Rangers must prioritize kids amid hazy Tony DeAngelo aftermath

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Three of the seven defensemen on the opening roster are down. Check that. Two of them, Brendan Smith and Jack Johnson, are down with injuries. The third, Tony DeAngelo, is out following an accumulation of issues management could no longer bear.

But instead of crippling the Rangers, this has given the team an opportunity to get another look at 22-year-old Libor Hajek on the left side. It has allowed the team to give Anthony Bitetto a uniform, and hey, you never know.

Plus, it has created a scenario under which 22-year-old Tarmo Reunanen, who played well in his North American debut on Sunday in the Wolf Pack’s AHL season-opening victory over Bridgeport, should be next in line.

David Quinn said that Smith, who would miss his second straight Monday night against the Islanders at the Garden, is close to returning. The coach said that Johnson, sidelined for his fifth straight with a groin issue, is making progress.

This is all well and good for the athletes, but unless Hajek and Reunanen are overwhelmed, there is no good reason the veterans should play ahead of the kids. Neither Johnson nor Smith represents the future on Broadway. Hajek and Reunanen might. Management and the coaching staff owe it to themselves and the organization to find out.

There is no movement at all in the Blueshirts’ effort to move DeAngelo. Following a spate of early inquiries and conversations, some of them advanced, interest in the 25-year-old, who a year ago was tied for the NHL’s fourth highest-scoring defenseman, has dried up.

That is less for hockey and hockey-trade reasons than because of apparent ownership/management fear of fan backlash in acquiring No. 77. Thursday, an immediate onslaught of vituperative responses from Flames’ fans followed our tweet confirming Calgary’s interest in DeAngelo. The interest has since evaporated. It may not be an overstatement to suggest that DeAngelo’s career is on the line.

It is unclear where this will go from here. DeAngelo is in virtual taxi-squad land, being paid the full freight of his $4.3 million salary (without a 20-percent escrow deduction) while the Rangers get a $1.075 million break on his $4.8 million cap hit. But he is not skating.

At some point, probably sooner rather than later, he will need to get on skates and the Rangers would be obligated to provide ice for him, whether at the practice rink when the team is not using the facility or maybe at the Hartford practice rink before or after the Wolf Pack skates as a unit.  

(By the way. With $3.725 million of DeAngelo’s cap hit buried, the Rangers are now carrying approximately $20 million in dead space that accounts for buying out Henrik Lundqvist, Kevin Shattenkirk and Dan Girardi, plus retained salary on Ryan Spooner, plus potential entry-level bonus overages. This is remarkable.)

It is not DeAngelo’s situation that opened a spot for the left-handed Hajek, but rather the injuries to Smith and Johnson. Reunanen is a lefty, as well, but the Rangers utilized him on the right side a fair amount during training camp — and often enough as Hajek’s partner.   

Hajek played a workmanlike 9:29 in his 2020-21 debut on Thursday in the Rangers’ 4-2 victory over the Caps in a game contested in tight quarters. Paired with Bitetto, the tandem got a sheltered 6:30 against the Carl Hagelin-Nic Dowd-Garnet Hathaway third line. Hajek was out for only 1:34 against Alex Ovechkin and 0:55 against Tom Wilson. If Hajek did not exactly stand out, that was likely a good thing.

On the road, it might be tougher sledding, but the Rangers will still have another four straight at the Garden following Monday’s match. The team does not face disadvantaged matchups until a match in Philadelphia on Feb. 18.

“It was a tough situation, [Hajek] hadn’t played in an NHL game for a long time, but I like how composed he was,” Quinn said of No. 25’s performance. “It wasn’t a lot of minutes, but I thought he and Bitetto did a good job.”

The pressure is off Hajek to live up to his junior hockey notices as the centerpiece of the return from Tampa Bay in the Ryan McDonagh-J.T. Miller deal. It has, after all, been nearly three years. The sacrificed inventory is long gone.

“We’ve talked about Libor and what we think of him as a player, but he needs to continue to feel the way we do as him as a player,” Quinn said of the Czech native who has burdened himself trying to prove the organization had made the correct move. “I think that’s the kind of gap we have to close. I thought he took a good step forward the other night.”

There is an opportunity here. The Rangers must ensure that Hajek and Reunanen are given the opportunity take advantage of it.

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