In front of every great goaltender, there is bound to be a solid, if not great, defenseman or two. But, at the same time, for every stellar blueliner, even for the great ones, they have some abysmal d-men in front of them. Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers are no different than some of the other greats, both all-time and current NHL options. So what does that all mean? It means that even the greatest goalies need, and get, a little help from the supporting cast. None of them can truly do it themselves, even when they do, at least at times, seem to stand on their heads and win games all by themselves. And, for every amazing, all-world defender that skates in front of their nets, there are going to be options that the team puts out on the ice, night in and night out, who are just terrible. Sometimes it’s barely average, and sometimes you’d be better off pushing a rusty shopping cart out. So, sometimes King Henrik comes off as one of the best in his line of work because he’s great. Sometimes he comes off that way because he’s had a helping hand. And sometimes he arrives at that point in his professional career in spite of the “help”.
So, part of what we intend to do here is to shine a light on those outstanding blue line resources who have called Madison Square Garden home and who’ve served Lundqvist and the Rangers extremely well. And the other part? Well, for everything and every player who is a positive, there always seems to be a negative, right? So, while we are all about giving credit to the good ones, even the bad ones will get some attention. So we are going to point out the 8 greatest defensemen to wear a blue sweater for King Henrik’s tenure, as well as the 8 worst Rangers defensemen in that same timeframe.
16 WORST: Wade Redden
Here’s a guy who actually wasn’t a bad defenseman over the course of his career. The problem was, he was a bad defenseman during that chunk of his career where he was pulling in a paycheck from the New York Rangers. How bad? Well, Redden signed a hefty free agent contract with the Rangers in the Summer of 2008, to the tune of $39 million. By the Fall of 2010, Redden had earned the dubious “honor” of becoming the highest-salaried player in American Hockey League history, as the Rangers had demoted him in response to his sharp decline in the quality of play. Now, every player has his pride, but as brutal as it would be to go from playing at a high level and in the NHL, to playing at a sub-par level in the farm leagues, let’s be honest. He had thirty nine million reasons to be entirely at peace with things.
15 BEST: Dan Boyle
I honestly debated including Boyle here. Why did I debate it? Well, as good as he was over his lengthy career, most of his time in the National Hockey League was not with the Rangers. But, this list is not for “who played in front of Henrik longest”, but who were some of the best that did so. And Boyle, while he bounced around a fair bit, stuck around as long as he did because he was a gritty, reliable defender who was always good to chip in a modest bit of offense as well. He logged two seasons with the Rangers, before he retired in the Fall of 2016. During his two years in Manhattan, he tallied 44 points in the regular season, and another 11 in the playoffs. 10 of those playoff points came during the 2015 run, which is an impressive amount for any player in the postseason.
14 WORST: Jeff Woywitka
Now, starting with Mr. Woywitka, you will surely detect one or two themes here for those defensemen who land on the bad list. What will those themes be? First, draft prospects, frequently taken in the higher rounds, who never really make it in the National Hockey League. Second? Guys who, for whatever reason, make it to the big club, but never stick. Low numbers of games played means that, for one reason or another, they were not worth keeping around. So, what is Woywitka’s story? He was a high draft pick, late in the first round in 2001. But he had serious struggles and didn’t really break into the big leagues until four years (and three teams) after he was drafted. So, the talent should have been there, but it just didn’t pan out. The Rangers took a flyer on him when they claimed him off of the waiver wire for the 2011-12 season, but he managed only twenty seven games with the Broadway Blueshirts, tallying a measely six points. He was not with the Rangers for the 2012-13 campaign.
13 BEST: Michal Rozsival
Here’s a good one for you. He spent time with several teams, but let’s be honest - unless you are a once-a-generation franchise player (think guys like Lemieux), odds are you will play for more than one team. Legends like Gretzky and Bourque did, so, most will. Rozsival did too (though he is not in the same class as Bourque). That being said, he enjoyed a 6 year run with the New York Rangers, and it was a very productive one. In all but one season, he scored at least thirty points, to go along with steady defensive play. For his 2005-06 season, he was the co-leader in the NHL for plus/minus, which is kind of a big deal. It’s absolutely a solid indicator that you have a really good defenseman on your hands. He is currently on the Blackhawks roster, where he’s been a part of two Stanley Cup winning teams.
12 WORST: Fedor Tyutin
Having Tyutin on this list might seem a touch unfair, but he was snagged early in the second round of the 2001 draft by New York-just a few spots after Woywitka. Now, in my mind, when you take someone high in a draft, you generally like to think that they should pan out somewhere around what they are projected to do, and that they will be a franchise mainstay for the better part of a decade. With Tyutin, they got neither. It wasn’t until the 2003-2004 season that he tasted some of the NHL game, and he wouldn’t become a regular in the lineup until the 05-06 season. While he did manage to play in the majority of the games for three seasons in New York, his performance didn’t really line up with what the Rangers had hoped for out of a guy who was drafted 40th overall. For his Rangers career, he finished with a +/- rating of -6, which is not a number a defenseman wants to have. The Rangers sent him packing during the summer of 2008, exchanging him for another disappointing player from Columbus.
11 BEST: Kevin Klein
Here’s another guy on the list that may not be stellar, but he’s consistent and he’s steady. While that sounds boring as all can be, there’s one thing a goaltender loves-a steady, reliable defense in front of him. The Rangers acquired him for another defenseman on the wrong side of this list (Michael Del Zotto). While MDZ showed flashes of impressive play, he lacked the consistency. To counter that, Klein has been impressively consistent. For his last two full seasons in New York, he has logged back-to-back seasons with 26 points. He’s absolutely been a positive addition, and one of the steadier players skating in front of Lundqvist. Every team craves those elusive top pairing guys, but you still need the unsung heroes there too.
10 WORST: Karel Rachunek
Here’s one that actually kind of sucked to put on the list, but on a list covering the worst defense the Rangers put in front of their King, journeymen defensemen are going to be on this list in significant numbers. Generally speaking, journeymen are, at best, mediocre-there’s a reason they can’t stick anywhere, and considering how hard it is to find strong defenders? Enough said. Rachunek spent a season and change with the Rangers, though not consecutively. He bounced around numerous professional teams, but never really had eye-popping measurables. That lack of good statistics is, of course, what contributed to his journeyman status. I mean, he scored 30 points, which is nice. But in those two seasons (78 games total), he was also a collective -18. That’s not what you want from your blue line. Now, I say it sucked putting him on the list, because he was the captain of the Lokomotiv team that perished in a plane crash in 2014.
9 BEST: Anton Stralman
Anton Stralman is another one of those guys who has that “it” factor working for him. He’s good enough that he’s carved out quite a career in the National Hockey League, but he is also in that class of players that gets to change his scenery a few times a career. He always reminded me of that player on a team that brought some of those intangibles to the table-that spark, that heart, that fire that doesn’t usually transfer over to the stat sheet, but when you talk to guys in the locker room, they love playing for Stralman. He’s been pretty good too, and pretty lucky. During his time with the Rangers, he was on the team that made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. He did it again shortly after leaving New York, with the Tampa Bay Lightning as well.
8 WORST: Bryan McCabe
Here you have it. A true journeyman. McCabe, who’s last professional gig was with the New York Rangers in the 2010-11 season, had played for five other National Hockey League clubs before he landed in Manhattan. On the one hand, it says his skils were good enough that he stuck in the league long enough to get work for a total of six separate teams. But it also says his work was otherwise unremarkable, that no team felt him worth hanging on to for any great length of time. As for his Rangers tenure? He was a trade deadline pickup in 2011, played in 19 games and did not do much for the Broadway Blueshirts. After that brief run, he would end up calling it a career. I am betting that anyone who remembers that trade, had hoped they’d end up with a season like the three he strung together when he broke into the league with the other New York City area team, the Islanders.
7 BEST: Keith Yandle
If you’ve followed hockey, and watched trade deadline news and rumors, this is a name you know exceedingly well. Yandle started his career for the Phoenix Coyotes, a team that more often than not ended up selling off players. Many teams coveted him, not only for his steadying influence along the blue line, but also for his substantial offensive contributions. When the Coyotes finally traded him, it was the New York Rangers who came out as the destination of choice. Now, for as much as teams wanted him, he didn’t stick around long with the Rangers, making it just over 100 games before he headed into free agency and decided to call Florida home. But, in those 100 games, he did chip in 58 points, which is a pretty good number for a back line player.
6 WORST: Aaron Ward
Now, consider a few items, if you will. Ward was the #5 overall pick in the 1991 National Hockey League entry draft. That alone tells you that, at the time, he was highly regarded. Before he landed in New York, he had already won two Stanley Cups (with Detroit), and by the time his career was over, he’d claim a third (with the Boston Bruins). So, why does he find himself here? Because he was brought into Manhattan as a free agent in 2006, and not even a year later, the team flipped him to rival Boston. His brief stint in New York saw him score only 13 points. Also, for such a high draft pick, forgetting for a moment his three Cup rings, he bounced around a lot, playing for five teams (the Hurricanes twice), and never actually playing for the team that drafted him.
5 BEST: Dan Girardi
How’s this for justifying his high rank: he played his entire career with the New York Rangers, and it’s been a pretty good one, and he did it all by not even being drafted. That’s right folks, Dan Girardi was an undrafted free agent signing by the Rangers-no one in the NHL even thought, with their plethora of picks, that he’d amount to a hill of beans. So, all he’s done is to carve out a nearly two decade long pro career, ten years of which were in the National Hockey League. He scored at an acceptable clip, usually around 20 points a year. But more importantly, he was that gritty, steadying defender. If you needed a blocked shot, Girardi had no issues laying down and doing the dirty work-something he led the league in, too. He was exactly the kind of player a goalie loves to have on his team.
4 WORST: Sandis Ozolinsh
Here’s another guy who was drafted high in the first round, and came into the National Hockey League saddled with a mountain of expectations that were, in hindsight, unreasonable and unattainable. In Ozolinsh’s case, he actually didn’t do a bad job of coming close to the hype, as he was a really good offensive defenseman in his early years. The issue, and what lands him on this list, is that by the time the Rangers acquired Ozolinsh, he was bringing with him a skillset that was diminishing with age. There’s no shame in that, of course. It happens to us all. But the issue was, people heard the name, they saw the name, they expected the level of production he provided during his stops in places like San Jose and Colorado. Now, in his first chunk of time with the team, following a trade deadline deal that brought him to the Big Apple, he didn’t do all that bad. But by the following season, he had worn out his welcome with the club, and was placed on waivers in order to be sent down to the Rangers minor league affiliate. He went unclaimed, and that was basically the end of his NHL career.
3 BEST: Marc Staal
Here’s where the entries get better and better. Staal is an exceptional asset for the Rangers and King Henrik on the back end, and honestly pretty much every other spot on the rink. Why? Because he’s an extremely disciplined and well-rounded player. He’s a very good skater, he has excellent vision on the ice, and he does just about everything fairly well. He has no issues getting down and blocking a slapper, and he’s similarly perfectly happy unleashing his own blistering shot. He’s as comfortable killing off a penalty as he is working point on the power play unit. If you are looking for a top pairing guy, and you were able to select Staal, you would have one half of a very good tandem. Which leads me to #1.
2 WORST: Michael Del Zotto
Now, I know what you might be thinking if you follow hockey at all - Del Zotto isn’t a bad blue line option. And, on it’s face, it would be hard to argue that fact. So why is he first on the list? Because, considering where he was drafted, and how things started out for him, I think it’s a reasonable statement to make that Rangers fans and team management had really high expectations for him. And, considering that they traded him away for a defenseman six years older than him, who isn’t really anything remarkable? It’s very telling. If Del Zotto had managed to repeat his strong rookie campaign, the Rangers would have either kept him, or gotten a far bigger return for him in trade. Maybe calling him the worst d-man in front of Lundqvist is somewhat unfair, but he’s arguably the most disappointing.
1 BEST: Ryan McDonagh
Quite simply, he is the man on this New York Rangers team. He became their captain the season after the Blueshirts traded away Ryan Callahan, a role he still serves now. He’s been Mr. Hockey Minnesota, the Rangers team-selected Most Valuable Player, and a multi-time All-Star. He’s one of the best defensemen in the National Hockey League, and he is without a doubt the best blueliner that Lundqvist has had the luxury of playing behind during his tenure. I mean, what’s not to like about McDonagh? He’s sound, he’s reliable and he is clutch. He’s effective on both ends of the ice, and he rarely makes killer mistakes. He’s the kind of player most teams in the league would absolutely love to have on their roster, and the kind of player the Rangers won’t soon be parting with.