The Rangers’ defense looks dramatically different

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This is the Kaapo Kakko the Rangers have been looking for

 

Regarding the Rangers, who have the back end of this two-game set against the Bruins Friday at the Garden:

1. I am citing Boston’s second goal Wednesday on which Anders Bjork was left alone in front to convert Jake DeBrusk’s centering feed as an exception to the rule that had been in place for about the last two years of Alain Vigneault’s tenure, the first year of David Quinn’s reign and significant parts of the second, too.

Night after night, defensemen chased the puck and left the front uncovered as the Blueshirts scrambled to create outnumbered situations all over the zone. Night after night, forwards did not provide support on their assignments. Night after night, goaltenders yielded uncontested goals from the doorstep.

But not this year. The improvement in the defensive zone was noteworthy the second half of last season, but the progress has accelerated through these first three weeks of 2020-21.

Adam Fox, who has played with the elan of a decorated veteran since popping out of the Harvard womb, is one year better. Jacob Trouba has an added comfort zone in his second season on Broadway, though there is still too much erratic play.

Ryan Lindgren, regarded as a borderline prospect when the Blueshirts acquired him from the B’s at the ’18 trade deadline as part of the package in return for Rick Nash, is busy establishing himself as a matchup top-four who plays as big and as hard as any Rangers’ defenseman since, who, Jeff Beukeboom?

And of course there is the revelation who wears No. 79. That would be K’Andre Miller, who a year ago while playing through a so-so sophomore season at Wisconsin seemed at least two years away from the NHL. And here he is as a top-four, not only possessing elite physical gifts but the grace and poise of a 10-year man.

There are fewer instances of the puck being turned over in the neutral zone or just across the offensive line. That has limited the number of 90- or 130-foot odd-man rushes that had reached a critical mass by the middle of last season. The Rangers have become guilty of chipping the puck in on full line changes, thus allowing opponents to have free egress out of their zone, but it’s probably a mistake to ask for too much at once.

And then, though it is impossible to get anyone to talk about it beyond clichés on Zoom calls, there is the switch from Lindy Ruff to Jacques Martin as the lead assistant in charge of defense.

Ruff has had a long, successful career as a head coach, but he always seemed miscast as a defensive guy under both Vigneault and Quinn. Martin, though, fits the profile. The change has been beneficial and dramatic for the Rangers. That is also true of the penalty kill.

2. And may I suggest that as the Blueshirts deal with a faulty spigot on offense that Tony DeAngelo’s ability to trigger the rush with a breakout pass is sorely missed.

All other issues or non-issues aside, the Rangers last year had a third-pair righty who was tied for seventh among defensemen in the NHL in five-on-five assists, tied for 12th in first assists, and tied for fourth in goals. Now the third-pair right defenseman is either Libor Hajek or Brendan Smith. Let’s not pretend that there’s no drop-off in skill and that the absence of DeAngelo has not left a sizable hole in the attack.

Will Nils Lundkvist be able to fill it? That is the projection, but the Swede still must sign a contract and get over here and prove it.

3. Am I the only one who remembers Chris Kreider as a scoot-and-shoot winger?

4. Here’s an interesting one. The Rangers have taken to assigning Kaapo Kakko and Miller to the taxi squad on off-days in order to save on cap space. Both the base salary and potential bonuses are cut by 1/116 for each day off the roster. The savings compound. And with Kakko having a $2.65 million bonus package, the total saving will be significant.

But the Rangers have yet to assign Igor Shesterkin, who carries a bonus package of $2.85 million, to the taxi squad. The club would have to replace him on the roster with another goaltender, but the Blueshirts would save more on the bonus than they do with Kakko, and much more than they do with Miller, whose bonuses max out at $300,000.

Remember, a player making $832,500 in the NHL and $70,000 in the AHL — as do the three youngsters cited here — loses approximately $5,100 a day in real money when on the taxi squad.

General manager Jeff Gorton declined to comment when asked about the decision-making process.

5. Alexandar Georgiev was strong in nets on Wednesday, but No. 40 nevertheless allowed two breakaway goals, one a shortie to Chris Wagner and the other the overtime loser to Brad Marchand. Georgiev has surrendered five breakaway goals in five starts. If he has denied one, I cannot locate it. Teams need their goaltenders to erase mistakes.

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