Not sure if you guys caught this, but Marc Staal returned to the lineup in dramatic fashion, just in time for the Winter Classic. Again, if you missed this, I don’t blame you, the news was sort of buried amidst the other Winter Classic hooplah.
All kidding aside, Staal’s return marked the 11th defenseman the Rangers have used this season. Stepping back, it really is remarkable how they are this good despite playing everyone except my mother on defense this season.
With Staal back in the lineup, the obvious scratch choice was Jeff Woywitka, and as expected, he was scratched for the Winter Classic. Woywitka, claimed off waivers, was essentially an insurance policy and a body to dress for games. In all fairness, he exceeded expectations and was extremely serviceable. He came in, adjusted to the new system, and played some steady third line minutes…with some hiccups of course.
Now with Mike Sauer looking like he is on the path to return –he skated with the team– the Rangers are going to need to find a place to insert him when he returns. The only realistic options for replacement are Anton Stralman and Stu Bickel, as none of Staal, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, or Michael Del Zotto will be sitting any time soon.
Considering the current pairings, it is my guess that Bickel will be the one who sits for Sauer, when he returns. It’s nothing against the kid, who has played very well (again with some hiccups) in his call up, it’s just a numbers game. It makes more sense for Bickel to be returned to the AHL and get significant ice time than for him to sit around as the healthy scratch for weeks at a time. It is for that same reason that I expect Woywitka to stick around for a long time, at least until Steve Eminger heals.
The decisions about scratches and replacements are easy decisions. The decisions for defensive pairings however is a very tough choice. Does John Tortorella go back to his bread-and-butter pairing of Staal-Girardi? Does he leave Girardi with McDonagh and put Staal with Sauer? Does Del Zotto get matched back up with Sauer, leaving Staal to play with Stralman? These are questions that can only be answered by the coaching staff and by the players’ performance on the ice.
Personally, I would go back to ole reliable: Staal/Girardi, McDonagh/Sauer, MDZ/Stralman. That gives the Rangers two legitimate shut down pairings that also have some offensive upside, plus the surprisingly strong pairing of MDZ/Stralman to give the top four much needed rest. That leaves Eminger as the odd man out, but you would have to assume Stralman and Eminger would be rotating. Assuming those three pairings play the way that is expected and the way that they have all year, the Rangers have one of the deepest blue lines in the league.
The Rangers haven’t played a single game this season with a full strength blue line, yet they remain in first place in the conference. The Times They Are a-Changin’.