By Sean Hartnett
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John Moore, 23, has done little to justify the belief that he will one day make good on his upside and develop into a reliable, top-four defenseman.
The Rangers thought they struck gold when they pried two former first-round picks in Moore and Derick Brassard from the Columbus Blue Jackets on the day of the 2013 NHL trade deadline.
Moore arrived in New York on April 3, 2013 as part of a six-player trade that sent star sniper Marian Gaborik to the Columbus Blue Jackets. For the trade to be a slam dunk for the Rangers, both Moore and Brassard needed to take leaps forward in their development.
Last summer at Stanley Cup Media Day, Rangers general manager Glen Sather spoke of the importance of gaining multiple pieces to solve New York’s depth issues.
“I like Marian a lot. I think he’s a great guy and a great player,” Sather said on June 3. “To get the kind of quality players that we were able to get, we needed depth on our team, and it certainly did it for us. I’m happy for Marian. He’s a terrific guy. It was like every trade. It’s complicated and difficult.”
Gaborik caught fire last playoffs by recording 22 points in 26 postseason games. His goal-getting and the constant danger brought by his elusive skating played a major role in the Kings overpowering the Rangers in five games to lift their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.
Stanley Cups are won by teams, not individuals. Gaborik was the right fit for the Kings at the right time. The Kings needed a speedy sniper to complement superstar center Anze Kopitar, and pairing Gaborik and Kopitar together worked like a charm.
As for the Rangers, the two main pieces acquired in the Gaborik trade have been opposites.
Brassard has blossomed into a confident, two-way center with a tendency to produce game-winning heroics during the regular season and under intense playoff spotlight. Every time Brassard laces up his skates, Rangers fans know he will contribute in a number of positive ways.
The same cannot be said about Moore. His long-term future with the Blueshirts remains a question mark. Within a span of five months and 14 games played, Moore has been suspended twice by the NHL’s Department of Player Safety for illegally checking the head of an opponent.
On Wednesday, Moore was suspended five games without pay for what the department deemed “an illegal check to the head” of Minnesota Wild forward Erik Haula. Given Moore’s status as a repeat offender, he was fortunate not to receive a lengthier suspension. His head shot on Haula was nearly identical to his hit on Montreal Canadiens forward Dale Weise in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, which resulted in Moore being handed a two-game suspension.
Moore clearly has all the physical tools to be a top-four defenseman. What isn’t clear is whether he can properly package his superb skating ability, cannon shot and 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame and reach his full potential.
When the Rangers acquired Moore, they pinned their hopes on him gaining positional sense, improving his decisions with the puck and perhaps developing into a game-changing, power-play quarterback. His athleticism and powerful shot have yet to translate into consistent offensive production. Despite his imposing size, Moore frequently gets shoved aside by opponents in front of the net and along the boards.
On top of all of these doubts, his reputation has been damaged for repeatedly targeting the heads of opponents.
Following Wednesday’s practice, head coach Alain Vigneault stated his confidence in the six defensemen currently available: Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Kevin Klein, Matt Hunwick and Mike Kostka.
“Yeah, I think we stay with the six,” Vigneault said. “We’ll wait and see what happens, but I’m comfortable with the guys we have. We’ll go from there.”
Top-four defensemen McDonagh, Girardi, Staal and Klein alternated between pairings during Wednesday’s practice, with Hunwick and Kostka making up the third pairing.
For the moment, the Rangers are yet to make a roster move in response to Moore’s five-game suspension. Conor Allen and Dylan McIlrath remain two options whom the Rangers could recall from AHL Hartford to add defensive depth.
Moore will be eligible to return to the Rangers’ lineup on November 11 when the division-rival Penguins visit Madison Square Garden.
Eventually, Dan Boyle will return (broken hand). Once Boyle returns, the Rangers will have a solid six in McDonagh, Girardi, Staal, Klein, Hunwick and Boyle. Hunwick’s mistake-free play means that Moore would be the odd man out.
At this stage of his career, it’s crucial that Moore gets consistent playing time to prove that he can repair his damaged image.
Should he get that kind of opportunity — whether with the Rangers or another organization — his career can go one of two ways. He’s either going to cement his image as a frustrating player who is unable to take the next leap, or perhaps he’ll finally fulfill his first-round draft pick potential.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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