Posts tagged: Anton Stralman

The Stu Bickel scenario

I was one of the ones who praised Stu Bickel when he came in to the side and looked pretty comfortable from the outset despite being an undrafted, unheralded kid out of nowhere. I was however, also the one who criticised him a few weeks ago when his positional play was interesting (at best) for a stretch, and I still believe half the fights he gets into are unnecessary and don’t serve any purpose than to keep the box scorers busy.

That said he’s improved a lot recently and at times, has covered for some of Marc Staal’s mistakes who is very much up and down form-wise at the moment. Bickel’s inconsistent positional play seems to have settled down and his decision making on the puck is improving (although very much a work in progress).

Bickel has continued to be a physical presence without being a liability; it all adds up to making the Rangers defense reliable from top to bottom – despite the recent wave of unfortunate goals the Rangers have endured.

Bickel however may be playing for an NHL future elsewhere. So much of Bickel’s future depends on factors he cannot control. If Mike Sauer comes back this (or certainly next) season he’s immediately bumped down the depth chart. If Anton Stralman – for the most part – plays like he has done recently and is sensible with his contract demands it would be surprising if the Rangers didn’t have some interest in bringing him back next year.

Then there’s always the looming presence of Dylan McIlrath and to a lesser extent Pavel Valentenko. Note: are you ruling out Valentenko? You should only do so if you were a fortune teller and saw Bickel making the club the way he has this year.

Bickel has improved and clearly is gaining trust with the coaching staff – as evidenced by the additional third period ice time he’s getting. There’s no denying the value of earning Tortorella’s trust for a player, especially one looking to stick with the club. Bickel getting better is a win-win scenario for all concerned.

If he plays well he has a chance to stick. He plays well he’ll certainly stick in the NHL. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, even if he doesn’t make it with the Rangers, he’s made himself an asset for the franchise over the summer; so everyone wins from an improving Bickel.

It will be interesting to see how the cards that is the Rangers defense fall over the summer. There are a lot of factors in play for the Rangers blue line; none more so than Bickel’s continued development.

Anton Stralman: The underappreciated pickup

When the Rangers signed Anton Stralman in early November, it was pretty much an afterthought for most fans. After all, Stralman would need time to get into hockey shape, then more time to learn coach John Tortorella’s system. And who even knew if he was a Torts guy.

A month after his signing, Stralman had played just one game, and many were beginning to wonder if he would ever suit up for the Rangers. In fact, it took a Dion Phaneuf hit on Mike Sauer –and an awkward fall into the boards– to even convince Tortorella to dress the newly acquired defenseman on a regular basis. He was dressed as a necessity, not as a luxury.

Now, three months after the Sauer injury, Stralman has been seeing top four time on a consistent basis. His offensive numbers aren’t too impressive –on pace for about 20 points– but he has been a steady presence on the blue line and filled in admirably for the missing Sauer/Marc Staal at various times.

Looking at his advanced metrics, Stralman’s 4.7 GVT (2.1 OGVT/2.6 DGVT) is currently better than Staal (0.5 GVT in limited ice time), Steve Eminger (1.3 GVT), Jeff Woywitka (1.9 GVT), and Stu Bickel (2.6 GVT). When you prorate that out for a full season, Stralman has been worth roughly two points in the standings (one point currently, two points over 82 games) via the PVT metric.

Going deeper into his advanced metrics, Stralman hasn’t been seeing much time against top competition (-.058 Qualcomp), but his relative Corsi is still positive (0.5), meaning that his teammates have control of the puck more often than not while he is on the ice. That’s a small margin for his relative Corsi, but it’s positive nonetheless. He starts 52.7% of his shifts in the offensive zone, and finishes 50.5% of his shifts in the offensive zone.

It’s actually interesting, because Stralman’s metrics for quality of competition faced, Corsi (a puck possession metric) and offensive zone starts aren’t too strong. Generally speaking, when someone starts over 50% of their shifts in the offensive zone with low quality of competition, you would like to see a better relative Corsi.

Stralman has been a nice find for the Rangers, and he has given them a reason to appreciate his presence on the ice and his contract (one year, $900k). Stralman may not have a long term future on this team, but he has certainly been productive and a consistent body on defense. But looking at those metrics, maybe he has been benefiting from playing with Michael Del Zotto, and not the other way around, which most people have thought.

Stralman has been a Torts guy through and through this year, despite early doubts. Maybe that’s why he fits in so well with this club. Torts guys are tough to find, which makes this pickup fairly under appreciated.

Halfway There Report Card: The Defense

With the halfway point of the season upon us (for the most part), and the Rangers in first place, it’s as good of a time as any to begin with the mid-point report cards. We are going to do these in a series of posts, with Chris covering the top six forwards, Suit covering the bottom six forwards, Justin covering the goalies, and myself covering the defense.

The Rangers have used a whopping 11 defensemen since the season started. This is mostly due to the Marc Staal injury, but other injuries along the way have forced the Rangers’ hand. Despite the obvious disadvantage, the Rangers have allowed just 82 goals against, good for second in the league. The Bruins top this, but let’s be honest: The Bruins are in a class above everyone else right now.  Let’s get to those grades:

Marc Staal: He’s played just a handful of games. Everyone knows he’s the rock on defense, and the Rangers just upgraded tremendously with him coming back. Grade: INC.

Dan Girardi: With Staal out indefinitely, the blue line was put in Girardi’s hands…and boy did he deliver. Girardi has been flawless in his own end. He plays the most minutes in the entire league, he plays against top competition, he consistently shuts down that top opposition, he has been contributing offensively, and he has been a leader for this young Rangers team. Grade: A+.

Ryan McDonagh: Staal’s injury opened up a spot for McDonagh on the top pairing, and he has been sensational in that role. He and Girardi have clicked, and aside from a few poor games, McDonagh has been a monster. Rick Carpiniello of LoHud calls him McMonster, and that’s exactly what he is. Throw in his growing offensive skills, and this sophomore defenseman has been a tremendous pickup. Thank you Mr. Gomez. Grade: A.

Michael Del Zotto: Another player that was forced to play up a pairing due to injury, Del Zotto has also been phenomenal. He leads the defensemen in scoring, and is fifth on the team in that same category with 23 points (5-18-23). He leads the team in assists, plus/minus, fan girls, and haters. Seriously, what else does this kid need to do? Sure, he makes a bad pass every now and then, but he’s 22 years old. I’ll take this from a 22 year old any day. Grade: A.

Mike Sauer: Currently out with a concussion, Sauer was the rock on the blue line that most thought was the reason for Del Zotto’s re-emergence.  Although Del Zotto has succeeded without Sauer in the lineup, Sauer is still an integral part of the Rangers blue line. He doesn’t put up the fancy numbers that Del Zotto does, he doesn’t garner the All Star consideration that Girardi does, but he just does his job. The best thing you can say about a defensive defenseman is that you don’t notice him, and rarely does Sauer go noticed. Grade: A.

Steve Eminger: Eminger had an atrocious start to the year. He just couldn’t do anything right, and was a bit of a whipping boy ’round these parts. However, when Sauer went down with his concussion, Emmy stepped up. Much like last year with the Michal Rozsival injury, Eminger assumed top four minutes and played like a champ. His start hurts his grade, but he gets significant bonus points for his ability to play up to his role, no matter what. His injury was supposed to be the one that crippled the Rangers, who were already without Staal and Sauer, but it didn’t. Grade: B.

Jeff Woywitka:Serviceable, reliable, tough, and surprisingly reliable. Much like Eminger, Woywitka was a whipping boy here after his poor start to the season. However, unlike Eminger, he played better as he got used to the John Tortorella way of life, and has been a great bottom pairing guy since. Maybe he has received too much ice time because of injuries, but the Rangers sure haven’t noticed. Kudos to Woywitka for persevering, and earning his continued stay with the Blueshirts. Grade: B.

Anton Stralman: Signed as a free agent a few weeks into the season, no one knew what to expect from Stalman. After a few weeks with the team, it was clear that Tortorella wasn’t a big fan, a point confirmed on HBO’s 24/7 last week. However as he has played, he has grown into a player that is not only reliable, but someone that Tortorella can play top-four minutes without hesitation. Stralman has been paired with Del Zotto, and both have flourished. Martin Biron might be the best offseason acquisition in a while, but the signing of Stralman might be the most underappreciated. Grade: A-.

Stu Bickel: The last man cut from the blue line in the preseason, Bickel earned a call up following Eminger’s separated shoulder and Woywitka’s bruised foot forced the Rangers’ hand. Bickel has been a physical presence on the blue line that has rarely made a mistake. He’s still a rookie, and yes his mistakes have and will come, but the Rangers couldn’t have asked for more from him. With Sauer out, Bickel has replaced that physicality that was sorely missing. Grade: B+.

Tim Erixon: He played in the beginning of the year when Sauer was out, and most recently while Woywitka was out. It’s clear he’s still not ready for the big show, but he’s a promising young defenseman that has done many things right. He’s only played 13 games, but it’s apparent the Rangers have a serious NHL player on their hands. Grade: INC.

Brendan Bell: Played one game. Grade: INC.

*Here is Justin’s mid-season report for the goalies & Suit’s report for our bottom six forwards. Stay tuned for reports on our top 6 forwards and our coaches.

Changes Are Coming On The Blue Line

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’.

Stralman’s Short Stay

One of the more underrated aspects of the Rangers recent impressive stretch is Anton Stralman stepping up and playing solidly on the second pair. Increased minutes (17/game), sound defense (+9 rating) and a decent offensive game (5 assists in just 12 games); Stralman has helped ease the Rangers through a torrid stretch of injuries on their blue line. However, we probably shouldn’t get used to Stralman patrolling the Rangers blue line.

There’s a very good chance Stralman is auditioning for the rest of the NHL. The Rangers are pretty stacked on the blue line. With Marc Staal and Mike Sauer set to return and with Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Mike Del Zotto all core pieces of the blue line going forward there’s only really one spot left to fight over on the blue line with lots of candidates aiming for that spot six.

The also-impressive (surprising) Stu Bickel, Dylan McIlrath and Tim Erixon will all also be in the mix for the final spot next season. Steve Eminger and Jeff Woywitka (at this point in time) may also be considered, especially Eminger. Hopefully with Erixon getting big minutes in CT, he’ll be ready for a full time NHL role next season making competition at camp intense.

Stralman could be a viable candidate from the Rangers point of view. As we’ve said, he’s proven he can handle minutes and make plays at both ends of the ice but the main reason he’s probably not a realistic option for next year is price. The better Stralman plays, the higher his price will be. He may command double his current 900k on the open market. He may command more. Warped theory suggests that the Rangers want to hope they can’t afford him next year because it’ll mean he’s played well enough to command a raise.

The thing is, while the actual $$/sum for Stralman may not be prohibitive the Rangers likely won’t want to invest too much more money in the defensive part of the roster, especially with new deals (AKA raises) on the horizon for Del Zotto and McDonagh. With significant salaries already tied into Staal and Girardi, and the aforementioned raises on the blue line due, the more realistic options are a cheap contract like Eminger or a prospect like Bickel.

The best case scenario for Rangers fans is Stralman plays out an impressive season and earns himself a good contract in the NHL; maybe with the Rangers, probably not. Here’s hoping both the Rangers and the fans enjoy this very public audition. It’s in everyone’s interests it keeps going well.

Time To Ease the Burden

Despite the quality of opposition increasing in the coming two weeks, new signing Anton Stralman still not completely ready (despite playing in his first game the other day), and the continuing absence of Marc Staal the Rangers need to spread the ice time around a little more among the blue line.

It’s absurd that two Rangers blue liners (McDonagh and Girardi) average more than 25 minutes a game with Dan Girardi over 27 minutes per contest. Meanwhile, despite Mike Del Zotto showing solid progression this year he is not ready for the 22(ish) minutes per game he is receiving. Young players can burn out later in the year with so much expectancy on their shoulders, not to mention the actual physical demands, so if Tortorella wants to continue to ride  his top 3 so hard, Stralman and Staal may come in and find the rest of the blue line is out of gas.

The Rangers coach needs to show a little more faith in the bottom pair or if they are not ready or able, he needs to turn to Connecticut for alternatives. The eventual arrival of Stralman will help alleviate the pressure on the top players (one assumes) but it still needs to be a healthier spread of ice time. The Rangers blue line has not been bad but it all comes down to the minute munchers at the top. That can’t continue over an 82 game season.

The bottom pair on the blue line reminds somewhat of a few seasons back when the team consistently carried just six defensemen and players began playing like their jobs were secure. Is that an issue here now? Or is Steve Eminger simply that terrible and Woywitka just that inconsistent?

Steve Eminger did an honorable job last season, stepping up in times of need. The Rangers can find out a lot about him if they give him more ice time over the next week or two. If he continues his dire play of this season then he needs to be cut loose. If he steps up and stabilizes his play then he becomes a legitimate alternative.

The Rangers need to spread the defensive minutes for a few reasons; the health and the long term well being of the guys at the top and to find out what they really have at the bottom. You’d rather find out who you can rely on by game 30 than have question marks come April.

When Does Stralman Play?

When the Rangers signed Anton Stralman early this season, the immediate question was finding where he fit in on the roster. With the state of the Rangers defense, specifically the bottom pairing, in what can only be called a state of flux, the question now is when Stralman actually plays, and not if he actually plays.

Stralman may not bring much to the table defensively (1.2 DGVT, 1.5 GVT in 2010-2011), but he brings more to the bottom pairing than Steve Eminger (0.5 GVT in 2010-2011), who has struggled mightily this season. Eminger was great in a pinch for the Rangers last season when the club lost Michal Rozsival to injury for an extended period. He filled in admirably, and his play was a factor –along with Ryan McDonagh– in the decision to trade Rozsival.

Oh how I would love to have Rozsival on this blue line right now.

But Rozsival is gone, and Stralman is currently waiting to get in. He practiced on one of the powerplay units yesterday, manning a point position along with Brad Richards. John Tortorella has been saying that he doesn’t know when Stralman will get in, but if he’s on the powerplay in practice, it means he will be on the ice with the team very soon.

The Rangers simply cannot continue with Dan Girardi playing 75 minutes in a 60 minute game. At some point his legs are going to go on strike. Ryan McDonagh isn’t that far behind Girardi in ice time, and the Michael connection (Del Zotto, Sauer) is currently playing 23 minutes a game as well. There needs to be balance among the defensive pairings. Marc Staal isn’t coming back soon, so hopefully Stralman can provide some sort of short term stability.

Stalman Enters; Who Sits?

The news broke yesterday that the New York Rangers had signed defenseman Anton Stralman to a one year, $900,000 contract to fill out the blue line with Marc Staal out indefinitely. The Rangers are using the old method of “throwing stuff at the wall and see what sticks” to fill out the bottom pairing. People thrown at the wall include rookie Tim Erixon (now in the AHL), Brendan Bell (AHL), Steve Eminger (rough start), and Jeff Woywitka (four games).

None of the top four will sit, as all four have been playing extremely well. So it’s clearly between Eminger and Woywitka. Woywitka had a rough first couple of games, but played a very good game last night, and definitely has been showing improvement as each game progresses. That is a very good sign, as it shows Woywitka is learning coach John Tortorella’s system, and growing more comfortable with his transition to New York.

As for Eminger, well he has been somewhat atrocious. Without rehashing the entire post from last week, Eminger has not been able to help his team maintain possession of the puck while he is on the ice, despite facing mediocre competition at best. He has been out of position, and lacked the “jam” that made him somewhat effective last season. Simply put, he has regressed, while Woywitka has progressed. Not a good sign for Eminger.

Add to the picture that Stralman and Eminger are both righties (Woywitka is a lefty), and the cards just don’t play out for Eminger at the moment. Assuming Woywitka keeps up his strong play, it’s going to be tough to argue against sitting Eminger when Stralman joins the team. Having a spare defenseman on the roster isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it will keep those bottom guys playing hard, knowing they could be in the press box at any given moment.

Of course, the Rangers could always try some sort of rotation with Eminger, Woywitka, and Stralman at first, and see who emerges as a legitimate bottom pairing player. It’s the same method the Rangers used last year with Eminger, Mike Sauer, and Matt Gilroy. The rotation worked well, as the Rangers discovered they had a defense beast in Sauer. That’s not to say it will happen again this year, but getting them all playing time could really help identify which player –or pairing– is most effective.

Report: Rangers sign Anton Stralman

Via Bob McKenzie, the Rangers have signed right-handed defenseman Anton Stralman to a one-year contract worth $900,000. The team has not yet confirmed the signing according to Steve Zipay. The Rangers’ interest in Stralman has been rumored for what feels like weeks now, and the move just adds some blue line depth given Marc Staal’s continued absence due to concussion-like symptoms.