Has the Rangers’ third defensive pairing been solidified?

Zac Jones, new york rangers
Apr 23, 2021; New York, New York, USA; Zac Jones #6 of the New York Rangers skates against the Philadelphia Flyers during the first period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Bennett/POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers have gotten the opportunity to make a full analysis of their players during training camp, consisting of both regular NHL names and young prospects. One of the main storylines heading into training camp and preseason was who would be joining Braden Schneider on the third defensive pairing, and a few players have had the chance to show their skills.

The two main contenders for this roster spot are Erik Gustafsson and Zac Jones, but with still about a week of training camp left, head coach Peter Laviolette may have already identified a clear winner.

The Rangers have a solid offensive defenseman in Gustafsson

Surprisingly, Gustafsson is currently leading the Rangers in preseason point production with two games remaining. He’s been a point-per-game player so far, with one goal and three assists in three games played.

It’s rare for a defenseman to be a point leader at any time, and nobody could have expected that Gustafsson would be the one holding that title. He’s also continued to impress during practice, as he’s been a pivotal player on the Rangers’ second power-play unit.

Gustafsson is coming off his second-best season in offensive production, where he scored 42 points in 70 games split between Washington and Toronto. Receiving power play time with the Rangers will likely bolster those numbers even higher, setting the stage for a productive season if Gustafsson were to earn a full-time roster spot.

An offensive defenseman may not be exactly what the Rangers need right now, especially with names like Adam Fox and K’Andre Miller already on the roster, but it’s hard to deny Gustafsson’s talent on the offensive end.

Gustafsson’s abilities would help elevate Schneider with veteran assistance, whereas Jones would create a young, potentially risky duo.

Gustafsson and Laviolette have worked together in the past

One of the main reasons the Rangers decided to sign Gustafsson to a one-year deal this offseason was his prior experience playing under Laviolette. Whereas Jones needed to prove himself to the Blueshirts’ coaching staff, Laviolette already had time to see what Gustafsson could contribute.

In his time with Washington, Laviolette was clearly impressed what Gustafsson’s game. The Capitals may have ended up missing the playoffs, but the veteran defenseman was not a part of the problem.

It’s possible that Laviolette may have already possessed strong bias over Jones heading into training camp, and that he’s already chosen Gustafsson with nine days still remaining until opening night.

What will happen to Jones if Gustafsson makes the Rangers?

Even though Jones will most likely fail to earn a Rangers roster spot, he’s still an above-average defensive prospect. He’s thrived in the AHL, seemingly outgrowing the league. However, he still does not seem to be NHL-ready.

The problem could very well be the organization he’s playing in, as the Rangers don’t exactly have room to fit any young defensive prospects.

The Rangers could look to trade Jones, as they’d probably receive a pretty hefty return package for the high-end prospect. He could also be worth holding on to though, as Gustafsson is only signed to a one-year deal.

There are no clues as to what the Rangers plan to do with Gustafsson after this season, but if his tenure will only be this one year, Jones may be able to make the lineup with another year of development.

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