With a playoff spot clinched, we are running a new series about turning points in the season. These posts will focus on moves the Rangers made that effectively turned their season from mediocre to great. Part one: Calling up Hagelin and Mitchell.
The Rangers started the season shorthanded on the blue line. Marc Staal was out indefinitely with a concussion to start the season, so the Rangers were already short a top pairing defenseman. A rotation of Anton Stralman, Steve Eminger, and Jeff Woywitka was being used to fill the bottom pairing, and had been doing so with minimal success.
Fast forward to December 5, when Mike Sauer hit the boards awkwardly after a thunderous Dion Phaneuf hit. Sauer was diagnosed with a concussion, and hasn’t been seen since. Now, the Rangers are down two top-four defensemen. Just like he had last year, Eminger filled in nicely on the top four while paired with Michael Del Zotto. He made the injuries to Sauer and Staal easier to manage.
Then the world seemed to come crashing down for the Rangers. On December 17, the Rangers lost Eminger to a separated shoulder. In that same game, the Rangers also lost Woywitka, albeit for a short period of time. With Eminger out of the lineup, and Tim Erixon not ready for the show at that time, the Rangers called up their last cut in preseason: Stu Bickel.
Acquired in a deal with Anaheim for Nigel Williams, Bickel wasn’t garnering much attention until he was the last man cut in Europe. The Rangers blue line was in shambles, with four players lost to injury, three long term. Bickel and Erixon would play on the third pairing for the next week until Woywitka returned from injury, but Bickel was the attention grabber.
With four assists in his first three NHL games, Bickel was creating a stir in New York. Add in his physical presence that the Rangers sorely needed with Sauer injured, and Bickel instantly became a favorite of the coaching staff. Now, even though the Rangers are close to full strength on defense, Bickel still remains with the club.
The Steve Eminger injury paved the way for Stu Bickel to make his mark in the organization. Bickel may not have had the affect that Carl Hagelin and John Mitchell did (in terms of puck possession), but don’t underestimate how important it is to have a steady presence on that bottom pairing. Bickel’s call up was the beginning of the end for the revolving door that was the bottom pairing.
Four months later, none of Eminger, Woywitka, or even Stralman are coming close to dressing for a game. And it can all be traced back to a separated shoulder in December. Sometimes injuries are blessings in disguise.