Food for thought: Is it wise to spend so much money on defense?

Bobby Bevilacqua

McDonagh and Girardi Warmups 10-16

The Rangers have spent a ton of money to build a strong defense, as well as in net. But in this league, and after looking at recent Cup champions, is it worth it? Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

For the New York Rangers, defense is and has been the name of the game. Whether it was the blue-collar hockey played under John Tortorella, or the faster, speed game employed by Alain Vigneault, defensemen have been crucial to the team’s performance and success.

That reflects in the team’s salary cap as well, where a large portion of the available money is spent towards creating potentially a top-three defense in the entire league. With players like Ryan McDonagh, Keith Yandle, Marc Staal and Dan Boyle populating the defensive core of the Rangers, they form a very versatile and effective group that can shutdown anybody in the league, as well as generate some offense too.

But having so many talented defenseman on one team means that they all get paid for their high level of talent. This also stretched into goaltending, as the Rangers have arguably the best goalie in the NHL in Henrik Lundqvist. On defense alone, the Rangers have $26.75 million invested in their seven defensemen, with Dan Girardi ($5.5) and Marc Staal ($5.7) making the most amount of money. Add in Henrik Lundqvist and the new backup, Antti Raanta, and the Rangers have $36 million going towards the back end. That’s more than half of the allotted salary cap, without spending a dime on the 12 forwards that play every game.

Some people may think this is okay, referring to the old saying, “defense is the best offense,” or, “defense wins championships.” And while the Rangers have made three Eastern Conference Finals in the past four years, winning one of them, they have not been able to take that next step and win a championship. Their recent success is still very impressive, and there have been some bad breaks along the way, but despite having a top defensive group, the Rangers are still without a Stanley Cup title since 1994.

When looking at the teams that have gone all the way recently, it hasn’t been teams that loaded up on strong defensemen or goalies. Just look at the two teams from this past year. The Blackhawks practically used four defensemen – Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Nicklas Hjalmarsson. The bottom pair was Kimmo Timonen and a rotating rookie, both players making less than $2 million. Hjalmarsson ($4.1 million) and Oduya ($3.375 million) made up the second pair, while Duncan Keith ($5.5 million) and Brent Seabrook ($5.8 million) make up a phenomenal top pair.

duncan keith

Duncan Keith (pictured) and Brent Seabrook see the most ice time on defense in Chicago. They filled out the other four spots with solid, cheaper players, and used that money to create a strong and deep forward group. Photo courtesy of Bill Smith/Getty Images.

The difference there is that the Blackhawks pay the defenseman based on their role. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are both excellent two-way defensemen who can shut down guys and score, especially Keith. So they make the most amount of money. Hjalmarsson and Oduya are both solid second pair players, and their contracts reflect that role. And lastly, the sometimes-used bottom pairing took up very little of the cap space. The Blackhawks spent about $5 to $6 million less than the Rangers did on defense, and still played well defensively.

The Lightning’s top pairing is very, very good, and cap friendly too. Victor Hedman makes $4 million while former Ranger Anton Stralman makes $4.5 million. After that pairing, they have a bunch of solid, bottom four d-men all making around $4.5 milion, except for Matt Carle, who makes a hefty $5.5 million salary. Andrej Sustr is one of their bottom pairing defenseman, and he was very solid in the playoffs. He makes just $1.45 million, which is a good contract for the role that he plays.

Corey Crawford is the goalie for the Blackhawks, making a $6 million salary each year. While he’s not elite, he is still a darn good goalie, and has played clutch in big moments. The Lightning have Ben Bishop making around $6 million to protect their net. He’s an okay goalie that happens to be 6’9” on skates, and takes up a lot of the net. Neither goalie is “elite,” yet their teams were playing in the final.

The problem with the Rangers is that they’re paying top money throughout their defensive pairings. Ryan McDonagh’s contract is great, with a cap hit of $4.7 million. He hasn’t even hit his prime yet, and could easily be a 50 point player. Dan Boyle, although highly criticized, is making a perfectly acceptable $4.5 million role to anchor the second line, drive possession and play on the power play.

The problems start with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. Unlike many people, I’m a fan of both players and what they bring to the table. Girardi has been a long-time staple on the top line, and Staal was another homegrown player that anchored the top pairing with Girardi before the arrival of McDonagh. However, they are both very similar players, and the Rangers shouldn’t have two huge contracts to Girardi and Staal. Realistically, they should have kept one, or tried to negotiate for less money. On top of that, both Staal and Girardi will have a limited NTC at the end of their contract, meaning that the Rangers couldn’t move the contract if they wanted to.

dan Girardi and marc staal and kreider

Dan Girardi (Left) and Marc Staal (middle) are both similar players with equally large contracts. The Rangers should not have both of those contracts against the cap. Photo courtesy of Norm Hall/NHLI.

You could justify Girardi’s contract. He is playing top line minutes, and tough minutes against strong opponents, he’s an important penalty killer and he gets some power play time. I happen to think that he’s a solid defenseman, and has been valuable over the past few years.

While Staal is also a good hockey player, paying a second pairing defenseman $5.7 million, which happens to be the most on the team, is absurd. He’s taking up a ton of cap space while not facing the same competition that McDonagh and Girardi face every night.

Kevin Klein makes $2.9 million, which is a good cap hit, if he was on the second pairing. Klein is good enough to play the second pairing, but he’s not being utilized there. If you’re going to have a defenseman who will play 15 minutes a night and a little bit on the power play, he should have a contract like Sustr at $1.45 million. Keith Yandle should be playing second pairing minutes, but there isn’t room for him there.

Another thought of mine is this; do you even need all of these great defensemen? When looking at teams that have won the Stanley Cup, they usually have one really strong top defensive pairing, and then solid players filling out the other four defense slots. The Rangers have four players that could potentially play the top pairing, or have recently (McDonagh, Girardi, Staal, Yandle).

I think that if Staal and Klein’s contract were taken out of the equation, and the Rangers used defensive pairings of McDonagh-Girardi, Yandle-Boyle and Diaz-Skjei, they would still be perfectly fine and strong defensively, especially with Henrik Lundqvist in net. All that available cap space could then go towards re-signing Derek Stepan to a long term deal, something they are really struggling to afford right now, and strong depth players to fill out the bottom six, or even the second line.

Instead, the Rangers are paying first pairing money to three defenseman, and playing Klein and Yandle below the role that they are capable of. There isn’t any reason to stack up on defensemen, and pay them so much, because it winds up restricting what you can do on offense, and re-signing the team’s core.

With Derek Stepan looking for a long-term extension, the Rangers may wind up having to trade him, or sign him to a short deal and see him hit the market as a UFA in a few years. Next season, it will be hard to re-sign Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes to long term deals, and that could wind up being another big problem.

derek stepan profile 4-4

Derek Stepan, a crucial part of the Rangers’ top six and special teams, is looking for a long term contract extension. With so much money invested in defense, the Rangers may not be able to afford that. Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

So the Rangers could wind up losing key, core players like Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes, all so they can keep an aging Girardi and Staal, and an expensive third pair defenseman in Klein on their blue line. Is it worth it? I don’t think so.

The Blackhawks got by with one elite pairing, a solid third and fourth defenseman, and a cheap third pairing that didn’t see much ice time. Their money was spent on a very deep forward group that helped carry them to their third championship since 2010.

It’s too late now, mainly because the Rangers have mostly unmovable contracts on defense, but Sather should have modeled the team in a similar way. There is no need to pay a second pair d-man $5.7 million, or a third pair player $3 million. It limits what you can spend on the forwards. With Lundqvist in net, the Rangers would be perfectly fine using younger guys, or cheaper veterans in the bottom four, and spending that money elsewhere.

And briefly, I’ll touch upon Henrik Lundqvist. In my opinion, the Rangers did need to keep him. I think that he’s the best goalie in the entire league, and has stolen games for us in the past when players are injured or not playing well. However, $8.5 million is a lot of money. Jonathan Quick, Carey Price and Pekka Rinne all make around $7 million, and I wish Lundqvist settled there as well.

The NHL is a changing league. Offense and speed is the name of the game, and the Rangers are caught lagging behind because of the huge contracts offered out to defenseman, and the inability to resign their own core players.

Posted on July 6, 2015, in In the Crease and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. This was a great read. A 2nd pairing “Stay at Home” D-man making 5.7 mil $$$ is definitely questionable. Thanks for the reality check. Hopefully you get more reads on this column. You make a lot of sense.


    • Thank you very much! Rangers need to pay players the right amount based on their role. Staal is a good defenseman, there’s no doubt, but paying a stay at home second pair d-man $5.7 mil is too much. Same with Klein. He’s a good d-man, but is it really worth paying $3 million for your sixth defenseman?

      Thanks for the support!


  1. Pingback: Dylan McIlrath: What can the Rangers do with you? |

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