One of the biggest question marks heading into the new season for the Rangers has nothing to do with Brad Richards or Marian Gaborik. It has to do with the bottom defense pairing. Right now, many assume that at least one of Michael Del Zotto or Tim Erixon will be ready and will make the team and won’t be a liability in any of the three zones. The best case scenario is that they both succeed and make the team, making Steve Eminger a seventh defenseman. But there is always the other scenario: that both need to hit the AHL a little before coming to the big club.
If that’s the case, then the only guarantee is that Steve Eminger will be on the bottom pairing. After Eminger, the Rangers would have more question marks for the final defenseman than the Islanders do with their goaltending. Pavel Valentenko –due to his great camp last year– and Brendan Bell –because he has already played in the NHL– would be the two favorites to serve as the final (or final two) defensemen. However, nothing is given. Remember when everyone guaranteed Ryan McDoangh a spot on opening night, only to be outplayed by his current defense partner?
But the candidate that not many will point to is the one that I am looking at to fill a void if these two aren’t ready: Tomas Kundratek. He could be the most NHL ready of any of the Rangers AHL defensemen last year, with the exception of Wade Redden. The 21 year old may not put up stellar numbers, but he has been a steady blue line presence for the Whale, who appears capable of handling NHL duties.
The first issue may be who makes the team, but the second issue is waivers, and it’s a pretty big issue. Currently, none of the prospects and young players need to pass through waivers, but that will change 33 games into the season, if Del Zotto makes the team. The minute Del Zotto plays his 33rd game this season, he will need to pass through waivers, which presents a whole other obstacle for the Rangers to overcome. It also presents a very interesting scenario: If Del Zotto appears to be ready, but could benefit from more AHL time, do the Rangers send him down to avoid the waiver issue?
The question about the bottom pairing is one that may be floating under the radar because of Brad Richards and the hole(s) he fills, but it is a question that needs to be answered before the Rangers open the season in Sweden. This may, in fact, be the biggest hole in the Rangers team this season. With questions abound about not only the composition of the bottom pair, but waivers as well, Rangers brass may be forced to make a decision that will anger some fans. But if John Tortorella’s track record tells us anything, it’s that he will give the kids every opportunity to play their way on to the roster.