The biggest worry for the Rangers? It’s the defense

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This post is part of Rangers Day on PHT…

The biggest worry definitely isn’t goaltending, because there’s still Henrik Lundqvist back there.

It’s not up front either. The Rangers have some good, young forwards, and they’re about to add Pavel Buchnevich to the mix.

That defense, though. That’s where things could get dicey next season, assuming the group they have right now is the one they still have in October. Currently, the eight defensemen are Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Klein, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Nick Holden, Dylan McIlrath, Brady Skjei, and Adam Clendening.

Perhaps the biggest concern will be replacing Keith Yandle. He finished fourth on the Rangers last season with 47 points (42 assists) in 82 games. In the process, he earned himself a big contract with the Panthers.

The Rangers also lost Dan Boyle to retirement, which means the two d-men that played the most power-play minutes for them in 2015-16 are no longer there. Clendening, signed as a free agent, is an offensive specialist, but he’s only 23 and the Rangers are his sixth NHL team.

Let’s just say there’s a reason many still expect GM Jeff Gorton to make a move. He hasn’t ruled one out, either. Kevin Shattenkirk‘s name gets mentioned a lot, but then, his name gets mentioned a lot in Boston and Detroit, too. The Blues might just keep him anyway.

In addition to replacing Yandle, also of great concern is the declining play of both Girardi and Staal, two workhorse defensive specialists with plenty of hard miles on their bodies. Girardi is 32 now, and he’s signed through 2019-20 for a cap hit of $5.5 million. Staal turns 30 in January, and he’s signed through 2020-21 for a cap hit of $5.7 million.

The hope going forward is that Girardi and Staal won’t decline any further (or might even bounce back a little), and that McIlrath, 24, and Skjei, 22, can become full-time NHLers while gaining the trust of head coach Alain Vigneault. Both McIlrath and Skjei are former first-round draft picks who’ve been developing slowly but surely. In fact, Skjei was the last first-round pick the Rangers made, all the way back in 2012.

As for the Rangers’ best defenseman, McDonagh, don’t be surprised if his workload gets increased a touch, especially if there’s no trade for an established puck-mover. McDonagh was a huge part of the 2014 run to the Stanley Cup Final, and he’s especially motivated after this year’s early playoff exit.

“It’s not a good feeling to lose in the first round in five [games] the way we did,” he told NHL.com. “That’s the biggest motivation, kind of that feeling of embarrassment and letting your teammates down, letting your organization down, letting the fans down that appreciate us and watch us all year.”

The question is whether that kind of motivation will be enough to overcome what many feel is largely a personnel issue. Remember that the 2014 team was led by McDonagh, but it also relied heavily on Staal and Girardi, not to mention Anton Stralman, who left for Tampa Bay that summer. If the defense doesn’t improve in 2016-17, or at the very least stay at the same level, the Rangers may very well miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010.