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Matthew Golda The Hockey Writers

Published on Thursday, September 21, 2017





Young Rangers Defensemen Make Nick Holden Expendable

Young defensemen Anthony DeAngelo and Neal Pionk made their New York Ranger debuts Monday night and both showed flashes of promise. DeAngelo came over in the Derek Stepan trade but was almost an afterthought in the deal. Most of the attention was given to the first round pick the Rangers received from Arizona. Pionk on the other hand, went completely under the radar, as he was signed as a free agent out of the University of Minnesota Duluth in May.

DeAngelo and Pionk both possess an attribute the Rangers sorely lack: a right-handed shot.

Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Brendan Smith, and Brady Skjei are all established starters from last season on the Rangers. They are also all left-handed defensemen, which made the free agent acquisition of right-handed defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk all the more important over the summer. But if Pionk and DeAngelo continue to play well in the preseason, they could very well play their way into the starting lineup due to this need.

Neal Pionk

In 42 games at the Univeristy of Minnesota Duluth last season, Pionk scored seven goals to go along with his 27 assists and plus-24 rating. Monday night, he played alongside the captain, McDonagh, which can only be taken as a positive sign moving forward.

Throughout the game, he received power play time and showed good puck mobility on the point. Pionk also showed a willingness to fire shots at the net. Shots that were able to get through the traffic no. He tallied four shots on goal on the night. That number was tied for tops on the team with fellow Rangers debutant DeAngelo.

Defensively, Pionk did well. He went into the corners to dig out pucks and displayed patience in order to make the right pass out of the defensive zone. This was most apparent when he took a big hit in the corner by Cal Clutterbuck in order to move the puck. He also showed solid defensive awareness in the game. Pionk led the team with three blocked shots, including one instance where he quickly laid his body down in the slot to negate a quality scoring chance.

And last, but certainly not least, was his game-winning goal. Pionk took a pass at the top of the point from fellow rookie Lias Andersson. From there, he used a spin move to beat Brock Nelson and skated in clear on goal, burying a wrist shot past Islanders netminder Eamon McAdam. It was a highlight reel play that could be the start of something special for Pionk.

Anthony DeAngelo

DeAngelo played 39 games for the Coyotes last season, scoring five goals and adding nine assists. In the game Monday night, he partnered with Nick Holden. Overall, DeAngelo showed his entire offensive range. He led all Rangers defensemen in power play time-on-ice with 6:56 and demonstrated a good ability to run the unit.

He also showed off his skating ability numerous times, as he was unafraid to skate the puck through the neutral zone to gain entry into the Islander’s zone. And he did this with his head up. Sometimes young players forget to keep their head up, which can lead to a dangerous hit or a missed opportunity on offense. His offensive awareness was impressive, as he found creative ways to move the puck to create quality scoring chances.

Anthony DeAngelo

Anthony DeAngelo (Terry Wilson /OHL Images)

And touching back up on his skating ability, DeAngelo also joined the rush to create odd-man rushes when the opportunity presented itself. Most notably, he took a slow-moving three-on-three and quickly darted to the net, where he received a pass and drew a penalty. He created something out of nothing, which is always an excellent trait to have as a hockey player.

DeAngelo’s offensive ability, though, has not been the issue early in his career. It has been his defense. During the game, he handled himself on the defensive end and took some big hits. At 5-foot-11, he is not a big player. So, he needs to be smart defensively, as to not take any unnecessary hits that could lead to injury.

Holden Facing Young Competition

Pionk and DeAngelo showed their potential Monday night and do posses the Rangers’ need for a right-handed shot. One area, though, where Nick Holden has an advantage is with his size. At 6-foot-4, he is considerably bigger than DeAngelo (5-foot-11) and Pionk (6 feet). It helps to have a player of his size and skating ability on your squad.

Holden puts his size to good use too, as he led the Rangers in total hits last season. I know hitting is not what it once was in the NHL, but it can still play a pivotal role, especially in a playoff series.

Puck moving defensemen are crucial to the type of game the Rangers want to play, which is an attribute of Holden’s play and why, despite his defensive shortcomings, he still sees the ice. However, if the Rangers can add that output from a right-handed defenseman as opposed to yet another left-handed player, then they can balance out their defensive lines. This is most important on the power play.

New York Rangers defenseman Nick Holden (Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

During a second period interview with Rangers reporter Al Trautwig, DeAngelo raved about the “up-tempo style, puck possession style” the Rangers play. To which Trautwig followed up with, “Is that good for you?” And DeAngelo responded, “Yeah, that’s perfect for me. I think we want to control the pace of play and just be a hard team to play against.” DeAngelo is young at only 21 years of age, but he knows his strong suits as a player and sees a role for himself on the Rangers.

If DeAngelo and Pionk continue to impress, then that leaves the door open to trade Holden. He has been rumored in trades before and has value, both as an expiring contract as well as a talented offensive defenseman. Sure, Holden could still impact the Rangers this season if he played out the year in New York, but if he has no future with the Rangers it only makes sense to try to move him elsewhere at some point before the trade deadline.


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