Ryan Lindgren’s emergence gives Rangers tantalizing pairing

Part 12 of a series analyzing the New York Rangers.

Ryan Lindgren should have made the Rangers out of training camp this year. Management might even have believed it at the time, before sending Lindgren, then 21 years old, to Hartford among the final cuts while instead keeping Libor Hajek, then also 21.

Lindgren and Hajek joined the organization within one day of each other. On Feb. 25, 2018, the Blueshirts acquired Lindgren from Boston, which had drafted him 49th overall in 2016, as part of the package in return for Rick Nash. The following day, Hajek, who had been selected by Tampa Bay 37th overall in that same draft, was acquired from the Lightning as part of the package for Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller.

The Rangers viewed Hajek as a slam-dunk, no-questions-asked, top-four left defenseman. They viewed Lindgren as a project with exceptional leadership skills, though with mobility issues, who might become a six or seven guy.

Two years later, Hajek is more the project and Lindgren, well, he emerged from his freshman season as the Rangers’ top left defenseman and one-half of the irrepressible and inseparable rookie tandem featuring Adam Fox that emerged as the team’s matchup pair.

You tell me the last rookie pair in the NHL to have this kind of chemistry and success. You tell me the last Rangers defenseman who played with the pugnacious, won’t-back-down approach of Lindgren, who has added skill, elan, and increased mobility to his game, but whose larger value exists within the attitude and the chip on his shoulder he carries onto the ice on every shift.

If an opponent wants a piece of a Ranger, chances are at one point he is going to wind up having to go through Lindgren, all alleged 6-feet and 200 pounds of him. If a foe is vulnerable, dangling or with his head down while carrying the puck, chances are Lindgren will go through him.

You don’t want to become overly intoxicated with the Lindgren-Fox pair. Second years — and beyond — can be more daunting than rookie seasons. The Rangers and Brady Skjei have unfortunate shared recent experience with that. Opponents will adjust to the two 22-year-olds, who form a matched set on and off the ice. They will know what to expect.

So the responsibility will fall on Lindgren and Fox to adapt and add more to their games, the way Lindgren has added an offensive component to his game since leaving Minnesota following his sophomore season in college to turn pro after the Rangers acquired him during the post-Letter purge.

Of course, there is every reason to be confident the pair will adapt and adjust. There is every reason to believe this is only the start for the Lindgren-Fox pair that should form the blue-line bedrock for years. It does not take a leap of faith to arrive at that conclusion.

Lindgren was recalled from the AHL Wolf Pack on Oct. 28 and played the following night in Game 10. He was paired with Fox, his partner through multiple Team USA tournaments and events. Of course he was. Indeed, the Twins — hey, if Schwarzenegger and DeVito could be twins, why not Lindgren and Fox? — were together for all but (parts of) three games later in the season when David Quinn did some experimenting and shifted Lindgren onto Jacob Trouba’s left while Fox skated on Skjei’s right side. It didn’t take.

Lindgren played 836:19 at five-on-five (per Naturalstattrick.com). Fox was on the ice with him for 676:34, or 80.9 percent of the time. The pair was on for 34 Rangers goals and 25 against while facing a succession of top-six opponents. Lindgren himself was on for 46 goals scored and 31 allowed.

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We can agree on Lindgren and Fox as a duo for the future. But where would it have fit onto the Rangers teams of the salary-cap era? Would the Rookie Pair have earned a spot on the team’s best editions of the past 15 seasons?

In 2005-06, the Blueshirts’ pairs were Marek Malik and Michael Rozsival; Darius Kasparaitis and Fedor Tyutin; and Jason Strudwick and Tom Poti.

In 2011-12, the Blueshirts went with Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi as the first pair, Marc Staal and Anton Stralman as the second pair and Michael Del Zotto and Stu Bickel as the third tandem.

In 2013-14, it was McDonagh-Girardi, Staal-Stralman and John Moore with Kevin Klein.

A year after that, it was McDonagh-Girardi, Staal-Klein and Keith Yandle with Dan Boyle.

So, first, and there will be no grades based on the answer, which set of six do you have? No substitutions allowed.

Second, would the 2019-20 Lindgren-Fox tandem bump any of the aforementioned pairs? Well, Jason Strudwick and Tom Poti would be scratched out of 2005-06, Michael Del Zotto and Stu Bickel would be scratched out of 2011-12 and John Moore and Kevin Klein (even as important as was No. 8) would be scratched out of 2013-14. And, given their comparative season performances, and not their career résumés, Lindgren and Fox would have bumped Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle into street clothes in 2014-15.

And maybe, just maybe, the Rangers might have won a Cup.

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