Rangers’ Zac Jones feels ready and capable of playing big minutes at NHL level

New York Rangers defenseman Zac Jones (6) reacts after his goal against the New York Islanders during the second period at Madison Square Garden

The Rangers’ opening night roster is set for the most part but there are still a few spots for the taking, including the sixth defenseman role alongside impressive youngster Braden Schneider.

The organization brought in veteran Erik Gustafsson this offseason, a player who is familiar with new head coach Peter Laviolette’s system. However, New York’s younger players such as Zac Jones, are also expected to be in the mix throughout the preseason.

That proved to be true in Sunday's opening matchup with the Boston Bruins, as the 22-year-old blue-liner led all Rangers players with 22:33 of ice-time in the 3-0 loss.

“It was a good stepping stone in the right direction,” Jones told reporters following Monday’s practice. “Obviously you want to play as much as you can when you’re out there and get those big minutes, it helps my confidence moving forward.

"When the time comes and I need to play those minutes I’m definitely capable of doing it.”

Jones was a steady presence alongside Ben Harpur for the first two periods and then Schneider over the final 20 minutes. He also served as the quarterback for New York’s top power play unit which generated some solid chances.

It was certainly an encouraging first outing for Jones as he fights to make the NHL roster and he left his new head coach impressed.

“I thought he did a good job moving the puck,” Laviolette said postgame. “He did a good job on top on the power play. I thought they had some good looks and chances, just weren’t able to capitalize.”

The UMass product earned his spot out of camp last season, but he was never able to get into a groove. Jones split time with Libor Hajek, appearing in just 16 NHL games before being sent down to the AHL two months later.

The lack of playing time and eventual demotion was certainly frustrating for Jones, but it was down in Hartford where Jones was able to take his game to another level both on and off the ice.

“When you first get sent down it’s obviously tough, you have a lot of emotions running through your head,” he said. “Once I got settled in down there I just took a bigger outlook at things. I’m down there playing the game I love and just having fun.

“I took a lot of things I learned up here and tried to apply it as far as being a leader down there trying to help the younger guys. I tried to help them as much as I could and it definitely helped me those three months.”

With his skills improved, a more mature outlook and a new two-year deal Jones feels ready to take his game to the next level. If things don't go his way like last season though, he knows how to better handle things this time around.

“I just have to come out here and play hard and whatever happens happens," he said. "The biggest thing is just being prepared and being a pro. Last year I kind of got in my head a little too much and wasn’t mature with handling some situations.

“The biggest thing is handling rolling with whatever happens. Just have to take it day-by-day and not think about every little situation that happens. Just come out, play my game and have fun.”