finnish league (Liiga) for Lukko. Close friends and former trading camp roommates with Kaapo Kakko, Reunanen needs to be more consistent in general while adding a bit more bite or physical play to his game to reach and stick at the next level.
Joining Reunanen on the left side are several blueliners, all of whom could end up in New York at some point. Zac Jones, a third round pick, taken 68th overall last season, more than ably replaced Cale Makar on the UMass-Amherst blue line. He became the first freshman in program history to register 20 assists while leading all Hockey East Conference rookie defensemen in points with 23 in 32 games. Offensively, Jones is way ahead of where he needs to be defensively, plus he also needs to add strength. But the talent is undeniable, as Jones was named to both Hockey East and College Hockey News’ All-Rookie Teams.
Matthew Robertson, taken in the second round, 49 overall, last season, is still filling out physically on his 6-4 frame. Besides his sheer size, what stands out for the lefty blue-liner is his mobility and skating ability, which allows him to get out of trouble and trigger the attack up ice. Robertson, named MVP of the Edmonton Oil Kings, scored 47 points (13 goals and 34 assists) in 60 games. Like Jones, he is much better offensively than defensively, which is an area of his game that needs the most work. But the future looks bright.
Libor Hajek is a lefty and so is Yegor Rykov. Hajek, acquired in the Ryan McDonagh deal, opened the season in New York but struggled, necessitating a return to Hartford. He had a solid training camp 2.0. restoring some of his value and upgrading the organization's view of him. Hajek will have a chance to earn a roster spot for 2020-21 and will be exposed in the expansion draft next year. Rykov, who came over from New Jersey along with a second rounder for Michael Grabner, was loaned to the KHL, but could be back later in the 2020-21 season.
On the left side, New York also has Brendan Crawley, who had a nice season for Hartford and who I thought played well enough to warrant a summer camp invite. Jacob Ragnarsson, drafted in the third rund, 70th overall, last season, had his development stalled due to injury, but the Rangers are still high on him. In the system is Simon Kjellberg, selected in the sixth round in 2018,. Born in Nashville, Kjellberg is currently playing at RPI.
The right side though is a little bit more bare in the cupboards after Lundkvist. Hunter Skinner, taken in the fourth round last year, was a head scratching pick where he was selected. But he has shown this year at London of the OHL to be better than first thought. Skinner is willing to use his size and strength on the blue line, while also contributing more offensively than expected. Nick Ebert, drafted in the seventh round in 2012 by LA, played in Hartford last season. He currently is with Örebro HK in the Swedish Hockey League but could get a look as a depth blueliner. If looking for an area where the Rangers might concentrate in the draft, right-handed d-men is one.
As noted above, one-third of the blue line is set. Trouba likely as well. Presuming all goes as expected, DeAngelo remains a Blueshirt. I expect JD and Gorton to be aggressive in the trade market. I know names such as Hampus Lindholm and Jake McCabe have been prominently mentioned and each would help fill a material need. The question though was: With Nils Lundkvist and K'Andre Miller in the pipeline, does New York have enough D to get to the next level? The answer is yes and no. In the future, yes, though as we know, defensemen growth is not linear and growing pains will ensue. Next year, no, at least to start the season, with Miller to start the year in Hartford and Lundkvist in the SHL.
Elliotte Friedman posted two Rangers' items in his 31 Thoughts column:
"As The New York Post’s Larry Brooks reported, Rangers assistant GM Chris Drury withdrew from consideration for the Panthers’ GM job. He was a serious contender, if not the front-runner, and there are sources who believe he was going to be offered the job, if he hadn’t been offered it already." Good news for the Blueshirts, as Drury is highly respected in the league and with the team. He has helped re-establish Hartford and is probably being groomed to eventually replace Gorton. Drury would have been a big loss for the front office.
"Jacques Martin, let go in Pittsburgh, could replace Lindy Ruff with the Rangers." I asked Ryan Wilson, the Pens blogger on the site, his view of Martin. His response: Yeah he did a decent enough job. They won a cup with Ron Hainsey in the top pair. As way out west said in the blog comments, "Martin has a track record of building defensive structures that are better than the sum of their parts. Could be a great hire" If Martin comes in, Gord Murphy probably heads back to Hartford, where he would work with the young blueliners. It will be interesting to see if Martin has any say in what defensive structure New York utilizes, which hopefully will be the case given his track record..
11) Which is the true Brett Howden, the one that did little from October to March or the one we saw against Carolina?
12) Do you view the three-game sweep as a good learning experience, as mentioned by several including Davidson, for the neophytes on the team or is it too early to make that call?
13) Were you satisfied with the growth seen from Kappo Kakko and what's your realistic view as to what we should expect in years 2 and 3?
14) If Lundqvist is not back, do you want Alexandar Georgiev as Igor Shesterkin's 2020-21 backup or are you dealing him for additional assets? If bringing him back next year, are you signing him for more than one season?
15) Are you concerned with Artemiy Panarin's small late-season swoon? No goals in the last eight games before the pandemic and just one goal in the three-game sweep?
16) What is the identity of this Rangers' team? Do we know? Is one needed?
17) Can Brendan Lemiuex repeat how he played in Game 3 against Carolina or was that the aberration and not the norm?
18) What should be done with Lias Andersson? (from Tommy G on 8/7)
19) Who will be Jacob Trouba's partner next season if it's not Smith? (from Tommy G on 8/7)
20) How does the looming Expansion Draft affect the decision made for a particular signing/trade/buyout? (from Hedgedog 8/8)
21) If buying one player out, presuming that it's not Lundqvist for a variety of reasons, is it Staal or Smith, or do you not buyout anyone?
22) Presuming Lafreniere is the pick, on which line does he start the season? If New York makes no major acquisitions, what is your top-nine and fourth line? Is Morgan Barron on the team to start the season? (new)
23) Who do you want to target in free agency or via trade? (please be realistic in your proposals. That applies to who New York could get and what they would give up, so no 4-for-1 offers where the team grossly overpays. (new)
24) Does Gord Murphy end up on the coaching staff for 2020-21 or is someone else brought in to helm the defense and the penalty kill? (new)
25) When do you think New York contends for the Cup? 2021-22, 22-23 or other? (new)