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.
(p.s. if you missed it, here’s the Suit’s take on the top six scoring forwards this season – enjoy.)
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+
When thinking about the biggest piece of theft in recent Rangers history it is prudent to remember Mr. McDonagh played just 45 games in the NHL (playoffs inclusive) before this season. With the Marc Staal injury someone had to step up and log big minutes this year and my word did McDonagh answer the call.
Like Girardi, McDonagh munched minutes, had some offensive pop to his game – that was more than could be expected for a first full year – and was physically impressive. That doesn’t even begin to do McDonagh justice when you consider his own shot blocking expertise, positional play and his ability to strip the puck carrier.
If there was a bone to pick with McDonagh’s season then it would be that he began to look tired in the playoffs (particularly offensively), which was likely due to the excessive workload. After 18 months as an NHL pro, McDonagh is a bona fide top pair defenseman. Thank you Bob Gainey and thank you Glen Sather. Mid-season: A+/Full Season: A+/Playoffs: A
Michael Del Zotto
Let’s not waste time regurgitating the unreasonable nicknames Del Zotto acquired prior to this season and the ridiculous trade requests from the less patient members of the fan base. For a vast majority of the year Del Zotto showed tremendous progress, impressive consistency and an impressive character to bounce back from a truly unfortunate sophomore season. Del Zotto displayed his offensive game once again with 41 points. He was among the league leaders in +/- for a long time.
And despite the stat being oft criticised – no mean feat for a man that was a combined -25 in 127 games entering the season – he showed a surprising level of physical play that was mostly devoid of previously unnecessary positionally sacrificing checks. Del Zotto couldn’t maintain his high standard all year. However, errors were more common toward the end of the season and his offensive game wasn’t quite as impressive as in the first half of the year. Tiredness? All considered, Del Zotto has re-established himself as an impressive young member of the Rangers. Mid-season: A-/Full Season: B+/Playoffs: B+
I’m going to be somewhat harsh on Marc Staal because he has unbelievable talent. Staal missed a significant portion of the year with his concussion issues and naturally this has to be considered when judging the All Star defenseman. That said, Staal never seemed to get any real consistency in the regular season despite dressing for 46 games. With that in mind, it was encouraging that Staal improved in the playoffs suggesting he may get back to his best by the time next year creeps up on us.
This year Staal wasn’t his usual dominant self defensively. His decision making wasn’t as sure as normal and his offensive game – that had been growing in recent seasons – basically dried up. Despite all this, Staal came back to average nearly 20 minutes/game in the regular season and shot up to over 25 mins/game in the postseason. With a top four of Girardi, McDonagh, Del Zotto and a hopefully back-to-his-best Staal next season, will any team in the entire league boast a better top four? Mid-season: INC./Full Season: C/Playoffs: B+
Signed at very short notice after an unsuccessful pre-season with the Devils, Stralman was mostly a pleasant surprise as a Ranger after taking some time to enter and then solidify a place in the line-up. Stralman helped give the Rangers blueline depth when they lost Mike Sauer and while Marc Staal looked to regain game shape. He played a solid game offensively and minimized mistakes in his own end.
Averaging a healthy 17 minutes in the regular season, Stralman chipped in with 18 points and for the most part, was one of the few Rangers to actually raise their games in the playoffs. Even if it’s not with the Rangers, Stralman has done enough to not have to consider Europe for employment next year. Though, reports say he is considering crossing the pond for family reasons, which is too bad. Mid-season: A-/Full Season: B/Playoffs: B+
Stu Bickel and Jeff Woywitka
These two depth blueliners are bunched together here because both played on the bottom pair, both contributed at various times and both have (at best) question marks around their Ranger futures. While Woywitka likely won’t be back simply because of better options in the organisation, Bickel’s play started promisingly before dipping badly toward the end of the year.
Bickel hardly saw the ice when other blueliners were playing big minutes in the playoffs and his lack of polish, the occasional unnecessary fight and more talented options waiting in the wings mean Bickel might have to worry about his status with the club. At times Bickel looks like a promising, rugged depth defenseman, at others he looks a liability. Mid-season: B+, B/Full Season: C+, D+/Playoffs: C-, INC.
I’m really not sure what to say about Steve Eminger and that perhaps says a lot in itself. A season ruined by injury Eminger was often passed over by Tortorella for a man in Bickel who hardly saw the ice in the postseason. Eminger has played well in spots over the past two years for the Rangers, but if he wants a regular shift in the NHL next year (something that he is capable of), he won’t be back with the Rangers.
Drafted as an offensive blueliner, Eminger rarely threatened offensively and rarely stood out in general. Was it because of his injuries? We’ll never know. Mid-season: B/Full Season: D/Playoffs: INC.
When the Rangers opened their season in Sweden way back last October, Erixon made his NHL debut amid much anticipation. That said Erixon was drip fed minutes and certainly looked like he needed seasoning when judging his 18 game ‘season’ with the Rangers. Erixon was a quality player at the AHL level with 33 points in 52 games, which likely would have been even better were it not for injuries upsetting form and momentum. At times Erixon looks composed on the puck and his passing and skating ability, not to mention his additional experience gained from this year, should give him a strong chance at starting with the Rangers next season, depending on how the Rangers offseason plays out. INC.
If Mike Sauer returns next year and is able to play close to his 2010-2011 form, then the Rangers truly will have an embarrassment of riches on the back end even if Dave, Suit, myself or any of the Blog team suit up as the sixth defenseman. Mind you, I can hardly skate and two members of our group grew up playing in net.
Sauer was an unfortunate victim of a Dion Phaneuf hit that has left a huge cloud over his future. Once considered injury prone, Sauer had begun to establish himself as a good quality top four NHL defenseman until that hit. Sauer can’t be accurately measured by his 19 games this year, but by the heavy minutes the rest of the top four had to play in his absence and the tiredness they would eventually show. INC.
The grades above tell a story consistent with the Rangers season on the back end; the top four blueliners were a distinct strength while the bottom pairing (for various reasons) was in an almost constant state of flux. With more consistency in the bottom pair next year – perhaps through Sauer’s return and Erixon’s emergence – the Rangers could possibly boast the best blueline in the entire league, offering hope of another deep post season run.