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Are the Rangers Getting $25 Million Out of Their Blue Line?

The New York Rangers acquired Kevin Klein in January of 2014, beginning to solidify their defensive corps in hopes of winning the Stanley Cup Final. Next, the Rangers extended Dan Girardi a month later, paying the often-criticized defenseman like a top d-man in the league. New York let Anton Stralman leave in free agency and replaced him with Dan Boyle in hopes of adding more offense, then acquired Keith Yandle at the trade deadline with the same aspirations in mind.

Marc Staal was extended right before the Yandle acquistion to a contract similar to Girardi’s, and throughout all of this Ryan McDonagh’s earlier team-friendly extension has been the constant. Overall, the Rangers are paying their top six d-men $25,925,000 or an average of $4,320,833 per defenseman–among the most in the NHL. Let’s take a look at those defensemen and if the team is getting proper value out of their sextet.

Often defensemen are broken down into three categories: complete/two-way defensemen, offensive defensemen, and defensive defensemen.

A two-way defenseman excels both offensively and defensively and is your prototypical superstar defenseman, though they could be simply average in both ends of the ice. An offensive defenseman does not necessarily have to be bad at the defensive aspect of the position, while the defensive defenseman does not have to be poor offensively. Rather, the player’s specialty is the label they are given, and that is what they are expected to provide for their respective team.

Ryan McDonagh is the cornerstone of the Rangers blue line.

Ryan McDonagh is the star of the New York Rangers defensive corps and is a solid enough defenseman defensively to be considered a two-way defenseman. McDonagh excels offensively, scoring just over 0.5 points per game over the last two seasons and improving as he goes.

McDonagh finished eighth in the Norris trophy voting in 2013-2014 at the age of 24. The Captain of the Rangers is also the leader of the defensive group, playing more minutes than any other defenseman on the team consistently and playing regularly on both the powerplay and the penalty kill. When it comes to defensive reputation, McDonagh deserves all the praise he gets.

The top defenseman would likely fill the same role on most other teams, and the only thing holding him back from truly bursting out is his defensive partner, Dan Girardi.

Girardi was rumored to be a trade candidate around the 2013-2014 trade deadline, with Sami Vatanen being floated as a potential return. Had that trade happened, the Rangers defense would likely be one of the best groups in the NHL.

Unfortunately, New York came to terms with Girardi on a six-year, $33 million contract to keep the career Ranger on Broadway. Girardi has a reputation as a shutdown, defensive defenseman thanks to posting regularly high totals in both hits and shot blocks–statistics hockey media loves–but hockey analysts do not.

For example, Girardi’s 224 hits and 184 shot blocks in the 2014-2015 season, good for 20th and seventh in the NHL, respectively. What is misunderstood by many when it comes to hits and shot blocks is that they can only occur when one’s team does not have the puck, and if one’s team does not have the puck they cannot score.

With that in mind, Girardi’s possession numbers over the years have been awful, and he has been prone to ugly turnovers leading to goals against for opposing teams. Below is an example of one of Girardi’s turnovers in the 2013-2014 Stanley Cup Final, directly leading to the game winning goal against.

Girardi is often lauded for his ability to stop pucks from getting to the net and stop opposing top line players from scoring, but in reality he is unable to keep up with the best forwards and is bailed out constantly by McDonagh. His defensive awareness is lacking, as shown by his constant turnovers and need to get on his knees to block shots in hopes of making up for his own mistakes.

Girardi’s reputation is partially responsible for the Rangers’ falsely praised defense, with Marc Staal making up a good portion of the rest of that praise.

Staal was one of the best defenseman in the NHL before his brother Eric caught him with a hit to the head and concussed him in a regular season game in 2011. After being an All-Star and developing into a legitimate two-way defenseman, his brother’s hit halted his development and Staal never found how to recover fully from the hit. His awareness has diminished, his ability to hold onto the puck has worsened and his possession numbers have decreased despite his stock remaining as high as ever. At this point Staal is respected based on the Staal name and the player he once was, not the player he currently is.

What is most fascinating about Staal is that he shows flashes of the player he once was, often putting together All-Star like performances in single games. Unfortunately the alternate captain has struggled to consistently succeed in his position on the second pair, yet the Rangers rewarded him with a six-year, $34million extension anyway. With two of the six roster spots being held by overpaid, over-respected so-called “defensive” defensemen, the Rangers acquired one more defensive-defenseman in the person of Klein.

Kevin Klein is fine in his role, but is making too much money for his skill set.

Klein is a simple case to crack, as he is a third pair defenseman with occasional second pair performances making more money than the Rangers should be paying him. Klein would be better served in a different role on a different team, but for now he has been putting up career offensive numbers in New York while playing a respectable defense in the process.

The shooting percentage should not be sustainable, but should he continue to produce offensively, Klein is more of a solution than a problem for the Rangers. Any offensive production is gravy for New York, who have relied on offensive production on the blue line from Dan Boyle.

Boyle is best known for his offensive game and power-play performance. The veteran has been better in the possession game than many give him credit for, but as the replacement for beloved defenseman Anton Stralman, he is likely never going to get the respect he truly deserves. Boyle offers a wicked slapper from the point, a power-play quarterback mind, and good enough defense at in his own end that his $4.5 million contract is not a disappointment. Boyle is unlikely to stick with the Rangers past the 2015-2016 season, as he has slowed down some over the course of the last season, and his replacement was likely acquired when the Rangers traded for Keith Yandle.

Yandle’s acquistion from the Arizona Coyotes cost the Rangers a first-round pick, their top prospect in Anthony Duclair and more. Yandle struggled early with New York, but has gradually developed into a reliable defenseman and has cut down on the turnovers that plagued him in Arizona, showing that with a more reliable group of players around him he does not feel the need to force plays. Yandle is an all-world defenseman offensively, posting 53 and 52 points in the last two seasons despite playing mostly for the NHL bottom feeder Coyotes.

Yandle’s zone start capabilities and abilities to find the open man on the power-play has been and will continue to be huge for the Rangers, who hope he is the missing piece in the Stanley Cup puzzle.

The Rangers do not have a poor defensive group by any means, but they do have a criminally overrated group. Both Dan Girardi and Marc Staal do not perform to nearly the capabilities they are praised for, while the rest of the defense often is tasked with making up for their mistakes. If Alain Vigneault ices the players at the right times the Rangers will be in business, but that is a major question moving forward for the Blueshirts.

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