The conversations this summer have mainly focused on the Rangers forwards. With three forwards departing, three (four if you include the AHL-bound Michael Haley) coming on board, and the never-ending discussions about Rick Nash, Bobby Ryan, Alex Semin, and Shane Doan, it’s easy to see why the focus is on scoring and depth.
However some of the biggest concerns during the postseason were about the depth on defense. Stu Bickel was barely playing, and the five other defensemen were struggling to keep their legs under them while playing shorthanded throughout the playoffs. The Rangers need depth or growth. With Michael Sauer out, and no major signings pending, the answers appear to have to come from within.
The Locks: Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal
These guys are a given and will likely play on the top-four.
The Almost-Locks: Anton Stralman, Michael Del Zotto
Stralman filed for arbitration, almost guaranteeing he will be back with the Rangers for one more season. Del Zotto is an RFA, and unless he is traded (unlikely), he will be back next year. Combined with Girardi, McDonagh, and Staal, this gives the Rangers five locks for defensemen. The last spot is likely going to a right-handed shot, as the Rangers are currently lacking one.
The Incumbent: Stu Bickel
Bickel was a bit of a revelation last season. The last man cut from the roster in October, and the main call up from Connecticut when Sauer, Steve Eminger, and Jeff Woywitka went down with injuries, Bickel played his way into a permanent roster spot during the regular season. During the postseason his foot speed and skating ability were exploited by deeper and quicker teams. If he wants to keep his spot, he will need to work at it.
The Question Mark: Michael Sauer
Will he return? Can he be what he was? If the answer to those two are yes, then he plays, and then it’s Stralman who is on thin ice.
The Up-And-Comer: Tim Erixon
Many penciled him into the lineup last season, only to see Erixon play a grand total of 18 games over three separate stints with the Rangers. He wasn’t ready for the NHL last year, but yet many still have him penciled in for this year. As a left-handed shot, he will need to impress a lot of people to get that chance on Broadway.
The Dark Horse: Dylan McIlrath
The Undertaker has a few things going for him: He’s a right-handed shot, and he’s a physical force that can help assuage the loss of Sauer. McIlrath’s biggest issue was skating, but he has made tremendous progress in that area. He likely needs another year, but a strong preseason could prove otherwise.
In the end, I’d expect Bickel to get the last spot to break camp, and the Rangers to sign a veteran free agent to fill in as a depth defenseman. Erixon will be the first injury call up, regardless of handedness, and at that point will be given every opportunity to stick. McIlrath will need a year of seasoning. As for Sauer, if he comes back, then the Rangers blue line is a force to be reckoned with.