The Connecticut Whales’ preliminary roster for the upcoming AHL season exposes the lack of blueline depth the Rangers now have beyond the NHL level. The Rangers have benefited in recent times as several prospects have developed into successful, full time NHL’ers in quick succession but the lack of a legitimate NHL candidate at the pro level – beyond the currently injured Dylan McIlrath – suggests the Rangers need to look at the position in the upcoming few draft classes.
While the Rangers also have Brady Skjei and Calle Andersson in the system, there is a lack of depth coming through to follow the Staal’s and Del Zotto’s on to the New York roster. The list of names heading to the Whale camp isn’t confidence inspiring. With all due respect the majority of Sean Collins, Steven Delisle, Jyri Niemi, Blake Parlett, Logan Pyett and Mike Vernace will top out as AHL depth players and it seems – being optimistic – only Jyri Niemi can (realistically?) harbour NHL hopes.
Whoever lines up on the Whale blueline this season will face stern tests on an almost nightly basis when you look at some of the impressive names (think Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, Schenn, Henrique etc) sent to respective AHL affiliates. Big league clubs such as Edmonton, New Jersey and Philadelphia have a host of top NHL talent heading to the minors and therefore the unproven, unheralded group of blueliners the Whale will likely put on the ice will know sooner rather than later whether they capable of greater things. Hopefully some of the prospects will surprise.
One of the keys to remaining an elite franchise in the NHL – or any sports league for that matter – is the ability to continually evolve, integrate players, coaches and systems and build a solid foundation on which a club grows. In the NHL, the best example in recent times has been the Detroit Red Wings.
Despite never enjoying the benefit of lottery draft picks, the Wings found ways to win Stanley Cups and be a consistent contender thanks to routinely excellent decision making and timely roster management. They are in many ways the model NHL franchise.
The Rangers have begun to show the same traits as the Red Wings over the past few years and it is therefore no coincidence that the Rangers boast a quality prospect pipeline, have their most successful season in recent memory just behind them and a bright future ahead of them. The Rangers however, need to continue with their evolution to remain successful and it is this reason why the club should seriously consider moving Marc Staal.
There are many reasons Staal is a ‘keeper’. There may however be more reasons to trade him. No one foresaw the rapid development of Ryan McDonagh. The young Ranger is arguably already the best defenseman on the team; is a future perennial All Star and has a more rounded game than Staal. With Dan Girardi and Mike Del Zotto fixtures on the blueline going forward and the likes of Mike Sauer and Dylan McIlrath in the mix the Rangers can afford to move Staal if the return is favourable.
Despite it being the dog days of the summer for the pros there has still been some important hockey played by some of the Rangers most prized prospects. Steve Fogarty, Brady Skjei and JT Miller have been attending the initial US world juniors’ evaluation camp over the last week and all three have performed well. Chris Peters of the excellent United States of Hockey website (a blog dedicated to US hockey) has been following the camp and has been kind enough to give us some updates on all three Rangers representatives.
Chris has been monitoring the US evaluation camp closely and what follows is some insight on each of the Rangers prospects, how they performed to date and offered some opinion as to their NHL futures.
This is what Chris had to say about college bound Steve Fogarty:
Right before free agency opens up another desperate general manager on another desperate team has once again made Glen Sather look good. While there’s no doubting the Flames acquisition of Dennis Wideman was a solid move, the contract given to him by Jay Feaster smacks of desperation and makes Ranger contracts like Marc Staal’s and in particular Dan Girardi’s look like excellent value.
There’s no doubt that Wideman has a little more offensive pop to his game than either Staal or Girardi but is Wideman worth a full no movement clause and close to $2m per year more? Absolutely not.
Clearly, this was a GM who needed to add talent to a club unwilling to start from scratch and stopping a player from reaching free agency where he could cash in, in a weak class. However, when you consider the solid two way play of both Ranger linchpin’s – and above all their minute munching, defensive abilities – Sather’s ability to lock down both to reasonable mid-length contracts shows the general manager is doing right.
When trade rumors begin to surface, many begin to panic. It’s not unexpected to see this panicking, as the Rangers were so close last season to playing for the Stanley Cup, it makes you wonder what management will do to make that next step. Per Larry Brooks, the organization has dubbed seven key players as “untouchable” in their search for scoring:
Mentioning Cally, Girardi, and Lundqvist is just a formality, as these are guys in or entering their prime who are core pieces for the Rangers. As for the first four mentioned by Brooks, those names are expected to be deemed as “untouchable.” If the Rangers were open to moving any of them, the return would have to be monstrous.
McDonagh was a given for the status of untouchable because of the impact he’s made on the roster. McDonagh emerged as a top pairing defender when Marc Staal went down with his concussion, and stayed there even when Staal returned. The pairing of McDonagh and Girardi is one of the best shutdown pairs in the game today. Throw in the fact that McDonagh has yet to tap into his offensive potential, and we could be looking at a Norris winner in the future.
Before we get to the report card for the Rangers blueline, let’s remember this: the Rangers enjoyed a spectacular season bested by only two teams in the entire league. A huge part of this success was because of the Rangers blueline. With that said, let’s look at the grades for the Rangers defensemen.
For a significant part of the season Dan Girardi played like a Norris Trophy candidate. He was that good. Girardi enjoyed his finest season for the Rangers. With 29 points, a plus 13 rating, being an absolute work horse like few other in the entire league not to mention all the shot blocking, Dan Girardi literally does it all for the Rangers.
Aside from a very occasional stumble in the latter half of the season the only things that perhaps stop Girardi from being the perfect all round defenseman are his shooting percentage and lack of presence on the power play (1 goal). I really had to nitpick when trying to criticise Dan Girardi for this post. He is a richly deserved 2012 NHL All Star. Mid-season: A+/Full Season: A+/Playoffs: A+
You’d think a Rangers related blog would champion the last line of defense more than most. However the last line of defense – the goaltender – isn’t everything. Despite being a Hart and Vezina finalist, despite being the best goaltender on the planet this season, Henrik Lundqvist still needs a quality blueline in front of him to succeed, as does any successful goalie for that matter. It is this consideration however, why the Rangers should feel confident they can handle the surprisingly strong Devils in the conference finals.
Why you ask? Look at the Capitals. They had a former Norris candidate, blueline scoring machine in Mike Green start to rediscover his form in the Rangers series. They had two future studs in Karl Alzner and John Carlson and a quality top four defenseman in Dennis Wideman. They had a deep defense, one of the few that on paper can match the Rangers unit. Then, behind that defense they had a solid netminder. While the Rangers never tested Braden Holtby enough, part of the reason they got so little rubber on net was what was because of what was in front of him.
Of course Braden Holtby is not Marty Brodeur. The Devil is a legend at his position who is enjoying an Indian summer. That said Marek Zidlicky, Andy Greene, Peter Harrold, Bryce Salvador and Mark Fayne hardly comprise an intimidating defense. Would Holtby have had the same level of success without the quality that was in front of him? With all due respect, probably not.
Undoubtedly one of the unexpected surprises for the Rangers in this post season has been Anton Stralman. Stralman had a solid regular season for the Rangers, especially given that he arrived after the pre-season. That said no one could have foreseen Stralman playing as well as he has in the playoffs thus far. It has been a massive bonus for the Rangers.
While we have discussed the likelihood of Stralman’s next contract being elsewhere before (due to probable contract demands), perhaps a point we haven’t touched upon enough is whether the Rangers should seek to retain Stralman after this season.
Stralman has ensured the poor play of Stu Bickel hasn’t been too costly this off season. He has provided offense and has been solid in his own end. It goes without saying that Stralman is an NHL player next season. With Dylan McIlrath and Tim Erixon progressing to the point they may be viable candidates next year (Erixon especially so) there may not be a point in bringing back Stralman. However, the Rangers possess one of the best defence’s in the league and Stralman is part of that deep group.
News this morning broke that Chris Neil would not have a hearing –thus no suspension– for his hit on Brian Boyle that knocked the Rangers most dominant skater in this series* out of the game (and likely season) with a concussion. The hit (video below) had Boyle looking down at the puck while skating over the middle, and Neil specifically seeking him out ad delivering the hit.
*-It’s sad when Boyle is the most dominant skater in the series for the Rangers.
While this season the Rangers top defensemen have undoubtedly been the Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh tandem, perhaps one of the most key aspects of a successful first round series against the Ottawa Senators may be the play (and subsequent impact) of Marc Staal.
Without doubt Staal is and has been a number one defenseman but as everyone knows, injury has meant his play has taken a while to get close to his own high standards. Indeed, he’s still not the Marc Staal of old however his play has been steadily improving of late and how Staal handles the quick and tricky Senators offense could have a huge bearing on the series.
Every Ranger fan know of the team’s 1-2-1 record in the four games against the Sens this year and will be acutely aware of how the team has struggled to score against them. Amid the 14 goals credited to the Sens in the season series it perhaps went unnoticed that Girardi was a -3 in those four games while Ryan McDonagh was -1.
Both players were also held scoreless despite providing the Rangers with solid offensive seasons with 29 and 32 points respectively. Clearly neither player has produced their best performances against the Sens and therefore how guys like Mike Del Zotto, but especially Marc Staal, cope in the series will be essential. The Rangers don’t want the top pairing munching 30+ minutes a night if they have realistic designs of a deep run.