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Coaches Room

Rangers, Canadiens miss longtime mainstays on defense

Mullen says struggles of New York, Montreal tied to departed veteran presence in own zone

by Joe Mullen / Special to

The Coaches Room is a weekly column by one of four former NHL coaches and assistants who will turn their critical gaze to the game and explain it through the lens of a teacher. Jim Corsi, David Marcoux, Paul MacLean and Joe Mullen will take turns providing insight.

In this edition, Mullen, a former assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers and 2000 player inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame, talks about the early season struggles of the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens.

The New York Rangers (2-6-2) and the Montreal Canadiens (2-6-1) have gotten off to slow starts this season and have something in common. In the offseason, each lost or moved some veteran defensemen who had big influences on their teams.

Dan Girardi of the Rangers and Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin of the Canadiens played big minutes and had steady, calming influences on the younger defensemen on their teams.

Markov left to play in the Kontinental Hockey League after not being re-signed by the Canadiens. He is a guy, who before Shea Weber got there, was the veteran influence back there, and to lose a guy like that and then Emelin on top of it, you're changing quite a bit. Emelin, who was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft and then traded to the Nashville Predators, was a physical presence in front of the net, and he and Markov are two players the Canadiens seem to miss right now.

That plays into the Canadiens' struggles a little bit, because it seems a lot of the goals against I've been watching are goals right in front of the crease where people aren't clearing guys out or the rebounds are just sitting there, and they're not picking the players up right now.

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The Rangers decided to buy out the final three seasons on Girardi's contract, making him an unrestricted free agent. He signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning and with him gone, the Rangers lost their most physical presence in front of the net and a big part of their leadership group.

The Rangers retooled their defense by signing Kevin Shattenkirk as an unrestricted free agent, re-signing Brendan Smith, whom they acquired from the Detroit Red Wings before the NHL Trade Deadline last season, and acquiring Tony DeAngelo in the trade that sent center Derek Stepan and backup goaltender Antti Raanta to the Arizona Coyotes on June 23.

The Canadiens and the Rangers have solid goaltending, but without those veteran defensemen in front of them, have struggled defensively. It's always easy to blame the goaltenders, but in these two cases you have two great goalies in Carey Price with the Canadiens and Henrik Lundqvist with the Rangers, who have been top players at their position for many years.

They have been the backbones of their teams and will continue to be for many more seasons. It's up to their teammates to help pick up the slack and start playing better defensively in front of the net. I expect each team will get back on track this season and make a big push for the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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Each team is well-coached, has a great core of players, and as I said earlier, has one of the greatest goalies of all time.

The Pittsburgh Penguins also went through a bunch of changes in the offseason, especially on defense with Trevor Daley (Detroit Red Wings) and Ron Hainsey (Toronto Maple Leafs) leaving as unrestricted free agents. But they have a great core of players on defense and at forward who can calm things down, pull the team together and help get them through.

They also have a great goaltender in Matt Murray.

The Penguins had a couple of tough games against the Chicago Blackhawks (10-1 loss Oct. 5) and the Lightning (7-1 loss Saturday), but that happens. When you're a team that's winning all the time, playing into June all the time, and winning the Stanley Cup, you can have games like that early in the season.

They're a very competent team that knows how to win and usually bounce back strong after a bad performance. With their core of players and their goaltender, two games early in the season won't mean anything in the long run. They'll get through this and I expect them to be contenders for the Stanley Cup again.

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