Rangers bolster much-maligned blue line with college free agent

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It’s not hard to see the opportunity for a young defenseman in New York.

That’s why it should come as no real shock that 21-year-old Neal Pionk has decided to sign with the Rangers.

An undrafted college free agent, Pionk just finished up his second season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He had seven goals and 27 assists in 42 games before deciding to turn pro. A number of other NHL teams were hoping to sign him, including the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Rangers’ blue line has been much-maligned for a while now. Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein and Marc Staal are all on the wrong side of 30, with banged-up bodies and games in decline. Brendan Smith is a pending unrestricted free agent who can test the market July 1.

And then there’s Adam Clendening, the right-shot d-man who’s been a healthy scratch in all eight playoff games. He’s a restricted free agent with an uncertain future.

Another defenseman, Nick Holden, wore the goat horns in Saturday’s 6-5 OT loss to Ottawa. Holden made an ill-advised pinch that led to a Senators 2-on-1. Seconds later, Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored his fourth goal of the game and the Rangers went down, 2-0, in the series.

“If you’re going to pinch and go down, you have to have a high F3 there, unless you’re sure you’re going to get the puck,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said, per the New York Times. “They were able to get the chip and get 2-on-1 there. It was obviously not the right decision at that time.”

Last month, the Rangers signed KHL d-man Alexei Bereglazov.

They may also pursue Kevin Shattenkirk in free agency.