It’s amazing how quickly someone becomes an afterthought in this league. When Michael Sauer went down with his concussion, it seemed the world had ended. Marc Staal was still out, Sauer was out, and in the following week Jeff Woywitka and Steve Eminger would both suffer injuries. The Rangers were forced to rely on unknown Stu Bickel to play regular minutes to fill out the blue line. Bickel impressed and the rest, as they say, is history.
But it’s not history. Fast forward five months and we have the playoffs, where Bickel is still dressing in almost every game for the Rangers. But the problem is that he rarely cracks five minutes of ice time per game, even when games head into overtime or triple overtime. For all intents and purposes, the Rangers are playing with five defensemen.
When Bickel does get on the ice, he is often caught out of position, his inexperience and lack of foot speed exploited by more experienced and skilled playoff competitors. Stephen Gionta’s goal on Wednesday night was evidence of a player that is still developing and learning the position at the NHL level. Thus, coach John Tortorella is forced to play his more experienced players and sit Bickel. It’s a vicious cycle that leaves the Rangers with five defensemen.
In the playoffs, depth becomes the most important factor. Players grow tired –both physically and mentally– and need more time to recover. With just five defensemen, the Rangers don’t have that luxury. And it makes you wonder: Would they be in this position if Mike Sauer was in the lineup?
Sauer’s absence is taking it’s toll on the Rangers. First and foremost, it would be Sauer in the lineup and not Bickel, a huge upgrade at the position. The pairing of Sauer and Michael Del Zotto was a solid pairing during the regular season, so it slides Anton Stralman back a notch to the “bottom” pairing. Bottom is in quotes there because Staal would likely wind up as his partner.
So instead of rotating five defensemen, the Rangers would wind up with three solid pairs of defensemen. But the benefit doesn’t stop there.
Remember that triple overtime game when Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh played about 4,000 minutes? With Sauer in the lineup, Torts likely doesn’t roll his top defensive pairing every other shift like he did in that game. Nor does he roll that pairing 25-30 minutes per game thereafter. It is a safe assumption that the minutes played by McDonagh and Girardi reduce significantly. Less ice time means less fatigue, and it is evident that the Rangers are fatigued.
Bickel’s play during the regular season masked the need for a sixth defenseman that is now being exploited. The Rangers are playing shorthanded, and it’s because they can’t trust Bickel on the ice at all times. It’s no slight against Bickel, but Sauer is the better player and gives the Rangers more flexibility within the lineup. The Rangers miss Sauer, and the playoffs have proven this fact.