By Sean Hartnett
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As the playoffs draw closer, the biggest issue facing the Rangers is the same one they were unable to fix at the trade deadline — finding an upgrade on the first pairing to skate alongside stellar captain Ryan McDonagh.
Kevin Shattenkirk was the rare jewel available and the rival Washington Capitals were willing to pay the price to bring the offense-generating blueliner to D.C. The Caps were the aggressors at the deadline, and Shattenkirk’s quick legs, poise and masterful power play quarterback skills put Washington at the very top of the list of Stanley Cup contenders.
Shattenkirk was the perfect guy to provide a lift on McDonagh’s right side and supercharge a Rangers’ power play that has stagnated in the middle of the pack in recent seasons. That said, an equal argument could be made for the sound logic in not surrendering assets that could help the Rangers in the future for a player who is an impeding summer unrestricted free agent.
General manager Jeff Gorton’s lone trade deadline acquisition, Brendan Smith, was brought here because he’s a quality depth defenseman who can play on either side. A 2017 third-round draft pick and a 2018 second-round selection wasn’t an overpay for Smith, but he’s not the kind of defenseman that will radically change the Rangers’ fortunes for the better. He’s simply a safe pair of hands on the back end.
Without a game-changing deadline arrival, the role of patrolling the right side on the top pair against elite opposition in the playoffs will likely be handed to Dan Girardi. The 32-year-old alternate captain is back practicing with teammates after suffering a deep gash to his right ankle that has kept him out of the lineup since late February. Though Girardi will not play this weekend, he is closing in on a return to game action.
The first pair of McDonagh-Girardi was a constant when the Rangers reached back-to-back Eastern Conference finals in 2014 and 2015. Girardi logged 24 minutes a night during the Blueshirts’ run to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final despite playing through the pain barrier. He blocked shot after shot and absorbed punishment in the corners while protecting Henrik Lundqvist’s crease.
Hard miles from back-to-back deep playoff runs took a toll on Girardi and the Rangers as a team at the end of last season. They were eliminated by the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. Girardi was only able to suit up for two of the five first-round games and his body was clearly nowhere near 100 percent.
After speculation increased about the chance of a summer buyout, Girardi returned to the Blueshirts for an 11th season. Head coach Alain Vigneault and Gorton both expressed confidence in a bounce-back from the prideful defenseman.
“I know that Dan Girardi has taken a beating in the media here, but you’re talking about a player that’s 32, that’s had a significant injury,” Gorton said in July. “We’ve seen some real good production from him for many years, and he did, by all accounts, not have the kind of year we wanted or he wanted. But we expect Dan to be better and he expects to be better. I really believe, and the organization believes, that Dan Girardi will be better this season.”
With Girardi unavailable, Vigneault moved McDonagh to the right side and promoted alternate captain Marc Staal to the first pair. Girardi was playing his most dependable hockey of the season just before the ankle injury put him on the shelf, but the Rangers haven’t gotten that from him on a consistent basis.
Vigneault has been known to shuffle his defensive pairings on the fly to account for opposition matchups, so maybe the Rangers won’t lean as hard on Girardi in the playoffs as they have in years’ past. But if Girardi can’t give the Rangers quality defensive minutes this postseason, the B-word … buyout … will rear its head again.
It should also be noted that rookie blueliner Brady Skjei performed admirably in his first playoffs last season on a team that was getting territorially dominated by the faster, younger Pens. Ahead of the 2017 playoffs, the Rangers have proven to be a fast-skating team that can dictate play.
Through 69 games, Skjei has recorded 32 points. The soon-to-be 23-year-old ranks fourth among NHL defensemen in even-strength assists this season (25), trailing only perennial Norris Trophy candidates Duncan Keith, Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns. His 29 assists overall are tied for the fourth-most in franchise history by a Rangers rookie defenseman.
“Brady’s got a high skill set,” Vigneault said recently. “I think his biggest attribute is his skating, the fact that he can get away from the forecheck and then skate the puck and find an open man. The work ethic and the development of his skills — he’s got a tremendous amount of potential at that young age.”
There’s a lot of shine and a lot of speed to Skjei’s game. Let’s get back to the D-word again … dictate. When Girardi is paired with McDonagh, the Rangers’ captain spends too much time defending. Skjei and McDonagh are both capable playing on either side and possess the combination of high-level skill and excellent skating ability to really take it to opponents and dominate offensive zone time should they be paired together.
If Plan A of sticking with the familiar pairing of McDonagh-Girardi doesn’t work out early in the playoffs, AV should quickly give Skjei a promotion to the top pair and turn him loose. Skjei-McDonagh has the makings of a dominant duo.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey