Andrew Gross is tweeting that the Rangers defensive pairs are beginning to take shape, with the always reliable combination of Marc Staal-Dan Girardi being one of the pairs. Michael Del Zotto and Michal Rozsival are going to be paired as the second unit. This leaves Matt Gilroy and Michael Sauer as the third pairing, assuming Steve Eminger is the odd man out.
The Staal/Girardi pairing is going to be ole reliable, but with a twist. Both defensemen have gained more experience from the last time they were paired together. Both defensemen are positionally sound, and will always play defense before offense. However, Staal is beginning to show signs of life in the offensive zone, showcasing an ability to go end-to-end with the puck on multiple occasions. If Staal is able to add the offense without it being a detriment to his defensive game, then this can be a legitimate top pairing that can shut down most teams top lines. Staal generally does a good job at clearing the crease as well. No wonder why everyone wants him in a trade.
The MDZ/Rozsival pairing is an interesting pairing that could pay dividends for the Rangers. MDZ is hopefully going to be an offensive force this season, while growing into the defensive responsibilities that come with being an NHL defenseman. With MDZ taking care of the offensive responsibilities of the pairing, Rozsival can concentrate on defense, where he is undervalued and under appreciated. With this defensive role comes a need for Rozsival to clear the crease and protect Henrik Lundqvist, something we haven’t really seen him do much during his tenure in New York. With clear cut roles for each player, this pairing will either flourish or flounder, I don’t think there’s a middle ground here.
The final pairing of Gilroy/Sauer is the pairing that will garner the most questions, as it pairs two kids who have a combined one year of NHL experience. Both had a stellar preseason, with Gilroy showcasing some ability to quarterback the powerplay. Sauer is going to have to be the rock defensively on this pairing, and also a physical body that will clear the crease. Gilroy appeared to be a victim of the proverbial NCAA 40 game wall last season, but was one of the best skaters this preseason, coming to camp in excellent shape. Although this pairing will have the most questions, they also have the most to prove, which is a good motivational tool.
Steve Eminger will probably be the seventh defenseman, and will replace anyone injured or who just lost their game. That was pretty much expected to be Eminger’s role since his acquisition from Anaheim in July. Not much is expected of a seventh defenseman except to play bottom pairing minutes once a week.
The Rangers defense pairings may have a lot of questions after Staal/Girardi, but could also be one of the better defensive core in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers defense scored 15 points in the preseason (5-10-15), which was more than two points per game. However, they faltered on defense in all but one game. With more clear cut roles defined, and the NHL caliber players now in the lineup regularly, those defensive lapses should be at a minimum. It’s going to be an interesting season for the Rangers blue liners, which has an average age of 25. Many have a lot to prove, and with a seventh defenseman finally in the mix, they will have to show they can remain in an NHL lineup.