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Hartnett: Fierce Battle Is Underway On Rangers' Blue Line

By Sean Hartnett
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When Alain Vigneault first took charge of the Rangers in 2013, he began orchestrating an identity change from the defensive-obsessed leanings of predecessor John Tortorella.

Under Vigneault's watch, the Blueshirts have progressively shifted to a team that desires to play attacking hockey.

Teams capable of seriously contending for the Stanley Cup must have a speed element across four lines and three defensive pairings. Even Tortorella saw the light last season, loosening his philosophies to get the most out of the natural skill and mobility of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Last season, Columbus finished third in the Metropolitan Division with 108 points, a 32-point rise from a season earlier thanks to an offensive-thinking approach and the fortune of good health.

MOREHartnett: New-Look Rangers Have Fair Share Of Questions As Camp Begins

The best teams move the puck out of their end quickly and efficiently, gain the offensive zone and essentially take pressure off their defense by forcing their opponents to defend for long stretches. In other words, the best form of defense is a relentless attack.

In gaining elite puck-mover Kevin Shattenkirk to complement a top-four that includes Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith, the Rangers have two pairings comprised of blue liners who think fast, advance the puck with speed, create offense and defend reliably in their own end.

Brady Skjei
Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

An interesting arrival is coming in the form of Anthony DeAngelo, who was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes along with the seventh overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft for Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta. DeAngelo must add polish to the defensive side of his game, but the Rangers added a 21-year-old with tremendous upside. This is a defenseman who possesses top-level skating, oozes creativity and is an adept puckhandler. If DeAngelo can quickly improve on his weaknesses and solidify his place in Vigneault's lineup, this season's edition of the Blueshirts will really be able to fly coming out of their own end.

"I think part of our identity since I have been here is that speed factor," the 56-year-old head coach said last Thursday. "I think the fact that we've added pieces to our back end that give us a little bit more puck-moving abilities should enhance that speed factor. It should make us quicker on our breakouts, quicker in our transition, more effective in the offensive zone. Let's wait and see how the guys play, but I think that's one area as an organization, coaching staff and management ... we're real excited and anxious to see what our back end is going to deliver."

If DeAngelo can make enough of a progression and gain Vigneault's trust during the preseason, that's five of six regular defensemen checked off before opening night on Oct. 5. That would leave the intriguing question of who out of Marc Staal, Nick Holden, Steven Kampfer, Neal Pionk, Sean Day, Alexei Bereglazov and Ryan Graves fills the sixth and spare defenseman roles.

"You look at our group right now, there are a lot of possibilities, and a lot of options, and that's what I like," Vigneault said. "There is going to be some great internal competition. Everybody that comes in my office wants more ice time. Perfect, you want more ice time, let's go out, let's earn it, show me what you got."

Rangers vs. Islanders
Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, right, takes a shot at Islanders forward Anders Lee at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 13, 2016. The Rangers won 5-3. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

For the first time in his decade-long career, Staal's role and minutes are unclear. Aside from his 2007-08 rookie season, the 30-year-old alternate captain has averaged at least 19 minutes of ice time per game. With Skjei taking on a larger slice of the pie this season and Shattenkirk added, a best-case scenario for Staal would be filling a third-pairing role.

"It would be safe to say that there are a few guys that maybe for a first time in a long time, Marc being one of them, is fighting for ice time, fighting for a spot on the team," Vigneault said. "If we decided to bring Marc Staal back, it's because we believe in him. Anybody that questions his character would probably be wrong. There's a guy that has come back from two serious injuries, has played some big minutes, big games for us in the past.

"I like Marc Staal, I believe in Marc Staal, but at the end of the day, this is probably the first time in a while that he's fighting for a spot and minutes and he knows that," Vigneault added. "That's why we have training camp, and then we take it a day at a time and make the best possible calls for the team."

Though Holden is the same age as Staal, he's far more mobile and a better point producer. Holden recorded 34 in 80 games last season, while Staal managed 10 in 72 games. A concussion caused Staal to miss nine games in January. At his best, Staal might be a little better at winning one-on-one battles, but Holden has the legs to skate in AV's system.

"I've had a good conversation with Nick," Vigneaul said of Holden. "For 55 games last year he was one of our best defensemen. There were some games towards the end there where it might have been a little more difficult, but he still was a real effective player for us both defensively and offensively. He had some real good numbers. He's got to take the positives from last year. It's a new season for everybody. His play will dictate how much he plays. That's probably the same for everybody. Some guys obviously have a little bit more rope than others. That's just the way the game is. Nick was a good player for us last year, so I'm anxious to see what he's going to do for us."

Regardless of how the preseason competition shakes out, the Rangers will be equipped with faster legs on the back end. That's going to make a crucial difference compared to last season's team, which was eliminated in second round by the Ottawa Senators due to defensive breakdowns at bad times.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey

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