When the Rangers opened up training camp last week, the expectation was that there were only a handful of spots that would need to be decided on by the coaching staff and front office.
One of the more important starting spots is the question of who will start opposite of Braden Schneider for the Ranger’s third defensive pairing.
The Rangers have a bevy of young defensive players who are more than up to the role, but the two leading names that have practiced, and played predominately with Schneider have been Zac Jones and Libor Hajek.
Hajek played in 17 games last season and is a former second-round pick from Tampa. Jones, on the other hand, is a former third-round pick and has played in 22 games for the Rangers in the last two seasons.
Both players are under 25 years old, and both players are seen as the main competition to see who will end up pairing with Schneider on opening night in under two weeks. When you ask the player whose spot is secure on the Rangers roster, he’s not overly worried about who his partner will be.
“I know them both. I played with (Zac) Jonesy a little bit in Hartford and we do have some chemistry. Libor and I, I thought we got better each game and camp.” Schneider told AMNY. “I think both groups have great chemistry and it’s just time will tell.”
While Schneider has spoken positively about both Hajek and Jones, the eye test from fans and analysts alike see a position battle that is being won by Zac Jones. Jones scored a goal in the team’s 4-1 preseason win over the Islanders on Monday, while Hajek was quieter except for a turnover in the defensive zone.
The eye test may be telling one story, but head coach Gerard Gallant has been very consistent and both have looked solid. The Rangers head coach also isn’t worried about starting two young players together which would be the case with whoever is paired with Schneider.
“I got no issue with that. Schneider’s a good young player. He’s taken a big step coming into camp. Just go play your game, it’s not different than what we tell the forwards.” Gallant said.
Gallant and Schneider both can tout the experience that has come from playing with both, but the chemistry between Jones and the first-round pick has been apparent throughout camp. In Jones’ goal on Monday, Schneider was credited with the assist and got the offensive play moving.
That chemistry between the two has been undeniable on the ice whether it’s been for the Rangers or their AHL affiliate.
“He and I played together a decent amount in Hartford and then when I came up a few times, and I thought we played great. We had a lot of chemistry and I thought we moved well out there together.” Jones said after Monday’s preseason game.
Regardless of a solid performance during the first preseason game of the season, Jones and Hajek both know that they can only take care of their performance.
“I just have to go out there and play my game and not worry about what I can’t control.” Jones added, “I think just being a smart puck-moving defenseman, flash my offense every once in a while and be reliable on the back end.”
Braden Schneider’s solid first season with the team has secured his spot on the roster. For Jones and Hajek, they still have a week and a half to make a strong enough impression on the coaching staff to show they belong on the opening day roster.