Although there hasn’t been much talk about it in the Rangers blog-o-sphere, there is an intense battle heating up for the bottom defense pairing. Most of the focus has been on Brad Richards, and with good reason, but the bottom defense pairing is shaping up to be a great battle in camp. Although Tim Erixon and Michael Del Zotto appear to have the inside track, and Pavel Valentenko is getting most of the attention for dark horses, I’m going out on a limb and saying that if Erixon or Del Zotto falter, that Tomas Kundratek is a prime candidate to take a spot.
Kundratek didn’t make it past the first round of cuts last year, but that means nothing heading into this year’s camp (see: Sauer, Mike). Kundratek’s game is a simple one, he just gets in the opposition’s way. He has been incredible in his own end with the CT Whale, he is rarely out of position and does the little things right. The best thing that can be said about a defensive defenseman is that you don’t notice him on the ice. If you do, he’s making mistakes. It’s rare that you notice Kundratek. His numbers aren’t fantastic, but it’s what you expect from someone who isn’t going to be jump starting the offense. He just does everything in his own end properly, from positioning to defensive assignments.
Most people have been looking at Pavel Valentenko as a potential dark horse, and with good reason. He has a great shot, is a big body who plays a physical game, and is essentially a second goalie on the ice with the number of shots he blocks. While those attributes are great, they are marginalized if the opposition can just skate around him, which is Valentenko’s weakest area. His skating might hold him back, whereas Kundratek is a smooth skater and more positionally sound than Kundratek.
Another aspect that Kundratek has that Valentenko does not: a right-handed shot. The Rangers are chock-full-o lefties this year with Del Zotto, Erixon, Marc Staal, and Ryan McDonagh. They might need a right handed shot to balance out that bottom pairing. It’s not much of an advantage, as Erixon is capable of playing both sides, but it is an advantage nonetheless.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Valentenko, and there is absolutely no hate whatsoever, I just think he needs one more year in the AHL to work on his skating. His raw talent is nice, but hockey is more than that. Kundratek appears to be the complete package, and can be a dark horse to make this roster should Del Zotto or Erixon falter.