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Hartnett: Rangers' Clendening Making Strong Case For Increased Role

By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers found a diamond in the rough when they signed free agent defenseman Adam Clendening to a one-year, $600,000 contract on the opening day of 2016 free agency. Five previous NHL clubs were unwilling to offer the 24-year-old more than scant ice time. In the case of the Anaheim Ducks, Clendening didn't dress for a single game before he was waived last January.

It's not easy being the seventh defenseman attempting to force your way into the lineup. Hockey is a results-oriented business, and many coaches will lean hard on the regulars they trust. Despite being limited to sporadic ice time, Clendening is stringing together quality performances when head coach Alain Vigneault calls on him. After another impressive two-way showing in the Rangers' 4-3 home victory over the Nashville Predators on Thursday, Vigneault should seriously consider rewarding the right-handed defenseman with a consistent run of games.

Clendening retrieves pucks quickly in the defensive end and knows how to create separation to advance the play. He excels at driving possession and can be an effective offense generator when he makes smart decisions with the puck. His 1.57 points per 60 minutes, 0.20 goals/60 and 1.38 assists/60 are each better than that of captain Ryan McDonagh. At 54.43, his five-on-five SAT percentage leads all Rangers defensemen. It's a small 19-game sample -- and by no means is Clendening the steady, all-around contributor McDonagh is – but these statistics beg the question: What would Clendening become if he's given a heavier workload?

Adam Clendening
The Rangers' Adam Clendening (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

His role shouldn't be relegated to fill-in appearances when a teammate is injured or needs a rest. A right ankle injury kept alternate captain Dan Girardi out of the lineup against Nashville. Prior to Thursday, Clendening's last appearance came in a 2-0 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 25. He was a healthy scratch for four consecutive games. Vigneault was impressed by the way Clendening responded after being told he would suit up against the Preds.

MORE: Hartnett: Rangers Never Think Twice About Putting Themselves In Harm's Way

"I thought Adam played well," Vigneault said. "It's not easy when he gets here this morning and finds out. But all those guys – whether it be Adam or Pumps (Matt Puempel) or Pirrs (Brandon Pirri), they're working extremely hard. They know at some point we're probably going to need them. They've got to be ready. Adam comes in tonight and plays a good game for us."

Perhaps, the one thing holding Clendening back is the risk associated with his game. Lately, he's cut out the tendency to force "home run" passes and has minimized his turnovers. On Thursday, he made crisp plays in possession and used his stick to break up opposition attacks. An underrated aspect of his game is an ability to read pressure and exit the defensive zone cleanly.

"Given a home and given a chance, I think my game has started to round into form," Clendening said earlier this month. "You can only go to so many teams, and when you find one that works, a staff that likes your style of play and puts you into positions to succeed, it's definitely nice. You want to prove them right as well. All in all, I think it's gone pretty well."

His next appearance with the Rangers will equal his career high of 20 games played with one franchise in a single season. No club is yet to put their full faith in Clendening, but his improved play should be forcing discussions between Vigneault and his staff on whether the well-traveled right-hander can be more than a bit part player.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey

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