Michal Rozsival has been a relatively under appreciated player by the fans. Rozsival plays 20 minutes per game, and while he does not excel in any particular facet of the game, he is a good overall defender that has become an essential piece on the Rangers blue line. Rozsival went down with a sprained shoulder two weeks ago, and the Rangers did not call up any replacements from Hartford. Instead, the Rangers went from platooning Michael Sauer and Matt Gilroy to pairing them as the bottom defensive pairing, while Steve Eminger, who has been excellent, was bumped to the second pairing.
In Rozsival’s absence, both Sauer and Gilroy have stepped up to fill the void left. The Rangers have played seven games since the Rozsival injury, and in those games, Sauer has put up a line of 0-2-2 and a +5 while averaging 15 minutes of ice time per game. Meanwhile, Gilroy has put up a line of 0-3-3 and a +6 while averaging the same 15 minutes of ice time per game. Both players have grown comfortable with their role on the team, and they are both gaining tons of confidence with the increased playing time. But with Rozsival on the road back, and probably playing by this weekend, the Rangers coaching staff has a very difficult question: Who sits when Rozsival comes back to the lineup?
The increased confidence is very evident in Matt Gilroy, who struggled early in the season. Confident defensemen are comfortable with the puck, see the ice, and make smart decisions because the game slows down for them. Prior to the Rozsival injury, Gilroy did not have that comfort level. He gave the puck away, was caught out of position, and was generally just bad on defense. The Rozsival injury sparked no life into Gilroy, who finally looks like the player the Rangers thought they were getting when they signed him out of Boston University. Gilroy may a big physical presence, but he has been much better defensively and positionally.
Meanwhile, Michael Sauer has been a brand new player. Sauer, like Gilroy, was out of position a lot, was not comfortable in his skates, seemed to be pressing too much, and took some bad penalties. After Rozsival was injured, he has only taken two minor penalties, and one was negated after he drew a roughing call on Calgary last night. Sauer’s physical presence is being felt by Rangers opponents, as Sauer has been a crease clearing presence that the Rangers so desperately need.
Both players have the positives and negatives. Sauer is the physical presence, but Gilroy can provide more of an offensive spark. The Rangers will most likely stick with seven defenseman to provide roster flexibility and competition, so one will become a healthy scratch soon. Steve Eminger has played his way into the fifth defenseman spot, and likely won’t be a scratch anytime soon. With two games left before a healthy scratch decision must be made, both players are auditioning for a spot as that sixth and final defenseman; at least until there is another injury or someone’s game disappears.