By Sean Hartnett
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Kevin Shattenkirk had the poorest game of his Rangers career on a frustrating night at Prudential Center. The 28-year-old defenseman, who is renowned for his ability to advance the puck, was atypically careless with his puck management in Thursday’s 4-3 shootout defeat to the Devils.
Shattenkirk wasn’t the only Ranger who delivered an inferior performance in a game in which Henrik Lundqvist’s 45-save effort stole a point. The Rangers as a whole couldn’t match the Devils’ furious puck pursuit and effort level. Worst of all, the Blueshirts handled the puck like a grenade and continually fed chance after chance to their Hudson River rivals.
There was pushback from the Blueshirts in the third period, but the script was all too familiar for Rangers fans. A disorganized mess in the first period bled into the second period, and that was followed by a too-little, too-late, third-period charge.
The Rangers were very fortunate to escape the second period with the scoreboard knotted at 2-2. New Jersey dictated play, earned the lion’s share of offensive zone time and outshot the Blueshirts 23-8 in the middle frame. Only Lundqvist’s heroics kept the Rangers in a game that New Jersey should have won handily.
Shattenkirk committed a ghastly neutral-zone turnover while the Rangers were on a second-period power play, allowing Blake Coleman to score a tying short-handed goal. It was a rough night for Shattenkirk, and he probably deserved to be benched for a spell – but he noticeably remained glued to the bench after Brian Boyle snatched a tying power-play goal to even the score at 3-3 after Kevin Hayes’ early third-period, go-ahead goal.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault made a curious decision to roll five defensemen while the minutes ticked down in a tied third period. Shattenkirk was brought to New York to be a game-changer and the guy you want to have carrying the puck at crunch time when your team needs a goal. No Rangers defenseman is more capable of moving the puck quicker from point A to point B, exploiting a seam in the defense or burying a one-timer.
Vigneault has described Nick Holden as “safe and dependable.” The Rangers didn’t need safe and dependable skating alongside captain Ryan McDonagh at that juncture. What was needed was the offense-driving and high-end talent of Shattenkirk.
Shattenkirk would eventually be unchained from the bench when the Rangers received a 4-on-3 power play late in overtime, and he was final shooter in the shootout. His effort was stopped by Cory Schneider. Shattenkirk finished the contest with 16:23 total minutes, the lowest among Rangers defensemen.
There was no such benching for Holden, who had scored earlier in the first period. On the aforementioned Boyle power-play goal, Holden let Boyle slide right by him. His positional mistakes and turnovers were as numerous as Shattenkirk’s, but he finished the night with a 23:06 total minutes and remained on the top pair.
Vigneault’s pairings should come under scrutiny. I’ve stated before that Holden is a capable performer that would ideally fit a third-pairing role. He will occasionally be exposed against opposition top lines and should be sheltered from crunch-time minutes. The evidence was there when he made costly late-game mistakes as Vigneault leaned on him in the Montreal and Ottawa playoff series last season. Vigneault keeps going back to that well and gets burned for it. Holden served as nothing more than a spectator on the Boyle goal – and it’s just the latest example.
Remember the misplayed pass by Holden that allowed Florida’s Denis Malgin to score the game-winner at MSG on Nov. 28? How about the Oct. 8 game in Washington when he tossed the puck right back to Alex Ovechkin’s stick on a Capitals’ power play like it was a hot potato? He didn’t get burned for that one.
Keep in mind, Holden is capable of filling a role on this team – but it should not be top-pair duty alongside McDonagh. Also remember that Shattenkirk will occasionally commit turnovers due to the fact that he’s under more duress than the average defenseman because he is counted on to carry the puck and drive offense.
Shattenkirk belongs to the Erik Karlsson-P.K. Subban-Keith Yandle school of defensemen. There’s a little more risk associated with these defensemen – but for very little added risk, there is a much greater chance of reward.
Over the past five seasons, Shattenkirk (1.85) only trails Brent Burns (2.08), Karlson (1.97) and Victor Hedman (1.86) in points per 60 minutes among defenseman who have appeared in 175 or more games. Burns, Karlsson and Hedman are all unmovable first-pair defensemen.
According to Corisca, Shattenkirk’s all-situation Corsi For percentage of 57.35 only trails Torey Krug (60.16), Jake Muzzin (57.89) and John Klingberg (57.46) over the same stretch (minimum 3,500 minutes). There’s no doubting Shattenkirk’s credentials. He’s an unquestionably elite defenseman who deserves to be treated like one.
The McDonagh-Shattenkirk pairing only lasted as a brief experiment at season’s start. Vigneault would be wise to reunite his two most valuable defensemen and keep them together for a long stretch to see how results pan out.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey