Before we get to the report card for the Rangers blueline, let’s remember this: the Rangers enjoyed a spectacular season bested by only two teams in the entire league. A huge part of this success was because of the Rangers blueline. With that said, let’s look at the grades for the Rangers defensemen.
For a significant part of the season Dan Girardi played like a Norris Trophy candidate. He was that good. Girardi enjoyed his finest season for the Rangers. With 29 points, a plus 13 rating, being an absolute work horse like few other in the entire league not to mention all the shot blocking, Dan Girardi literally does it all for the Rangers.
Aside from a very occasional stumble in the latter half of the season the only things that perhaps stop Girardi from being the perfect all round defenseman are his shooting percentage and lack of presence on the power play (1 goal). I really had to nitpick when trying to criticise Dan Girardi for this post. He is a richly deserved 2012 NHL All Star. Mid-season: A+/Full Season: A+/Playoffs: A+
You’d think a Rangers related blog would champion the last line of defense more than most. However the last line of defense – the goaltender – isn’t everything. Despite being a Hart and Vezina finalist, despite being the best goaltender on the planet this season, Henrik Lundqvist still needs a quality blueline in front of him to succeed, as does any successful goalie for that matter. It is this consideration however, why the Rangers should feel confident they can handle the surprisingly strong Devils in the conference finals.
Why you ask? Look at the Capitals. They had a former Norris candidate, blueline scoring machine in Mike Green start to rediscover his form in the Rangers series. They had two future studs in Karl Alzner and John Carlson and a quality top four defenseman in Dennis Wideman. They had a deep defense, one of the few that on paper can match the Rangers unit. Then, behind that defense they had a solid netminder. While the Rangers never tested Braden Holtby enough, part of the reason they got so little rubber on net was what was because of what was in front of him.
Of course Braden Holtby is not Marty Brodeur. The Devil is a legend at his position who is enjoying an Indian summer. That said Marek Zidlicky, Andy Greene, Peter Harrold, Bryce Salvador and Mark Fayne hardly comprise an intimidating defense. Would Holtby have had the same level of success without the quality that was in front of him? With all due respect, probably not.
Undoubtedly one of the unexpected surprises for the Rangers in this post season has been Anton Stralman. Stralman had a solid regular season for the Rangers, especially given that he arrived after the pre-season. That said no one could have foreseen Stralman playing as well as he has in the playoffs thus far. It has been a massive bonus for the Rangers.
While we have discussed the likelihood of Stralman’s next contract being elsewhere before (due to probable contract demands), perhaps a point we haven’t touched upon enough is whether the Rangers should seek to retain Stralman after this season.
Stralman has ensured the poor play of Stu Bickel hasn’t been too costly this off season. He has provided offense and has been solid in his own end. It goes without saying that Stralman is an NHL player next season. With Dylan McIlrath and Tim Erixon progressing to the point they may be viable candidates next year (Erixon especially so) there may not be a point in bringing back Stralman. However, the Rangers possess one of the best defence’s in the league and Stralman is part of that deep group.
News this morning broke that Chris Neil would not have a hearing –thus no suspension– for his hit on Brian Boyle that knocked the Rangers most dominant skater in this series* out of the game (and likely season) with a concussion. The hit (video below) had Boyle looking down at the puck while skating over the middle, and Neil specifically seeking him out ad delivering the hit.
*-It’s sad when Boyle is the most dominant skater in the series for the Rangers.
While this season the Rangers top defensemen have undoubtedly been the Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh tandem, perhaps one of the most key aspects of a successful first round series against the Ottawa Senators may be the play (and subsequent impact) of Marc Staal.
Without doubt Staal is and has been a number one defenseman but as everyone knows, injury has meant his play has taken a while to get close to his own high standards. Indeed, he’s still not the Marc Staal of old however his play has been steadily improving of late and how Staal handles the quick and tricky Senators offense could have a huge bearing on the series.
Every Ranger fan know of the team’s 1-2-1 record in the four games against the Sens this year and will be acutely aware of how the team has struggled to score against them. Amid the 14 goals credited to the Sens in the season series it perhaps went unnoticed that Girardi was a -3 in those four games while Ryan McDonagh was -1.
Both players were also held scoreless despite providing the Rangers with solid offensive seasons with 29 and 32 points respectively. Clearly neither player has produced their best performances against the Sens and therefore how guys like Mike Del Zotto, but especially Marc Staal, cope in the series will be essential. The Rangers don’t want the top pairing munching 30+ minutes a night if they have realistic designs of a deep run.
With the recent signing/extension of Nicklas Grossman the Philadelphia Flyers achieved three things. First of all they overpaid for a good but not elite defensive defenseman, secondly they gave themselves potential cap headaches this summer with the likes of Matt Carle, Jaromir Jagr and Jakub Voracek to re-sign (headaches could disappear depending on the Pronger situation) and finally they made Glen Sather once again look like an astute general manager.
Dan Girardi has played an All Star calibre season, has been an absolute rock on the blue line and is once again close to a 30 point season proving he is effective at both ends of the ice. With that all considered, comparing his deal to Grossman’s new deal of $3.5m, Sather managed to produce a bargain with the Girardi deal.
Girardi’s deal comes in at $3.25m for another couple of seasons and his deal in addition to Marc Staal’s (a very reasonable cap hit of $3.9m when health and form allow) are blue line reasons why Sather won’t struggle to reward the likes of Mike Del Zotto and Brandon Prust this summer.
Cap Geek list Dan Girardi as a comparable to Nicklas Grossman but really comparing Girardi to the Swede in anything other than price tag is doing Girardi a disservice. Girardi is a much more rounded player than Grossman. He out hits, out blocks and out scores Grossman and very few players in the entire league play the same minutes as Girardi. Who’s worth more? Girardi without question.
Next season including Pronger, the Flyers have over 20 million committed to their blue line – quite a chunk. The Rangers, without factoring in a raise for Del Zotto and adding another defenseman ‘only’ have approximately 10 million committed to their blue line. I know which blue line I would rather have right now. Keep up the good work this summer Mr Sather.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A team that loses two of its top four defensemen for extended periods of time falters, and drops to mediocrity while dealing with the injuries. Oh wait, you didn’t hear that? That’s likely because the Rangers lost two of their top four defensemen, guys that were playing 20+ minutes a night last season, but they kept on trucking along, and now sit just five points away from clinching the home ice in the Eastern Conference.
The Rangers didn’t know what to expect with Marc Staal. Concussions are a tricky beast afterall. Staal missed the first 36 games of the season, an injury that forced several players in the lineup to step up. Ryan McDonagh was moved from his comfortable pairing with Mike Sauer up to the top pair with Dan Girardi, and was one-half of the best shutdown pair in the league while playing 30 minutes a night. Michael Del Zotto was thrust into a top four spot after spending parts of last season in the AHL. The combination of he and Sauer thrived as well. For some reason that bottom pairing rotation between Anton Stralman, Steve Eminger, and Jeff Woywitka wasn’t talked about much.
Then the unthinkable happened: Mike Sauer fell awkwardly after a hit by Dion Phaneuf, and hit his head on the boards. Another top four defenseman out with a concussion. Another gaping hole in the lineup to fill. After a short stint with Eminger (before he went down with an injury), Del Zotto’s new partner wound up being Stralman. The wildcard signing was now forced into playing 20 minutes a night. He thrived, and the Rangers still wouldn’t quit.
With Dan Girardi tiring in the last few games (not a criticism) and Marc Staal clearly still struggling for consistency following his return, has Ryan McDonagh emerged as the Rangers best defenseman?
It’s a valid question and perhaps just another way of heaping praise on McDonagh for the way he has developed since his call up midway in to last year. A lot of people don’t pay much attention to the plus/minus statistic but even the biggest critic of that stat has to acknowledge McDonagh’s impressive +39 over his first 112 NHL games. That’s more than just being on the ice at the right time.
McDonagh is still learning and he’s still making mistakes; he’s not perfect. The way James Neal picked his pocket in the Pens game a few games ago shows that he’s certainly not perfect but he has progressed at an incredible rate.
The offensive side of McDonagh’s game has developed the most, visibly. However that is because he has such a solid foundation defensively that it allows him to get involved more at the other end. His positional play is exceptional and he takes the body with regularity. Given the style McDonagh plays he doesn’t take a huge amount of penalties and he fits in Tortorella’s system perfectly.
McDonagh has become a minute muncher. He’s playing a shade under 25 a game and while unfortunate for Marc Staal, the absence of Staal has been a blessing in disguise for McDonagh’s development. Nobody could have foreseen this rate of progress and it probably wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for a Staal brother collision last season.
It’s hard not to be excited about the Rangers future given how the club is being built the ‘right way’ (from the goal out). There’s an embarrassment of riches developing in front of Henrik Lundqvist. Staal, Girardi, McDonagh and Del Zotto highlight a corps that still has Mike Sauer as well as Tim Erixon and Dylan McIlrath in the wings. There’s not another club in the entire league (outside of Nashville) that can boast that kind of pipeline on the blue line. And we said all this without finding a way to thank Bob Gainey again. Oops.
So, is McD the Rangers best defenseman right now? It’s hard to argue against him. When healthy, a valid case can be made for Del Zotto with the way his game has developed this year but either way the Rangers are sitting pretty with a 21 and 22 year old leading the charge to the post season.
Throughout the beginning of the year we had Marc Staal watch. Now, it wasn’t as obsessive (or annoying) as the ‘Sid watch’ that engulfed Pennsylvania, the NHL and the entire nation of Canada but we had Staal watch nonetheless.
So why are the Rangers being so quiet regarding Mike Sauer’s concussion absence? I may have missed something along the way – so please correct me if I have – but there are never injury updates on Sauer and the natural assumption is that he’s not close to being ready. In that case, have they shut him down for the season and if so, why not publicly state that they have?
The quiet around Sauer is concerning. Several Ranger fans have asked the beat writers via twitter whether they have any updates and the reply is usually the same: nadda, nichts, nothing.
The timing of his injury must be enormously frustrating for Sauer. An injury prone player all career and once doubted as a legitimate prospect because of his ‘fondness’ for the treatment table, Sauer became an integral part of the Rangers blue line last year and had begun to fill a huge hole in the Rangers top six: the presence of a rugged defenseman.
The Rangers grinded out a gutsy win in Carolina tonight, beating the ‘Canes 3-2 behind a fantastic defensive effort and a very solid game by Marty Biron. Marian Gaborik scored to net his 30th of the year, and his 7th 30 goal season overall. Seems like the theme lately has been a period by period recap, so I’ll give it a try (let me know which format you guys prefer in the comments). To the bullets…
During the first period the Rangers had a solid forecheck going and were doing a nice job getting penetration into the offensive zone. The problem was they weren’t developing quality chances from that penetration. They were moving the puck well enough to evade pressure from the Hurricanes, but not well enough to put quality shots on Cam Ward.
Defensively the Blueshirts did a fantastic job of getting sticks into passing lanes and forcing Carolina’s wingers to the outside on the rush. Ryan McDonagh was especially impressive early on.
With :50 seconds remaining in the first, Brandon Dubinsky took what I will assume was a stupid penalty (I didn’t seem like any MSG camera actually caught Dubinsky throw Jiri Tlusty’s stick), which drew the ire of coach John Tortorella. Dubinsky wouldn’t see the ice the rest of the game.
What do you know? That penalty came back to the bite the Rangers as Jeff Skinner snuck a shot through Marty Biron’s arm on a point blank slap shot. As a goalie, those goals are absolutely infuriating. 1-0 Carolina.
As Dubinsky continued to sit, the recipient of his minutes seemed to be John Mitchell. Mitchell played about 15 minutes and played a solid game. He seemed to have a nice chemistry with Richards/Hagelin as well.
The Ranger’s continued to play excellent defense through the second period. Michael Del Zotto exited the game early with an apparent hip injury, which pressed Marc Staal into bigger minutes as the game went on.
The Rangers would tie the game on a hard wrist shot from Artem Anismov off a nice little back pass from Marian Gaborik. The play wouldn’t have happened however, without some tremendous work by Derek Stepan in the neutral zone after blocking a shot. The shot seemed to handcuff Cam Ward a little bit, as he threw the puck in frustration after the puck bounced out. 1-1.
I caught myself wondering at one point in the second…why would Carolina want to stir anything up with the Rupp/Scott combination?
Gaborik would put the Rangers ahead later in the second when he banged in the rebound of a Derek Stepan shot. Gabby made a strong play in the slot to create a good chance and then didn’t give up on the play and was able to guide the rebound home. Very strong play for the Rangers leading goal scorer as he pocketed his 30th of the season. 2-1 Rangers.
The Rangers caught a break at the start of the third period when the puck ricocheted off the lines man and right onto the stick of Brian Boyle, who would make a beauty of a pass to Brandon Prust to give the Rangers some insurance. 3-1 Rangers.
Jeff Skinner is absolutely filthy. Crazy how two of Carolina’s best players can’t legally drink yet. (Skinner and Falk)
The last 10 or so minutes of the game, the Rangers killed 6 minutes worth of penalties. The bulk of which was assessed when John Mitchell accidentally clipped Jay Harrison with his stick. Blood was drawn, 4 minutes.
The ensuing penalty kill was magnificent. Prust and Boyle were at their very best, while Staal continued to round into form with a strong effort on the PK. Also, Dan Girardi is a warrior.
The ‘Canes drew within one goal with :39 seconds remaining after some slightly blown coverage from the aforementioned Girardi and Staal (not nearly enough impact to mar the fantastic game both played). Jay Harrison was there to tap it in on the doorstep. 3-2 Rangers.
New York was able to hold on in regulation to win their 8th game in their last 11.
Obligatory Goaltending Notes
I thought both goaltenders played terrific tonight. Neither one had a ton of work, but both made great saves at various points of the game.
Cam Ward isn’t a flashy goalie, but despite the 3 goals, he continues to show why he is one of the game’s best despite a suspect blue line.
Marty Biron had a nice bounce back game after a couple bumps in the road in the form of Chicago and the Islanders. He had a slight case of rebounditis in the first third of the game or so, but his confidence clearly grew as the game went on and ended up making several key saves.
Torts might as well have put a dunce hat on the Dubi and made him sit facing the corner for the rest of the game. Torts was visibly irritated about that penalty in his presser.
Brandon Prust was the 1st star of this game for me. Absolute monster out there.
I’m going to say this with the assumption that DZ’s injury is nothing serious; I think it’s time to bump Staal up to the second pair. The coaching staff has done a tremendous job bringing him back slowly this year, but I think the training wheels are ready to come off. He played over 20 minutes tonight, and I don’t think any of us would be against demoting Anton Stralman to the third pair with Stu Bickel. Not that Stralman hasn’t played well, but clearly Staal is the better player.
I’m not sure how many of you had the privilege of watching the MSG post game, but if you did you were able to behold that shirt that Ron Duguay was wearing. Just terrific Ron, terrific.
Right back at it tomorrow night in Tampa at 7pm, as the Rangers try to run their winning streak to 4 in a row. Don’t forget to be here tomorrow at noon for the BSB Live Chat!