Feb 15, 2022; New York, New York, USA; Boston Bruins center Curtis Lazar (20) and New York Rangers defenseman Zac Jones (6) battle for the puck behind the net during the second period at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports
Zac Jones has been patiently biding his time to be a regular for the New York Rangers defense.
Jones, 21, is in the final year of his entry-level deal that comes with a low cap hit of $925,000. He’s shown he has the ability to play in the NHL using his high hockey IQ to compensate for his size at 5-11, 185lbs.
“We know what Jonesy is,” Gerard Gallant said. “He moves the puck–he skates. He’s not a big guy but he defends pretty hard.”
With the team dealing with limited cap space and needing to trade or buyout Patrik Nemeth, who has two-years remaining at $2.5M, he’s a perfect low cost option. And if not now then the Rangers should be looking to trade him this offseason, which would be a massive mistake.
Zac Jones has earned an opportunity
Jones was drafted by the Rangers in the third round (68th overall) of the 2019 NHL Draft. He debuted at the tail end of 2020-21 season and picked up 4 assists in 10 games.
“I was a little star-struck last year,” Jones said upon being called up this season. “Now it’s a business and I’m here to play hockey and help the team in anyway I can.”
In his first full season as a pro with the Hartford Wolf Pack, he was their leading scoring defenseman with 35 points in 52 games. This past season, he played in 12 games with the big club and tallied two assists receiving praise from both his head coaches.
“Jones can create offensive with his passing and his mobility on the blue-line beating a guy one on one,” said Wolf Pack coach Kris Knoblauch.
“I like the way he skates and he’s heady up there,” Gallant said. “He moves the puck real well. We like what he brings and I like the way he carries himself on the ice.”
A Jones and Schneider pairing
The Rangers called up Braden Schneider in January wanting a to get a brief look at their 2020 first round pick. Instead, they received a whole lot more. Known for being a physical defenseman that can make a good breakout pass, he scored a goal in his first game. Playing like a seasoned veteran made it very difficult to take him out of the lineup from that point on.
He’s been great all year,” Ryan Strome said. “For such a young kid, he’s so professional. You never have to worry about him. He’s mature beyond his years on and off the ice.”
After playing every game of this past playoff run and picking up three assists, Schneider is locked in as the third pair right-defenseman for next year. He should also get more opportunities to kill penalties but who will his partner be?
Chris Drury could make an attempt to re-sign Justin Braun but it’s unlikely he’ll expect a one-year deal for $1M. The 35 year-old defenseman made $1.8M AAV last year.
That’s why a Jones-Schneider pairing is the route the Rangers must take to start next season. They need to see what they have in the kid before even consider trading him.
The Rangers have veteran defenseman Jarred Tinordi signed for one more season at $900,000. He could easily be slotted as the 7th defender giving the team time to assess Jones once and for-all.
“I believe 100% I’m a better player than I was at the end of training camp,” Jones said. “I’m going to keep getting better.”