GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Zac Jones didn’t have to be out there when the Rangers opened rookie training camp on Wednesday. The organization gave him the option of attending or not, and the 21-year-old Virginia native chose to attend.
“I wanted to be here,’’ Jones said after he and 23 others took the ice at the Rangers’ practice facility one week before training camp opens. “I take it as an advantage for me, and going into camp, having these couple of days of practice, get a couple of (rookie) games in, I think it's going to really help me get my legs under me.’’
Jones, a defenseman, played 12 games for the Rangers last season and 10 the year before, and he said he thought attending rookie camp last year helped him get ready for the main training camp. This year, there is even more incentive to get off to a fast start at training camp, as there is an opening at defense after the Rangers let Justin Braun leave as a free agent and then traded Patrik Nemeth to Arizona over the summer. Jones is one of the top candidates to fill that opening.
“I think there's definitely an opportunity,’’ he said. “I think that spot's open. And it's going to be a healthy competition between a bunch of guys, and I'm excited for it.’’
Jones, who is 5-10, said he gained about 10 pounds since last season, and he weighs about 180 now.
“Last year I was pretty light, (and) I got pushed around a lot,’’ he said. “I took that into account this summer. I really tried to work on my strength tried to get in the gym as much as possible. That was my biggest focus.’’
Adam Fox, new captain Jacob Trouba, Ryan Lindgren and K’Andre Miller hold the top four spots on defense, and 2020 first-round pick Braden Schneider grabbed hold of the fifth spot over the second half of last season. The trade of Nemeth, and the decision by Rangers GM Chris Drury not to sign a veteran to replace him, leaves Jones, Matthew Robertson, Libor Hajek and Nils Lundkvist – if he isn’t traded – as the top competitors for the sixth and seventh spots.
Jones, a third-round draft pick in 2019, won an NCAA championship in 2021 at UMass and then immediately signed with the Rangers. He finished that season with the Rangers, but started last season with AHL Hartford, where he played 52 games with nine goals and 26 assists. He had two assists in his 12 games with the Rangers.
Robertson, 21, a second-rounder in 2019, played 65 games for Hartford last season, scoring one goal, with 10 assists. Hajek was the seventh, and sometimes eighth defenseman for the Rangers last season. He played 17 games, registering one assist.
Lundkvist, a righthanded shooter slotted behind Fox, Trouba and Schneider, has reportedly asked for a trade. Lundkvist started the season with the Rangers last season but failed to impress. He was sent to Hartford in January, when Schneider was called up.
The rookies will practice again Thursday and play two rookie scrimmages against the Philadelphia Flyers Friday and Saturday in Allentown, Pa.