After their 2011/2012 post-season fell short of the goal of a Stanley Cup, the Rangers clearly felt that some changes were necessary in order to solidify their reputation as a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference. While goaltending is the most impressive it has been since the Blue Shirts won the Stanley Cup in 1994, other aspects of the game clearly needed development.
The most notable area of improvement for the Rangers heading into 2012/2013 has to be their bottom defensemen. Although the Rangers boast one of the most successful defensive teams in the league last season, Coach John Tortorella was forced to rely too heavily on his top four blue liners – Michael Del Zotto , Ryan McDonagh, Daniel Girardi, and Marc Staal – which contributed greatly to their Eastern Conference Final loss to the New Jersey Devils.
As far as Rangers top defensemen are concerned, there is no cause for concern. Del Zotto, McDonagh, and Girardi all surpassed the 20 point mark in the regular season last year, and all three combined for 102 points on the season. More impressively, the trio of budding stars recorded a collective +58 goal differential and played more than 82 shifts every game. The three were also trusted with an average of over 24:00 per game apiece, and led the defensive core with almost 65% of the shots taken by Rangers’ defensemen.
Marc Staal, another to blue liner, also displayed his worth as a top defender in the Rangers lineup. While Staal had struggled after returning from a concussion in January, he showed marked improvement heading towards the post-season. In the playoffs, however, Staal showed that he was returning to top form when he tallied 6 points in 20 games, played over 25:00 per game, and averaged almost 30 shifts in each of those games.
Unfortunately for New York, the enormous responsibility placed on the top four D-men led to complete exhaustion by the time the Rangers met the Devils in the Eastern Conference final. To make things harder on the team, the bottom –end defensemen, with the exception of Anton Stralman, were unable to adjust to playing extended minutes, and thus were not utilized by Tortorella and his coaching staff.
Stu Bickel and Steve Eminger averaged only 6:14 in ice time per game, giving them less than 7.5 shifts per game each. In addition, the bottom duo registered a mere 6 shots on net, were kept off the score sheet, and had a plus/ minus of -3.
Now, proceeding on the road to the 2012/2013 season, the Rangers will continue to make changes to their bottom-tier defensemen to improve their chances at a Stanley Cup. Young gun defenseman Michael Sauer continues to battle Post – concussion symptoms after taking a hit from Maple Leafs’ Dion Phaneuf in December of 2011; AHL call-up Tim Erixon had been dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Rick Nash trade in July and Eminger is unlikely to be re-signed by Glen Sather and management, as both were unable to add intensity the Blue Shirts were looking for. But as the team hunts for a solid veteran defenseman to add depth in the bottom pairings, the Rangers need to look closely at who is available.
Brett Clark, a 35-year old Tamp Bay Lightning free agent, for example, may provide the Rangers with just what the team needs. Despite being a horrendous – 26 in goal differential last season, Clark averaged over 18:00 per game last season, placed 5th in scoring among Lightening defenders, and blocked close to 200 shots. Shot blocking is part and parcel of John Tortorella’s “defense first system” but more essentially, Clark carries a low cap hit of $1.3 million, which leaves the Rangers available to spend more cap space on another forward such as Shane Doan.
Another option for Glen Sather may include bringing back former Ranger Michal Rozsival. While his best days are behind him, the 33-year-old knows how to move the puck, an aspect of his game that Tortorella could appreciate. Despite the dip in his offensive production last year, Rozsival maintained a +8 goal differential, and could be used in combination with Anton Stralman, logging shorter minutes to give the top defenders a well-deserved rest. The downfall with the NHL veteran is his $3 million price tag, which might make the risk a little too high.
A third option for the Blue Shirts to consider would be 28-year-old free agent Chris Campoli. James Wrabel Jr. of bleacherreport.com recently noted that John Tortorella likes to have defensemen that can make smart decisions, move the puck, and join the rush at opportune times, which Campoli is surely proficient in doing. Moreover, Campoli is coming off of an injury and is gaining a reputation as a risk. With the lure of success with the Rangers, Campoli could be enticed to sign a financially manageable 1-year contract in order to benefit the Rangers and also to re-establish his value on the open market.
Several defensemen in the Rangers system will also be contending to make the New York roster full time next season, and most notably Dylan McIlrath, Brady Skjei and Wade Redden. McIlrath and Skjei are not likely to crack the squad due mainly to their youth and inexperience. Both could use time in the AHL to further develop their skills. Skjei had been drafted in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and is fresh from the USA Development Program, while McIlrath has played only 7 games with the AHL Affiliate Connecticut Whale, registering 0 points, 16 penalty minutes, and a -1 plus / minus.
Wade Redden may be the most legitimate shot at making the NHL club for the upcoming season, and despite his contract being buried in the minors for the last two seasons, Redden’s leadership in the dressing room, especially to young defensemen, might prove to be an asset for the Rangers.
Redden has scored 62 points in 119 games since being relegated to the AHL, but his NHL statistics tell his story. The 35-year old professional veteran has amassed 450 NHL points and has a +162 goal differential in 994 professional games. His guidance in the dressing room can contribute greatly to a team’s morale, and he is able to help hone the skills of younger defensemen such as Stralman, Del Zotto, and McDonagh.
The major issue with Redden, of course, is his contract, which currently would add $6.5 million to the Rangers salary cap. Redden, then would have to impress the coaching staff an management like never before in order to have any shot at making the big club this season, and the Rangers surely have more suitable options in mind.
When all is said and done, the Rangers have another critical move to make before the beginning of the 2012/2013 season. Whether by trade, free agency signing, or making the ranks from within, Glen Sather needs to find a solid, unadulterated sixth or seventh defenseman to provide leadership and skill on the lower lines. Coach Tortorella is looking for another quick, intelligent, puck moving blue liner who can anchor the defense while the top-level guards rest up for another shift, and there are still many options available. The only certainty, however, is the Rangers need for another sentinel to man the defensive zone before the puck drops in October.