Erik Gustafsson, New York Rangers, Zac Jones

Rangers’ Gustafsson & Jones Should Battle for 3rd D-Pairing Spot

For a few years, the New York Rangers have struggled to find a reliable third defense pair. Last season, young blueliner Braden Schneider played well for them on the right side and Niko Mikkola, whom the team acquired at the trade deadline, gave them stability and solid defensive play. However, he left in free agency and the team could have a battle brewing between Zac Jones and Erik Gustafsson for a spot on the left side of their third defense pair.

Zac Jones

The Rangers drafted Jones in the third round of the 2019 NHL Draft. The 5-foot-10 prospect is a quick skater and shifty playmaker. He spent the 2019-20 season playing college hockey for U-Mass Amherst and finished with three goals and 20 assists in 32 games. He played even better in 2020-21 and finished with nine goals and 15 assists in 29 games while helping his team win their first NCAA title.

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Jones made his NHL debut right after winning the championship and had four assists in 10 games for the Rangers in 2020-21. He spent the majority of the 2021-22 season with the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League (AHL) finishing with nine goals and 26 assists in 52 games. He did earn an NHL call-up but struggled defensively, and produced just two points in 12 games.

Zac Jones, New York Rangers
Zac Jones mad his debut for the New York Rangers during the 2020-21 season (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Last season, Jones got an opportunity with the Rangers early in the season, but though he played a little better defensively, he still did not play to his potential. He did score his first NHL goal but had just two points in 16 games, and once again spent most of the season in the AHL. Rather than sulking about the demotion as some of the team’s top prospects have done in recent years, he played very well for the Wolf Pack, finishing with eight goals and 23 assists in 54 games. He also had two goals and four assists in nine playoff games.

Related: Rangers Must Decide Which Defense Prospects Are Part of Future

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Jones is still just 22 years old and he certainly has offensive upside. If he can hold his own defensively there’s a good chance he will earn a spot on the third defense pair. He could also give the Rangers a boost on their second power-play unit. The second unit struggled with Jacob Trouba at the point last season and Jones’ playmaking ability could help create more scoring opportunities for young forwards like Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko, and Alexis Lafreniere.

Erik Gustafsson

The Rangers signed Gustafsson to a one-year $825,000 deal this offseason. The 31-year-old is coming off one of his best seasons as he finished with seven goals and 35 assists in 70 games with the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs. He had 21 points on the power play and is another candidate to lead the Rangers’ second unit.

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Erik Gustafsson had a strong 2022-23 season (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Gustafsson had a breakout season in 2018-19, finishing with 17 goals and 43 assists in 79 games for the Chicago Blackhawks. However, his high-risk style of play led to less playing time for him over the next few seasons, and he did not produce nearly as much offensively. However, he did get some playoff experience and played 16 postseason games for the Montreal Canadians during their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2021. He finished that postseason with one goal and two assists while averaging 10 minutes of ice time per game.

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Though Gustafsson is not great defensively, he can certainly make a difference offensively. He is a very good playmaker with a good shot as well. He takes a lot of risks but if he produces the way he did last season, his contract would be a bargain for the Rangers.

For the Rangers Moving Forward

Since the Rangers lost Mikkola this offseason, they have an opening on the left side of their third defense pair. Defensive-minded veteran Ben Harpur is another option for the team, though he has far less upside than either Jones or Gustafsson.

Both Jones and Gustafsson have the potential to produce big numbers offensively on the third defense pair. Perhaps competition will bring out the best in them as they both look to earn a spot in the opening night lineup for the Rangers.

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