Rangers have crucial decisions to make with influx of young defensemen

Between the Devils’ first Cup in 1995 and third in 2003, general manager Lou Lamoriello traded Jaroslav Modry, Cale Hulse, Chris McAlpine, Jason Smith, Sheldon Souray and Mike Commodore in deals

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Between the Devils’ first Cup in 1995 and third in 2003, general manager Lou Lamoriello traded Jaroslav Modry, Cale Hulse, Chris McAlpine, Jason Smith, Sheldon Souray and Mike Commodore in deals to shore up the perennial contender’s roster.

These cited defensemen were all between 22 and 25 years of age when sent away, some for rentals, and they combined to play 4,112 games in the NHL, ranging between McAlpine’s 289 and Smith’s 1,008 big league matches.     

But the Devils were stocked on the blue line, starting with the pair of Great Scotts, Stevens and Niedermayer, who were augmented during their Era of Excellence by Ken Daneyko, Brian Rafalski, Colin White, Bruce Driver, Tommy Albelin and short-time acquisitions Shawn Chambers, Vlad Malakhov and Oleg Tverdovsky.

Now, there was no salary cap when 16W off the New Jersey Turnpike was known as the Exit of Champions. Perhaps economic constraints would have created a different environment. The fact, though, is that the Devils had too many contestants and too few seats for them to fill, so management (in the singular person of Lamoriello) had to make hard choices in order to cull the herd.

And that is what Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton, with advise and consent from president John Davidson and assistant GM Chris Drury, will be tasked with doing over the next several months into the next several years.

The organization’s replenishment of the pipeline, most specifically on the blue line, will force critical personnel decisions and create the need for accurate early evaluations of prospects in an era where there is not only a hard cap, but a relatively flat cap for the foreseeable future.

And true, there is neither a Stevens nor a Niedermayer ensconced on Broadway, but there is an Adam Fox and there is a Jacob Trouba with a full no-move through 2023-24. Those guys are easy calls. But the rest are not, even as K’Andre Miller has gone about his rookie season with the promise of a player who could wear the Blueshirt into the next decade, and even as Ryan Lindgren has exhibited the on-ice persona of a guy who surely has a stitched-on letter in his future.

And that is because even younger ones are crowding from below, now starting with Zac Jones, the 20-year-old three days removed from winning the NCAA championship at UMass and who was on the ice at the Blueshirts’ practice facility Tuesday morning after signing his entry-level contract.

Zac Jones, K’Andre Miller, Nils Lundkvist
AP (2); N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg

Jones drove to New York and tested negative for COVID-19, so there is no required quarantine period for the skilled lefty who is strong at both ends of the ice. He will practice with the club and when David Quinn deems he is ready, Jones will get a shot.

Yes, the Rangers are focused on the playoff race — four points back of the Bruins, who have 17 games remaining to the Blueshirts’ 15 — but if the staff believes if he can add more value than current third left D, Libor Hajek, he will play. The 23-year-old Hajek, by the way, has made significant progress in this first pro season through which he has avoided a major injury.

“Obviously there’s a familiarity with him from my end of it, but this is a guy we’ve thought a lot of since we drafted him and then suddenly went on to have a great college career,” Quinn said of the 2019, 68th-overall third-rounder drafted out of the USHL Tri-City Storm. “We’ll see how it goes.

“It’s day by day, we’ll see how he adapts, see how he adjusts. There’s not a lot of practice time, so it’s going to be hard to evaluate him in a lot of ways at the pro level but we’re going to do the best we can and if we feel he gives us an indication he can help us, he’ll play.”

But it is not about now for Jones, just as it is not about now for the Rangers. Jones is here and 20-year-old Matthew Robertson (selected 19 spots ahead of Jones in 2019) is coming. On the other side, Nils Lundkvist (28th overall in 2018) will be here next season presuming the club can sign the brilliant 20-year Swede, with Jeff Beukeboom-esque 19-year-old Braden Schneider (19th overall in 2020) right behind. They’re not the only ones.

But they’re not all going to play for the Rangers. So management will need to dice and slice, and do it with an open mind. What if, for instance, a Grade A center is obtainable only if Miller is included in the deal? Now, you all naturally blanch at the notion of sending No. 79 away, but what if Jones is better? Do you think the Devils really wanted to trade Souray?

There are hard decisions coming. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon.

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Larry Brooks

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