By Sean Hartnett
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Puck-moving defenseman Adam Clendening will be a player to watch during the Rangers' preseason. The departures of elite power play quarterback Keith Yandle and experienced offense-generating Dan Boyle have opened up a void that needs to be filled.
Replacing the tempo, controlled entries, stretch passes and creativity that Yandle and Boyle provided will not be a responsibility that falls on one man. That said, Clendening clearly fits in nicely with head coach Alain Vigneault's uptempo system and his desire to outchance opponents.
"A lot of the team's speed starts on the back end," Vigneault said. "It starts with them going back for pucks quickly, beating the forecheck and getting it up."
Clendening was solid during the Rangers' preseason-opening 5-2 victory over the rival Islanders at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. He moved the puck efficiently, consistently got his shots through and made smart plays to sustain offensive zone time. He finished the night with two assists, including one on the power play, skated for 20:19 and logged 2:38 on the power play and 2:18 while the Blueshirts were shorthanded.
"I think my job is to come here and move the puck, create some offense and shoot the puck," Clendening said. "I think I did a pretty good job of that tonight. If I can help out the power play, great. I am very comfortable there. Just keep it simple -- move the puck to the skilled forwards that we have. It seemed like it was pretty fun to watch. Move the puck, move your feet and keep it simple."
Clendening teed-up a powerful Mika Zibanejad one-timed goal on the Rangers' first power play of the night. He later created the Blueshirts' second goal by pulling off a spinning pass along the sideboards to a rushing Chris Kreider, who beat Isles goaltender John-Francois Berube from the high slot.
Clendening, a much traveled 23-year-old, has given Vigneault something to ponder. Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Klein, Brady Skjei, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Dylan McIlrath all return from last season's roster. Nick Holden was acquired from the Colorado Avalanche at the draft and is paid like a top-six defenseman at $1.65 million AAV over the next two seasons. Youngster Ryan Graves is highly thought of within the Rangers' hierarchy. Director of player personnel Gordie Clark said in June that Graves could "push some guys" in training camp.
Clendening signed a one-year, two-way deal on July 1. He would earn $600,000 at the NHL level or $300,000 in the AHL. The Rangers are the fifth organization to acquire the right-handed defenseman since January 2015.
Teammate Brandon Pirri played alongside Clendening for two seasons for the Chicago Blackhawks' AHL affiliate Rockford and knows how effective he can be in man-advantage situations. Clendening led all AHL defensemen with 37 assists in 2012-13 and was named a First-Team All-Star the following season after recording 47 assists.
"He's got a lot of talent and makes a lot of good plays," Pirri said of Clendening. "He's got a great first pass. It starts there. He gets puck to the net. The power play is his bread and butter. I haven't played with him in couple years, but he's becoming a solid player. That's why he's in the league right now."
Clendening hit roadblocks in Chicago and Pittsburgh. He did not play a single game in the Anaheim Ducks' organization and was unable to stake his claim in Vancouver or Edmonton. Though he has yet to play more than 20 games for a single NHL franchise, Clendening will get a long look by the Rangers this preseason.
If he continues playing the way he did on Tuesday, he's going to make it impossible for Vigneault not to keep him around for opening night, given his skill on the power play.
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