Training camp is right around the corner, and in our next training camp preview series –goalies were done last week– we are going to look at the defensemen vying to make the roster for the 2010-2011 season. Defense isn’t as cluttered as the forward position, but there are going to be some interesting battles in camp for those final two spots in the top six. The battle for that seventh defenseman spot, should there be a seventh defenseman, is also going to be interesting. The Rangers have four players battling for those three spots, and there are some other rookies that may be off most people’s radar, but could be dark horses to make the team.
Marc Staal: The unsigned defender is the Rangers best defenseman. Seeking a big raise from his $800,000 salary last year, the Rangers are going to need Staal signed and playing in order to compete this year. Staal logs all his minutes against opponents top lines, and does a great job at shutting them down. At the end of last season, he showed some offensive prowess, scoring in three straight games as the Rangers made a desperate push for the playoffs. Staal’s 10.4 GVT was third on the team last year, and second among skaters (Marian Gaborik was tops). His 6.4 DGVT was tops on the team by a full goal. Staal’s value to the team is almost immeasurable, and many fans are starting to get worried about when he will sign.
Dan Girardi: Girardi is an interesting conundrum. On one hand, all fans see is that he didn’t stand up for Gaborik as he got pummeled by Dan Carcillo. On the other hand, Girardi’s 5.0 DGVT (second on the team) and 6.8 GVT (fifth among skaters) shows just how valuable he really is. To put those numbers in perspective, Girardi had a better GVT than Fedor Tyutin (who some fans want back), Jay Bouwmeester, Dennis Wideman, Dion Phaneuf, Anton Volchenkov, and Zbynek Michalek. His 5.0 GVT is good for 32nd in the league, better than all those guys just mentioned, and other guys like Dan Hamhuis. Sure, Girardi may be a little overpaid at $3.325 million per season, but he’s a top four defender on almost every team in the league.
Michal Rozsival: After a horrific start to the season, in which he had a lot of trouble adjusting to coach John Tortorella’s system, Rozsival got his act together and became a very reliable defender for the second half of the season. What was even more telling was when Ryan Callahan went down with an injury, it was Rozsival who was wearing the other ‘A’. Fans may not like his $5 million cap hit, but considering the deals handed out this summer, that $5 million is now just a slight overpayment, along the lines of the Girardi overpayment. The biggest problem in Rozsival’s game is that he doesn’t shoot the puck on the powerplay. He has an absolute cannon, but he never pulls the trigger. His shot could be one of the solutions to the anemic powerplay. Defensively, it’s tough to expect anything more from Rozsival, except for some consistency. Offensively is where he needs to improve.
Michael Del Zotto: MDZ is the last of the four defenseman almost guaranteed roster spots for next season. MDZ had a very impressive rookie debut, finishing fourth on the team in scoring, and tops among defenders. However, that -20 for the season is a big eyesore that is tough to ignore. That -20 came in a two month span, from November 1-December 31, when MDZ was a whopping -21 in just 26 games. On the positive note, MDZ is a +1 in the other 56 games of the season. MDZ is going to be the Rangers powerplay quarterback next season, as he was this season. Like Rozsival, MDZ got a little gun-shy from the point in the season, and the shots from the point stopped coming. That led to his point totals dropping a bit. He is going to have to shoot the puck more, but more importantly, he is going to have to work on his defensive zone play. Another -20 isn’t going to sit well with many people.
Matt Gilroy: With Gilroy, we start entering the area of the blue line that will be fighting to make the roster. Gilroy had a decent start to his rookie campaign, and chose to focus more on the defensive side of the game. Many expected the world, and then some, from the 25 year old rookie, but the NHL is a lot different from the NCAA. This was the first time in his career that Gilroy played more than 40 games, and it showed. He was admittedly gassed by the Olympic break. If he wants to make, and stay, on this team, he is going to have to show that he won’t hit that proverbial NCAA wall again this season. He is also going to have to show a lot more consistency in his own zone. The best way to make this team is to be solid in the defensive zone, especially considering who his competition is.
Wade Redden: The last of the starters from last season, Redden has been an absolute disaster since signing that mega-deal that Glen Sather offered him. There actually is very little that can be said about him in a positive manner, as he is also a cancer in the locker room. Redden was given an ultimatum at the end of last season, and it was play better, or go to the AHL. Considering some of the moves the Rangers made this offseason, it appears that Redden will be in Hartford next year, if solely just for monetary reasons. However, it should be known that if Redden has a great camp, the Rangers can clear enough cap space by sending Gilroy, Mats Zuccarello-Aasen, and Todd White to Hartford (assuming Staal signs from $4.5 million or less).
Steve Eminger: Acquired for Aaron Voros in the offseason, Eminger is likely going to be the 7th defenseman that this team has so desperately needed. Eminger understands that his role might be to sit int he Prucha-box half the year, but always be ready to play if called upon. Eminger provides solid leadership, and a positive attitude, which is something the Rangers locker room needs. If expectations for Eminger are low, then you won’t be disappointed.
Ryan McDonagh: The highly touted prospect, acquired in the Scott Gomez trade, has been the subject of many fans praise this offseason. Of course, a lot of this praise is because many think that with McDonagh on the team, Redden has to go to Hartford. But, beyond financial reasons, McDonagh is a tough, stay-at-home defenseman who will clear the crease and protect Henrik Lundqvist from the constant runnings he was getting last year. In the Frozen Four last year, McDonagh was one of the leaders and an integral part of the Wisconsin Badgers run to the Championship Game. It wouldn’t come as a surprise to see McDonagh start the season in Hartford, but the rookie has a solid chance to make the team as a starter coming into the season. In fact, if I were a betting man, I would bet on McDonagh, Gilroy, and Eminger rounding out the bottom pairing/7th defenseman for next season.
Pavel Valentenko, Jyri Niemi, Mike Sauer, Tomas Kundratek, Nigel Williams: All five are going to be dark horses, and long shots, to make the roster this season. Valentenko is a McDonagh-type player who has just arrived from the KHL. Niemi was a former 3rd round pick the Rangers acquired from the Islanders for a 6th round pick. Sauer is the last piece remaining from the Leetch deal, and has injury concerns. Kundratek is a 3rd round pick (2008) that has showed tremendous promise in the WHL. Williams was acquired from Colorado for Brian Fahey last July. It is unlikely any of these guys make the team, but they will be one of the first call ups in case of injury. All five should see good minutes in Hartford this season.
Lee Baldwin, Sam Klassen, Tysen Dowzak: Depth defensemen, the only player that should be seeing AHL time is Klassen. Klassen is a big, tough defenseman who has put up tremendous +/- numbers in the WHL. However, with the Redden situation unresolved, it is unknown if he winds up in the AHL or the ECHL. Baldwin and Dowzak are depth defensemen who will probably wind up playing in the ECHL in Greenville.
With four of the six spots on defense accounted four, and four players vying for those other three spots, it’s going to be a very exciting camp. The Rangers defense was questionable at best last season, with few bright spots and very little consistency. The Rangers are returning all six starters from last season in some capacity, so chemistry and consistency should hopefully resolve itself. The major dilemma that will play itself out will be what happens to Wade Redden. He is going to have to have a Michael Del Zotto-esque camp in order to secure himself a spot on the roster. But even if he does, are the Rangers willing to send that many veterans to Hartford to clear the necessary cap space? Camp opens in ten days, and it cannot come soon enough. In next week’s finale of this quick post-series, we are going to look at the forward battles coming into camp.