The New York Rangers made one of the bigger defensive splashes this offseason, dealing for 25-year old defenseman Jacob Trouba, without having to give up too much either. The Rangers defense has been the most putrid in the league the last two seasons, so this was obviously a necessity. The Rangers signed him to a 7-year deal worth an average annual value of $8 million per season, which means they expect him to be a top defenseman for this team. However, with every new transaction, even with top players, to a new team, one question is always fit, and with two very different styles of both defense and player development structure between the Jets and the Rangers, it will be interesting to see how the transition is both short-term and long-term for the Rangers.
Starting with the short term, the Rangers are hoping Jacob Trouba can aid a defense core that had all players struggle in a larger sample. Obviously, Brady Skjei and Tony DeAngelo are the two of that core you would say has the most talent, with Kevin Shattenkirk struggling defensively and Marc Staal and Brendan Smith just looking old and slow. Even Skjei and DeAngelo though didn’t take the steps in their development that Rangers fans were hoping. DeAngelo showed some flashes in the second half of the season that progressed his outlook a little bit, but it is still difficult to judge on a small sample size.
So with that, Trouba becomes the best defenseman by far. The question is who he would be best suited to play with? Personally, I believe in balance when it comes to looking at line pairings. While I don’t care about the pairings being super-formal for every game either, I would prefer not to overload one line, because hockey is very much a depth game. With that in mind, I think Trouba at this point should play with one of the veterans in most games, and let Skjei and DeAngelo man the second pairing. Now, everything is also matchup circumstantial as well, where I wouldn’t necessarily trust Shattenkirk, Staal, or Smith against beastly first lines such as the Lightning, Avalanche, Penguins, Capitals, or even Trouba’s former team, the Winnipeg Jets. At that point, I would want Trouba and Skjei as the #1 pairing. However, for most games, I would want balance, because I trust Trouba to support those struggling veterans enough. I say that because Trouba is a good skater for a defenseman, which none of those veterans besides Shattenkirk are, where if somebody gets beat, Trouba can help in support when it comes to blocking shots and taking away passing lanes. The other thing Trouba contributes more than those guys even during their primes is more physicality. Trouba was never the most physical guy on that Winnipeg Jets defense and team in general, but he has accumulated 3 different 100 hit seasons and all the years he fell short of that mark, he missed 17 and 27 games in those seasons, so probably would have gotten there on the current pace.
Both Marc Staal and Brendan Smith have 2 years left on their contracts. While the Rangers defense will suffer with them on the ice (as well as Shattenkirk if he doesn’t improve defensively), at least having Trouba there will aid some of the issues. Will it make them a top defensive team? Not even close. Will it make them even average? Highly doubtful. However, it is an offensive team that still has a talented goaltender, so any small improvements could help the short-term from a player development and confidence standpoint, even though they aren’t winning anytime soon.
From a long-term standpoint, there are factors to consider about Trouba and how he will be for the entire length of the 7 years. One of which is the actual development of his defense. It is good right now, but the Rangers gave him that money to hope it will become great. Will he improve even more as a positional defenseman in terms of taking away passing lanes and shooting lanes? Can he remain a physical player in a system and a team that has never been physical when it comes to their defensemen this century? Most importantly, can he stay healthy? Injuries have plagued Trouba in his young career so far, and if they accumulate even more towards the end of the contract, he won’t age as well as the Rangers would have been hoping.
The Rangers long-term defense, barring trades, will consist of players such as Adam Fox and 2018 first round pick K’Andre Miller. Fox has a chance to be a very good two-way defenseman with the skating ability, vision, and instincts that he has. He’s more of the type for the modern NHL with his speed and offensive ability. Miller is more of the physical type with a good shot and forechecking ability, and has the raw size at his age already at 6’5″ and 198 pounds, with room still to grow strength wise. Odds are these two players will come up within the next 2 or 3 seasons. The Rangers might bring up Fox at the end of the season this year, due to a draft pick incentive for the Hurricanes if he plays more than 30 games. Not to mention, Fox has already announced he is most likely playing this full college season at Harvard.
In terms of the role I expect Trouba to play when these guys are up, I expect him to stay a first pairing defenseman, obviously dependent on their performance, for the majority of his contract still. If both Fox and Miller play well enough to be first line defensemen, obviously that can change, but I expect them both to need time. I think one of them could certainly develop into one by the 4th or 5th year of Trouba’s contract, where I think Trouba would play with one of them on the first pairing at that point. From a skillset perspective, I would probably prefer Fox, just because I think he is very similar to Skjei in terms of his style of defenseman, where I wouldn’t want two of those on the same line. However, if Skjei still has any more room to grow, he might stay first pair even at that time and let Fox and Miller play together as well. If Trouba develops defensively the way he’s supposed to, that will allow for Fox to be more free with his speed and offensive ability, even though his defensive instincts are good too. Plus, if Trouba does end up dealing with injury issues, Fox has the top end speed for a defenseman that can compensate if Trouba loses some speed.
Towards the end of the contract, the Rangers would be hoping both Fox and Miller, and potentially even more defensive draft pick, can be first line defenseman, where Trouba at 31 and 32 would be more of a second line type, but I think for at least the first 5 years, due to defensemen taking longer to develop, Trouba will have to be the first line defenseman that he is being paid to be, and he is going to have to play like it for this Rangers team to have any chance of winning anytime soon.
Kyle Kloiber, @2Kgmenrule1080 on Twitter
Jacob Trouba image- Colin Stephenson, Newsday
Adam Fox image- Torie Peterson, calgaryflames.com