In reflecting on the three games the Rangers were without top defenseman Adam Fox before the All-Star break, coach Gerard Gallant specifically mentioned rookie Zac Jones while commending the defense’s overall performance.
After sending Jones down to AHL Hartford for extra playing time during the lull in NHL games, the Rangers recalled Jones from the Wolf Pack on Sunday. The 21-year-old defenseman was on the ice for practice, primarily skating with Libor Hajek as the fourth pair.
“I’ve seen what I’ve been told about him,” Gallant said of Jones, who has one assist and four shots on net in six NHL games this season. “What we like about him, he can skate, he moves the puck real well. He’s a talented guy. He can play power play if you need him. I think he played really well. He came in and he was confident and he’s a lot like the [Braden] Schneider kid that came in and they’re confident.
“They’ve done a good job in the American League, playing well and getting pro game experience. I’ve got nothing but good things to say from what I’ve seen from him.”
Gallant has held off on confirming whether Patrik Nemeth, who missed the last five games before the break for what the team said were “personal reasons,” will be available Tuesday against the Bruins. Jones would likely be the one to draw into the lineup should that be the case.
However, Nemeth has been a full participant in the last three days of practice. The veteran blueliner has skated on the third pair with Schneider since the Rangers returned to practice, indicating he’ll probably be able to play Tuesday.
“We’ll see where it goes,” Gallant said. “We’re not 100 percent sure on the lineup yet, for sure. [Jones] played really well before the break.”
Regardless of Nemeth’s status, Jones presents another option for the Rangers’ bottom pair that should be entertained. Even though Schneider has logged the most minutes next to Nemeth since making his NHL debut on Jan. 13, Jones brings an offensive upside that could complement Schneider’s physical flair.
Asked if forging an all-rookie defensive duo was something he’d consider, Gallant said yes without hesitation.
“I got no issue with that,” he said. “They’re both kids, they’re both rookies, but the way they’re playing, I got no problem with that.”
Still, the Rangers seem comfortable with having the 30-year-old Nemeth to round out the defense.
“We always do like the veteran presence, obviously,” Gallant said. “It makes a big difference. But again, when the kids are playing good and if Nemeth is not ready to go and Jonesy happens to be there — or Libor [Hajek] — no problem.”