Competing for the last spots on the blue line

The conversations this summer have mainly focused on the Rangers forwards. With three forwards departing, three (four if you include the AHL-bound Michael Haley) coming on board, and the never-ending discussions about Rick Nash, Bobby Ryan, Alex Semin, and Shane Doan, it’s easy to see why the focus is on scoring and depth.

However some of the biggest concerns during the postseason were about the depth on defense. Stu Bickel was barely playing, and the five other defensemen were struggling to keep their legs under them while playing shorthanded throughout the playoffs. The Rangers need depth or growth. With Michael Sauer out, and no major signings pending, the answers appear to have to come from within.

The Locks: Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal

These guys are a given and will likely play on the top-four.

The Almost-Locks: Anton Stralman, Michael Del Zotto

Stralman filed for arbitration, almost guaranteeing he will be back with the Rangers for one more season. Del Zotto is an RFA, and unless he is traded (unlikely), he will be back next year. Combined with Girardi, McDonagh, and Staal, this gives the Rangers five locks for defensemen. The last spot is likely going to a right-handed shot, as the Rangers are currently lacking one.

The Incumbent: Stu Bickel

Bickel was a bit of a revelation last season. The last man cut from the roster in October, and the main call up from Connecticut when Sauer, Steve Eminger, and Jeff Woywitka went down with injuries, Bickel played his way into a permanent roster spot during the regular season. During the postseason his foot speed and skating ability were exploited by deeper and quicker teams. If he wants to keep his spot, he will need to work at it.

The Question Mark: Michael Sauer

Will he return? Can he be what he was? If the answer to those two are yes, then he plays, and then it’s Stralman who is on thin ice.

The Up-And-Comer: Tim Erixon

Many penciled him into the lineup last season, only to see Erixon play a grand total of 18 games over three separate stints with the Rangers. He wasn’t ready for the NHL last year, but yet many still have him penciled in for this year. As a left-handed shot, he will need to impress a lot of people to get that chance on Broadway.

The Dark Horse: Dylan McIlrath

The Undertaker has a few things going for him: He’s a right-handed shot, and he’s a physical force that can help assuage the loss of Sauer. McIlrath’s biggest issue was skating, but he has made tremendous progress in that area. He likely needs another year, but a strong preseason could prove otherwise.

In the end, I’d expect Bickel to get the last spot to break camp, and the Rangers to sign a veteran free agent to fill in as a depth defenseman. Erixon will be the first injury call up, regardless of handedness, and at that point will be given every opportunity to stick. McIlrath will need a year of seasoning. As for Sauer, if he comes back, then the Rangers blue line is a force to be reckoned with.

Show More
  • Few things.
    Erixon wasn’t all that good during his first call up last season. Than he was called up a 2nd tine and he improved and looked to me as if he needed a little more time in the AHL. I’m thinking now he is ready to go and play NHL minutes consistently.

    “Will he return? Can he be what he was? If the answer to those two are yes, then he plays, and then it’s Stralman who is on thin ice.”
    We already have enforcers so why need Bickel? Why have a guy who plays 3-4 minutes play and have a young defensemen who rose up the ranks last year who played top 4 minutes last year sit out? It wouldn’t make a lot of sense. When Sauer returns he will not be playing the same amount of minutes than before he went down with the concussion. Staal was out less time and he wasn’t 100%. Sauer is out longer so he probably will not be 100%. In fact Sauer might need to be scratched occasionally if he has a headache. When Sauer is 100% Bickel will be the odd man out. Bickel is a downgrade over Stralman and Sauer. If this is a team like last year than they will need to improve especially in the playoffs where Torts played 5 defensemen. I know scoring was another issue but i won’t go there until i give Mr Sather

    • Tim, have you seen Erixon play much since the last time he was called up? curious why you believe he is ready now. i didnt watch his playoffs or anything but if you or someone did and he is clearly dominating the ahl that would be exciting news

      • After his first call up last year Erixon was sent down where he played 13 games for the Whale and had 1 goal and 11 assists. Almost a point per game. He had 3 goals and 30 assists in 52 games last year with the Whale. In the NHL he played the bottom pair and didnt get as many minutes as i can remember. He could have been sent down because he would play more minutes and develop a bit more. Also if you play for Torts than you need to earn minutes. I have not watched Erixon in the AHL but because he had 30 assists in 52 games shows to me that he can play on the NHL level and have a good chance on becoming a fully developed hockey player. Erixon could be seen on the power play because of his assist rate in Hartford. It shows to me that he knows who to pass to on the ice for a good scoring chance.

        • i have also seen his stats but as i said havent seen him on the ice in a while. if there’s one thing i have learned about prospects though is that stats rarely tell the whole story. evidently did not show enough to crack the playoff roster in place of stu even with the team desperate for scoring. hope you are right

  • Bickels skating is the a big problem, hopefully he went to see Barbara Underhill with Boyle in the offseason.

    McIlrath’s injury may keep him in the AHL for the start or full season. I dont remember where I read it but it was around the draft Gordie Clark said he would need a full year in the AHL before being ready.

    Erixon seemed to get better as the season went on, but Im not sure he is ready. I dont think they feel he was ready at the end of the season but has the summer to improve on what they feel is not ready. If he was ready he would have been given a shot in the games Bickel and Eminger played.

    Sauer didnt start working out until after the season. It all depends on setbacks. I dont think they are going to rush him back.

    If the youth isnt ready or if MDZ is moved (I hope he stays), there is a need for a defenseman. Maybe Eminger comes back healthy for one more year. Maybe Carlo Colaiacovo who is still unsigned.

    • Erixon might not have played due to a few things
      -Torts had him play like 8-9 minutes (i think it was) during his call ups
      -Lack of NHL experience (only played like 18 games at various points during the season)
      -I think it was Dave who wrote a post on Erixon saying that he was sent down to work in the corners of the ice (something like that)
      -MDZ is the only left handed shot who can play both LD and RD. ( if i am right)
      – playoffs are valuable, 1 mistake and you get benched or dont play ( remember Bickel’s turnover which led to a goal) ( think it was against Ottawa)

  • The Rangers have ample talent and first off, do not need to sign any veteran depth d-men. The talent they have can/will do the job. The “loss of legs when playing short” was NOT due to player capabilities….it was Torts penchant for sitting guys for three OT periods; or sitting a Gaborik for an on-ice mistake. I firmly believe that Torts simply wore out the guys he trusts, bot trust also hurt those players as they tired. Finally, Stu Bickel can play forward or Defense – he stays.

  • McIlrath is hurt, Sauer is hurt, why even consider tradeing MDZ?

    Tim Erixon will get a shot, and will have to prove himself. The kid has plenty of up-side, but is too weak, and must build upper body strength. That also could be said of Artie, but that’s another story.

    If Mike Sauer comes back, they could ill afford to rush him, let him work his way back like Marc Staal did. When healthy, he could be a force, and closes the hole created for a right handed shot. He then could be paired with either Stralman, Erixon, or even Bickel if need be.

    Stu is an assit, and should work to improve his skating. He isn’t as bad as they make him out to be. Torts has his likes, and dislikes, to a fault. In the play-offs, Stu could have been out there against the fourth line, giving the top 5 a break, but no Torts had him growing pine roots in his ass. He can play forward, and can defend his team mates. I think the man stays!

  • Nice summary. I’ve been worried about the Rangers Defensive Depth even before MciLrath went down. Don’t expect him back by training camp. I’d love to think Sauer will be back, but it makes better sense to think of his return as an unlikely bonus.

    The one thing to remember is that more than likely the Rangers will have a 7th d-man. Bickel makes perfect sense because of his aforementioned flexibility as a forward.

    But the most important thing about this discussion is that a lot of people are thinking the Rangers should give up DZ (and some are throwing Erixon in there as well) to acquire Nash. It makes sense why Skjei was drafted this year.

    • Well played, Mark, MikeSmack.

      Let’s collectively rub our Rosary beads hoping that Mike Sauer returns. Personally, if he suited up for 50-60 games I’d see it as a wonderful, if unexpected windfall.

      Let’s watch Tim Erixon and The Undertaker’s development with patience. Hold-on to MDZ. Then let Paul Holmgren or Kenny Holland overpay for Rick Nash while we focus on Shane Doan, who at 36 was arguably The Yote’s best playoff performer; and moreover, has more jam and character than Nash.

  • I think we do need a vet as a 1 year stop gap/competition for Bickel/Stralman. I think we start the year with out top 5 as mentioned and let the bottom 3 duke it out in camp. As for Erixon and Undertaker, I think the plan should be to start both In the AHL, together as a pair and give em big minutes. Let them develop and build chemistry together as a potential future pairing.

  • There is a good chance Eminger may be re signed for depth on D

    I wonder what happened to Klassen as he seemed like a real good depth prospect for us. Anyone know of his story?

    • Free agent if that is what you mean. He probably wontmake it to the NHL. There were a few players signed this week for depth.

  • There is another amusing option. If the Rangers don’t make a major move, they will have lots of cap space. They also have Wade Redden. Also, due to a quirk in the rules, Redden no longer needs to pass through recall waivers. So the Rangers can start the season juggling Bickel and Erixon in the #6 slot and if things don’t work out, they can turn to Redden.

    • Usually anyone making more than 105K in the AHL must clear recall waivers but there is an exception for career minor leaguers. This is a nice rule which allows someone like Kris Newbury to make a little more money and still get called up easily. The requirements are to have played a lot of games at all levels, AND to not have played 40 NHL games last year or 80 games the last two years. I use the word playing loosely – on the roster probably counts, injured reserve counts. Anyway, Redden hasn’t been on the Ranger roster for two whole years and so qualifies.

  • No direspect intended, but are you serious about Redden? He wasn’t sent down because of his salary. He was sent down because he flat out sucked worse than anyone down there, and his salary was 4 x higher.His name should never be mentioned in the same sentence as anything Ranger. Gomez, Drury, and BR were better signings. Redden was one ultimate dud whose player days ended in Ottawa 3 years ago.

    • Certainly the Redden signing was a huge error. However, I think that he was sent down because paying a third pair defenseman star money is crippling in the salary cap era, not because players like Bickel are actually better than him.
      I would never advocate not acquiring Nash or Doan to save cap space to play Redden, but if the Rangers end up with a lot of cap space, it’s an option.

  • Back to top button