By Sean Hartnett
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Rangers fans are excited about the capture of top free agent target Kevin Shattenkirk – and rightfully so. The 28-year-old, right-handed defenseman possesses the offense-driving abilities that can separate the Blueshirts from the pack of contenders looking to dethrone the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
Shattenkirk adds instant dynamism to the Blueshirts’ attack because he is unequivocally the elite, point-producing defenseman that the Rangers have lacked in recent seasons. Though Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle provided an extra gear through their instincts and power-play production, there aren’t any holes to poke in the Rangers investing $26.6 over four seasons in Shattenkirk.
While Yandle was possession-strong, highly productive and an explosive skater, he never quite ticked all the boxes that head coach Alain Vigneault was looking for in a first-pair defenseman. He was often relegated to a third-pair role and second unit power-play duty. Boyle served as more of a power-play specialist in his final two seasons with the Rangers compared to his minute-eating heyday with the San Jose Sharks. His even-strength ice time was scaled back in his farewell season of 2015-16.
Shattenkirk arrives at the Garden on a contract that will cover his prime years. He has what it takes to be a difference-maker in even-strength situations and on the power play. Since his rookie season of 2010-11, Shattenkirk is one of four defensemen to record at least 30 assists and 40 points in six different seasons. Erik Karlsson, Duncan Keith and Yandle are the others.
“Kevin’s a player we’ve obviously coveted for a while,” general manager Jeff Gorton said during Saturday’s conference call. “An offensive defenseman on the right side who can do so many things. We’re trying to stay away from those five, six, seven, eight-year deals right now until we see where the cap is going. We felt like this was an opportunity to get a really good player for a term that we could live with and we felt was fair. You’ve got to give credit to Kevin on this one. He sent a pretty strong message to us.”
The New Rochelle native grew up a Blueshirts fan. The former Blues and Capitals player understands there’s pressure that comes with making the move to the Big Apple, but his track record points to money-in-the-bank consistency. Shattenkirk is just one of 14 defensemen in league history to register 30 or more assists and 40 or more points in at least six of their first seven seasons. If not for the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, it probably would have been seven seasons out of seven.
“There’s going to be a lot of pressure. That’s something that’s exciting to me,” Shattenkirk said. “But as a local boy, I grew up around it, kind of experienced it from a fan’s point. I think it would have been hard for me to deal with as a young player, but every team I’ve been with wants to win the Stanley Cup.
“When you have the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream like this, it’s an opportunity that may only come once in my career, and I felt like this is my chance,” he continued. “I envisioned myself being a Ranger from the moment I stepped on the ice as a kid.”
Shattenkirk has tallied 25 or more power-play points in each of the past four seasons. The last Rangers defenseman to provide that kind of spark was franchise icon Brian Leetch, who last achieved the feat in 2001-02. Since the start of the 2011-12 season, Shattenkirk ranks second among defensemen with 131 power-play points, only trailing Karlsson’s 146. He also ranks third among defensemen in power-play goals (32) and power-play assists (99) over the same stretch.
The notion of Shattenkirk being plagued by defensive-zone deficiencies is a misnomer. I don’t fully understand how these inaccurate narratives spread, but the source is likely someone who hasn’t watched much of Shattenkirk and doesn’t understand that the best form of defense is measured by an ability to acquire the puck in the defensive end and move it away from danger.
In today’s NHL, general managers and coaches place a high value on defensemen who offer mobility, puck-handling skill and the ability to make quick passes out of the defensive zone. These are traits that Shattenkirk has in spades.
Do you remember hearing that old story about how a young Wayne Gretzky would trace where the puck was going on paper while watching a game on television? Though it was a crude way of tracking, the areas where the lines intersected represented where the puck is the most.
Nowadays, advanced charts are readily available to any organization, reporter or fan to evaluate which players are the best at driving possession into the offensive zone. Shattenkirk’s game is built on moving the puck out of danger, generating offense and out-chancing the opposition when he’s on the ice. According to Puckalytics, Shattenkirk’s Corsi For percentage in five-on-five situations over the past four seasons is a robust 53.7 percent.
Traditional stats, advanced analytics, the eye test and charts all suggest that the Shattenkirk-Rangers marriage will be a fruitful one. This was the acquisition that the Rangers absolutely had to make, and it’s one that could shift the balance of power in the East.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey