While the New York Rangers have questions to still answer regarding their forwards; the defense remains one of the team's biggest strengths. An interesting mix of players featuring 3 former 1st rounders, a 2nd, a 7th and 2 undrafted players.
You have to like that the Ranger defense has 6 players 25 years old or younger (Girardi is the oldest at 28). Last season the Rangers gave up the 3rd fewest goals in the NHL despite not having Marc Staal and Michael Sauer for the entire season.
It is hard not to get excited when talking about a blueline that has the potential to get even better as they mature. The big questions have to be can they stay healthy and what happens if someone does get hurt?
2012-2013 should be the year when Ryan McDonagh breaks out and becomes the Ranger's top defender. McDonagh defensively in my eyes has already passed Marc Staal (and this is not a knock on Staal) as the Ranger's best defender. Remember McDonagh only has 1.5 years of NHL experience under his belt but he has shown signs of developing an offensive skill set that should be good for at least 50 points (projected numbers are 15-35-50).
Give McDonagh another couple of years and who knows maybe we could be looking at a possible Norris Trophy winner if McDonagh maintains this development progression. An All-Star invite is not out of the question for the 2012-2013 season.
It is fair to say that the trade that brought McDonagh to the Rangers could wind up being the best move of the Glen Sather era. I wonder how you say "you got fleeced" in French?
Last season McDonagh was paired with Girardi to form the Ranger's number 1 pairing and unless I am missing something there is no reason to break these 2 up. Dan Girardi is Tom Renney's 2nd greatest contribution to the Rangers (the 1st being the prospect development program) but in Girardi's case he faces a couple of questions about his future.
The first is entering his 6th full season as a Ranger; at 28 has Dan Girardi reached his ceiling in terms of potential? Even if he has then the Rangers are still getting a consistent performer who you can count on every night.
The second question is how long can Girardi continue to be able to play his style of hockey? It is not a knock on Girardi who has missed just 2 games over the last 5 seasons but you have to be amazed at how Girardi stays healthy considering all he does.
Marc Staal as your 3rd defenseman says a lot about how improved the Ranger's blueline is. Think we can put to rest any concerns about his health to rest.
What we need to know is what role are the Rangers wanting Staal to play. It is pretty safe to say that John Tortorella's hopes of Staal becoming an offensive force are a dream at best. If the Rangers can get 30-35 points out of Staal then they should be happy.
The question as to who do you pair Staal with? If you are a believer in the lefty/righty thing then if healthy Michael Sauer is his partner but that leaves Del Zotto and Stralman as your 3rd pair.
If I am making the decision then I say I want Staal with Del Zotto because Staal is the better defender. I believe that Staal can do a lot to get even more out of Del Zotto on the offensive end than any other partner.
Del Zotto had a bounce back season last year but the Rangers now need him to do even more to help the offensive attack. Tortorella needs to loosen the leash and allow Del Zotto to use his skating skills to set up his offense.
With Gaborik expected to be out for most of the first half then the Rangers need Del Zotto's offensive skills to help make up the difference. If Del Zotto knows that he has Staal watching his back then I really do believe you will see an even better Del Zotto this year.
The biggest area where the Rangers need Del Zotto is going to be on the power play as Del Zotto needs to produce more than 1 goal if the Rangers are going to be successful next season. Again having a Staal covering his back will give Del Zotto more confidence in his game.
When you are playing with one eye watching the coach to see how he reacts to your mistakes then you are going to make a whole bunch more. That is where having Staal with Del Zotto will help and it won't be a 1-way partnership as Del Zotto will help squeeze a few more points out of Staal.
On the power play with everyone watching Nash, Kreider, Richards and Del Zotto that leaves Staal to sneak in on the blind side. If you can get another 5-6 goals out of Staal then you are in very good shape.
The 3rd pair isn't all that bad if it has Michael Sauer back and healthy. What a healthy Sauer does more than anything else is give John Tortorella a 3rd pair that he will have confidence in using the entire game.
A healthy Micheal Sauer means for every minute that he can play then the top 4 will get that much more rest. It may not sound like a whole lot in October but come April and May when McDonagh and Girardi are averaging 22 minutes instead of 28; it becomes a huge factor.
I have to be honest here as Sauer is one of my personal favorites but even I will be wondering if the next hit will be the last one of his career. I have watched Michael since 2004 and in those 8 years, Sauer has only played more than 70 games twice.
For Sauer to be effective then he has to play a physical game; anything else is not Sauer. You are not going to get a lot of offense out of Sauer but if you can "protect" Sauer then he can be a contributor on the penalty kill and like I already mentioned buy rest for the top 4.
Anton Stralman got himself a new 2 year deal thanks in part to his play in the playoffs but also because the Rangers don't have any more depth on defense. If you can get 15-18 minutes a night out of Stralman then like Sauer; it will pay off in April and May.
But now that Stralman is earning 1.7 million then it is fair to expect him to produce a lot more than 2-16-18. The Rangers need Stralman to give them at the least 25-30 points and some production on the power play.
That leaves Stu Bickel as your 7th defender and Bickel's biggest battle is showing Tortorella that he can trust him to do more than fight. If Bickel can do that then if someone gets injured then Bickel will get the chance to play.
But if he doesn't then expect the Rangers to not think twice before moving him out. After Bickel there really isn't anyone on the Whale who one can seriously see as a contributor.
Even if Dylan McIlrath had been healthy the odds were against him being NHL ready at the start of the season. Expect the Rangers to be looking to add 2 more fringe defenders to play for the CT Whale.