The New York Rangers have been without four of their top seven defensemen for the past few weeks, due to a slew of injuries that hit the team all around the same time. However, as the Rangers are getting closer to becoming a healthier team, there will be some significant decisions to be made about the defensive personnel on this hockey club. Of course, the order in which these players return will have a major impact on those decisions, but the final product, which I expect to be together by mid to late-January, may look slightly different than what we all originally expected.
According to Larry Brooks in the New York Post, Marc Staal, who has yet to play a game this season because of post-concussion symptoms, could be cleared for contact as early as this week. That would then put him on pace to make his season debut within the next two weeks.
Michael Sauer has also shown some improvements as of late that would suggest he is well on his way to recovery, too.
And then there's Jeff Woywitka, who's been battling a tricky ankle after he blocked a shot in a game two weeks ago. Woywitka could return any day now, maybe as soon as tonight's match with the rival Islanders at Madison Square Garden.
That would then see rookie Tim Erixon returned to the Connecticut Whale of the AHL, where he will receive plenty more ice time than he has up here with the big club. Erixon, though, has played very well in the several games he has dressed for, so I'll give him that credit since it's deserved.
I don't see Erixon in the aforementioned final product on defense, though. In fact, I don't see Jeff Woywitka in there either; well, at least I don't think he should be in there. Once Marc Staal and Michael Sauer return to the lineup, my performance-based defensive corps looks something like this:
Ryan McDonagh - Dan Girardi
Marc Staal - Michael Sauer
Michael Del Zotto - Stu Bickel
Based on what I've seen through the first 33 games, those are my top six deserving defensemen this season, with Staal obviously being an automatic. Now allow me to explain...
Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi have been lights out all season while playing together, so there is no reason why head coach John Tortorella should even consider breaking those two up. Plus, Staal is not going to be physically prepared to take on first line responsibilities upon just returning.
Marc is better off coming back on the second pairing where he can more comfortably get back into his groove, and if things go wrong, he will have an extremely responsible partner to fall back on in Michael Sauer. I actually think many fans don't have as much trust in Sauer as they should.
Moving on to the third and final pairing, this is where people may have some issues. I've been very hard on Michael Del Zotto this season, but that is because I know what he is capable of, and through the early stages of the year, he was not playing to the best of his ability. At the moment, however, he is playing some important minutes for the Rangers and has shown some serious improvement throughout the past month or so. In my opinion, he deserves to be in there over Woywitka, Stralman and even his buddy Steve Eminger.
And with Stu Bickel, I cannot remember a rookie defenseman coming up midway through the season and having such an immediate impact on the club. Oh wait, yes I can - his name was Ryan McDonagh. And where is he now? On the top pairing playing against the league's best talents.
This Bickel kid is special and Tortorella is building his trust in him for sure. I have a feeling he is going to stick around for a while.
I know there's going to be a lot of discrepancies with this, but it's how I see the Rangers putting the best defensive product possible out there.