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Breaking down the Rangers defensemen

The defense was a problem for the Blueshirts throughout the 2017-18 season.

Rangers defenseman Neal Pionk shoots against the Islanders

Rangers defenseman Neal Pionk shoots against the Islanders during a game at Barclays Center on April 5. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Rangers’ 263 goals allowed this past season were the fourth-worst in the NHL and 37 more than they scored. That’s a problem. Of course, it isn’t just the defensemen who have to play defense, and the team’s playing style under coach Alain Vigneault was more focused on offense, and therefore was always going to leave the team vulnerable at the back end. But still, the Rangers’ defensemen did not distinguish themselves in 2017-18.

Injuries — and the team’s decision to give up on the present and focus instead on building for the future — left the Rangers playing with a mostly AHL-caliber defense by the end of the season. But it’s not like all the goals they conceded came after the trade deadline.

Here’s a detailed look at the performances of the Rangers’ defensemen in 2017-18. Advanced statistics provided by Corsica Hockey, and salary figures provided by Cap Friendly.

Tony DeAngelo

32 games, 0 goals, 8 assists, -18, 11 PIM

Cap hit $863,333; signed through 2018-19

DeAngelo, a native of Sewell, New Jersey, came to the Rangers in the blockbuster draft day deal that sent No. 1 center Derek Stepan and backup goalie Antti Raanta to the Arizona Coyotes. The major part of the deal was the No. 7 pick overall in the 2017 draft, which the Rangers used to take forward Lias Andersson, but DeAngelo was an intriguing prospect himself, albeit one who came with plenty of baggage.

A righthanded-shooting, offensively skilled defenseman, DeAngelo had put up five goals and nine assists in 39 games as a rookie with the Coyotes in 2016-17. But he also had a three-game suspension for abuse of an official — and he had a history of suspensions in junior hockey. He’d been suspended twice in the OHL, once for mouthing to an official and once for comments to a teammate, before he was taken in the first round (No. 19 overall) by the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2014. And he was suspended once more for more verbal abuse of officials the season after he’d been drafted. DeAngelo was a healthy scratch for eight games for Tampa Bay’s AHL team in Syracuse in 2015-16 for reported “attitude issues’’ before Tampa Bay traded him to Arizona in the summer of 2016 for the discounted price of a second-round pick.

But DeAngelo made the Rangers out of training camp and played eight games in October, registering 1 assist, 2 PIM, and a minus-4 defensive rating before he eventually was sent down to Hartford. He was recalled Jan. 19, when the Rangers announced Kevin Shattenkirk would have knee surgery, and though he struggled defensively, he was an asset on the power play, where he had six of his eight assists. A high ankle sprain in mid-March ended his season.

He’ll get a long look in training camp, but how long a leash will he have? He’s an undersized (5-11, 181) defenseman who has trouble playing defense, though he can provide something the Rangers can use — offense from the blue line and power-play quarterbacking.

John Gilmour

28 games, 2 goals, 3 assists, -11, 14 PIM

Cap hit $742,500; RFA

Another one of the youngsters who finished the season with the big club, Gilmour made his NHL debut on Feb. 9 in a 4-3 win over the Calgary Flames at the Garden. That was the first game the Rangers played after management had presented its now famous letter to fans announcing its decision to throw in the towel on the season and start to rebuild. Gilmour got 28 games to get a headstart on showing management whether he should be part of the future. His highlight was scoring the overtime goal that gave the Rangers a wild, 6-5 win at Vancouver in the first game after the Feb. 26 trade deadline.

But when you’re playing in meaningless games, it’s hard to truly evaluate worth. Gilmour, a lefthanded shot, spent much of the time playing the right side on the third defense pair, with Rob O’Gara. And he didn’t particularly distinguish himself in that role. He got some games on the left side, and things went a little better for him, but the jury remains out on whether he’ll be part of the future.

Steven Kampfer

22 games, 0 goals, 1 assist, -7, 20 PIM

Cap hit $650,000; Signed through 2018-19

The only member of the current Rangers who owns a Stanley Cup ring (2011 with Boston, when he was a rookie), Kampfer spent the season as the seventh or eighth defenseman until injuries — and the organization’s decision to pull the plug on the season — reshaped the roster. Then the poor guy suffered a broken hand in mid-February that ended his season.

At 29, and having spent most of his career splitting time between the NHL and AHL, Kampfer may have been a surprise to make the team out of training camp, especially with so many prospects in the system (and more being added in the team’s trade deadline selloff). But the 5-11, 195-pounder offered two things the Rangers sorely needed: grit, and a righthanded shot to play the right side.

Kampfer does something not a lot of his teammates do: He hits people. And he blocks shots. In his 22 games, Kampfer led the team in hits per game with 2.09 (46 hits in 22 games), and he had the most blocked shots per game of anyone who finished the season with the team. (Former captain Ryan McDonagh was the leading shot blocker at 2.63 per game, with 129 in 49 games.)

Rob O’Gara

22 games, 0 goals, 3 assists, -2, 6 PIM

Cap hit $925,000; RFA

The Nesconset native had a slow start when he first came to the team from Boston in the trade for Nick Holden. Having played most of the season to that point with the Bruins’ AHL team in Providence, he initially looked a little slow against NHL forwards. But gradually, he settled in and turned out to be a decent stay-at-home defenseman and a capable penalty-killer.

O’Gara is different than the other young defensemen who finished the season with the club. He’s bigger than the other guys — 6-4 and 215 pounds — and he makes his own end his top priority and isn’t always looking to join the rush. Most of the time he played on the left side of the third pair, with Gilmour, but he got a look on the second pair, with Brady Skjei, while the coaching staff was trying to see how well Skjei could handle the right side. At the end, O’Gara was back on the third pair, and this time on the right side, where he admittedly is much less comfortable.

Neal Pionk

28 games, 1 goal, 13 assists, -1, 12 PIM

Cap hit $925,000; signed through 2018-19

Pionk made his debut Feb. 9 and he quickly was on the top defensive pairing, with Marc Staal. He was universally lauded as the best-performing of all the young defensemen down the stretch. It was hard to find something he didn’t do well. He played in all situations — power play, even strength, penalty kill — and excelled in all of them. He matched up against opposing teams’ top forwards, generated offense for himself and teammates, and even — at an unimposing 6-feet, 190 pounds — was one of the team’s most physical defensemen, registering 49 hits in 28 games (1.75 average). That was second among defensemen who finished the season on the club, behind only Steven Kampfer (2.09). His 1.46 blocked shots per game was third (behind Kampfer and Rob O’Gara).

Pionk said he isn’t taking anything for granted. He knows the Rangers’ roster is still unsettled, knows there are several much-hyped prospects who will be in training camp in the fall, and therefore knows he can’t assume anything regarding next season. Still, it’s hard to imagine the 22-year-old not being a major piece of the team’s defense come October.

Kevin Shattenkirk

46 games, 5 goals, 18 assists, -14, 44 PIM

Cap hit $6.65 million; signed through 2020-21

Signed last summer as a free agent, Shattenkirk seemed to be not playing well in the first half of the season and it actually had to come as a relief to some when he finally went to the team in January to tell them his knee had been bothering him. He ended up having what turned out to be season-ending surgery, but he should be fine when training camp starts in September.

Again, no one knows what GM Jeff Gorton will do this summer (trade for Erik Karlsson? Sign free agent John Carlson?), but if the Rangers don’t make a big move for a bigger name defenseman in the offseason, then Shattenkirk will be expected to be a leader both on the stat sheet and in the locker room in 2018-19.

Brady Skjei

82 games, 4 goals, 21 assists, -27, 39 PIM

Cap hit $925,000; RFA

Skjei was one of the young guys before the Rangers tore down their roster. After the trade deadline, though, the 24-year-old from Lakeville, Minnesota, was suddenly one of the veterans — a guy who was expected to lead, both by his play on the ice and his presence in the locker room. And the results were mixed.

Skjei was the only Ranger to play in all 82 games, but by most accounts, his play slipped from his rookie season in 2016-17. He had one less goal and 13 fewer assists than he did the year before and his plus/minus went from plus-11 to minus-27. Some of that reasonably can be attributed to playing within a team that had less talent, but the truth is, people expected growth from Skjei, and not a step back.

Being forced to take on a leadership role may spur Skjei to step up and bounce back next season. The Rangers certainly hope so.

Brendan Smith

44 games, 1 goal, 7 assists, +2, 69 PIM

Cap hit $4.35 million (if in NHL); signed through 2020-21

The rugged 6-2, 211-pounder had a dream summer and a nightmare season.

Smith played well for the Rangers after coming over from Detroit in February 2017, and was perhaps their best defenseman in the playoffs. He signed a four-year, $17.4 million contract last summer. He also got married, which made 2017 a pretty eventful summer. But he was out of shape when he got to training camp, and by all accounts did not play well when the season started. He spent a lot of nights as a healthy scratch, and eventually was waived and banished to the minor leagues, where he would end the season on the injured list after breaking his hand in a fight with Hartford teammate Vinni Lettieri.

But you know what? If he gets himself back in shape, and recommits himself to being an NHL player, there’s no reason he couldn’t make a return to the Rangers next season. All the things the team liked about him are still true — he’s big, tough and a good skater — and those are all things the Rangers will need going forward.

Ryan Sproul

16 games, 1 goal, 4 assists, -6, 6 PIM

Cap hit $625,000; UFA

Does he count as one of the young guys?

Well, he’s 25 and has played 44 NHL games, so maybe. But he’s played professional hockey for five seasons and has played 262 games in the AHL, so he looks a lot more like a career minor-leaguer than a guy who will be a serious candidate to be part of the Rangers next season.

What does he bring? Well, he’s a righthanded shot, which seemed to be a fairly important thing for the club this past season. And he’s got some offensive skill (he’s scored 39 goals in the AHL, including 10 in 44 games for Hartford this season). But if he was on audition after he was called up for the final 12 games to replace the injured Tony DeAngelo, he never did anything that would grab anyone’s attention. Will he be back? Seems doubtful.

Marc Staal

72 games, 1 goal, 7 assists, +11, 18 PIM

Cap hit $5.7 million; signed through 2020-21

The former first-round pick (No. 12 overall, 2005) began training camp being challenged by coach Alain Vigneault, who declared that he would need to earn his roster spot and ice time despite his veteran status and hefty, no-move contract. He certainly met the challenge, and by the end of the season, Staal was the Rangers’ leader on defense, providing stability on the top pair, with outstanding rookie Neal Pionk, and serving as the leader of the team’s Kiddie Corps defense after the trade deadline.

A lot of people don’t put stock in the plus/minus figure anymore, but it’s worth noting that on a team that gave up 37 more goals than it scored, only two players on the roster at the end of the season had a plus-rating (Kevin Hayes was plus-1). So Staal being plus-11 says something positive about his season.

He doesn’t score as much as he used to, and after a few scary injuries over his 11-year career, he doesn’t hit as much as he used to, either. But you need a veteran who can show the kids the way, and Staal fulfilled that role this season. Moving forward, Shattenkirk should be back, and Gorton may bring in a big-name veteran or two, but Staal, 31, should still have value to the organization as a guy who can take care of his own end, play on the penalty kill, and provide the kind of important leadership that rebuilding teams need.

THE PROSPECTS

The Rangers are rebuilding, so a number of prospects figure to make the club, or at least, several who will get a really long look in training camp. Two of the bigger names on defense are Libor Hajek and Ryan Lindgren, both acquired at the trade deadline.

Libor Hajek

58 games, 12 goals, 27 assists, 32 PIM (with Saskatoon/Regina of the WHL)

Cap hit $864,167; signed through 2020-21

Acquired from Tampa Bay in the trade for Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, Hajek will be an NHL defenseman and is ready to compete for a spot immediately, according to his coach with the Regina Pats, John Paddock, a former Rangers farm team coach. Hajek, traded in midseason from Saskatoon to Regina, where he played in the WHL playoffs for the first time. He did suffer an undisclosed injury in Game 4 that caused him to miss the final three games against Swift Current. Assuming he is OK to make training camp, he’ll certainly be in the competition for a roster spot in the fall.

Ryan Lindgren

10 games, 2 goals, 2 assists, 23 PIM (at AHL Hartford)

35 games, 2 goals, 7 assists 51 PIM (at the University of Minnesota)

Cap hit $925,000; signed through 2020-21

Acquired from the Bruins as part of the Rick Nash trade, Lindgren is a physical, stay-at-home defenseman who was a highly regarded prospect by the Bruins. He’s 6-feet, 202 pounds, and has plenty of credentials: Captain of the 2016 U.S. U18 team, member of the gold medal-winning U.S. team at the 2017 World Juniors and the 2018 team that captured bronze. He was an alternate captain at Minnesota as a sophomore, and is a two-time honorable mention performer in the Big Ten conference. Again, depending on what players are brought in over the summer, Lindgren should have a real chance to make the Rangers in the fall.

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