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Rangers rebuilding around defense

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 29: New York

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 29: New York Rangers Defenseman K'Andre Miller (79) skates during New York Rangers Prospect Development Camp on June 29, 2018 at the MSG Training Center in New York, NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images) Credit: AP/Rich Graessle

One could argue that the best defenseman in the Rangers organization won’t be playing in the Garden Thursday when the Blueshirts return from the Christmas break with a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Instead, K’Andre Miller, the 18-year-old University of Wisconsin freshman who was the second of the Rangers’ three first-round picks at this summer’s draft, is at the World Junior Championships this week, playing for Team USA.

Miller is one of four Rangers prospects — three of them defensemen —who are playing for their respective countries at the World Juniors, where GM Jeff Gorton will be watching them closely. The others are Russian winger Vitaly Kravtsov (No. 9 overall pick) and Sweden defensemen Nils Lundkvist (No. 28 pick) and Switzerland defenseman Nico Gross (fourth-round pick).

It has clearly been a major part of the Rangers’ strategy in their rebuilding plan to acquire as many quality defensemen as they can. In their dramatic selloff at last season’s trade deadline, the Rangers got 20-year-old prospects Ryan Lindgren (from Boston, in the Rick Nash deal) and Libor Hajek (from Tampa Bay, in the Ryan McDonagh-J.T. Miller deal). Both are playing at Hartford this season. At the draft, where they had a total of 10 picks, the Rangers used six of those to take defensemen (Miller, Lundkvist, Jacob Ragnarsson, Joey Keane, Gross and Simon Kjellberg).

As for the current Rangers, coach David Quinn has repeatedly said the team has eight defensemen who can play. That may be true, but none are Norris Trophy candidates. They have chipped in, offensively, though — seven of the eight have scored a goal (Neal Pionk has five), and the group has combined for 17 goals (of 97 by the team) in 35 games.

The bigger concern is the other end of the ice. Despite getting good goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist (.915 save percentage) and Alexandar Georgiev (.899 save percentage), the Rangers have allowed 3.23 goals per game — seventh-most in the 31-team league. And their 33.5 shots allowed per game is fifth-most.

If they hope to improve their 15-14-6 record and continue to stay close to the playoff race, the Rangers are going to have to cut down on the number of shots they give up. Not all of that is on the defensemen, of course, but the guys at the back are going to have to force more turnovers and block more shots to reduce the pressure on Lundqvist and Georgiev and ultimately allow fewer goals.

Plan for improvement: The top defense pair of veteran Marc Staal and the 23-year-old Pionk has been decent, and the third pair — usually two from the group of Freddie Claesson, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brendan Smith and lately, Tony DeAngelo — has mostly been serviceable. It is the second pair — usually Brady Skjei and either DeAngelo or Adam McQuaid — that has seemed to struggle the most. Putting the stay-at-home McQuaid with Skjei just before the Christmas break should help, but there’s only so much the current Rangers can do. This unit’s best days are far ahead of them.

Blue notes: Hartford forward Peter Holland was suspended for two games by the AHL for an illegal check to the head he committed in a game Dec. 21. Holland will miss both games of Hartford's back-to-back against the Islanders' AHL affiliate, Bridgeport, on Dec. 27 and 28.

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