Big Days Ahead For Rangers Defense

As if missing John Moore to a five-game NHL suspension and Dan Boyle to a broken hand weren’t enough, the Rangers defensive core took two more blows Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets when Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Klein both fell victim to additional injuries. McDonagh, who suffered a separated shoulder on a hit from Evander Kane, is expected to be sidelined for 3-4 weeks, while Klein, who was diagnosed with a foot contusion, will definitely miss Monday night’s game against St. Louis, and possibly more. Klein will be reevaluated in 3-4 days. Both injuries occurred during the first period of Saturday’s game.

While the Rangers now find themselves heading into the foreseeable future missing four of their top six defenseman, the voids at the Ranger blue line have created some big opportunities for those now occupying the Rangers’ six defensive slots.

Girardi and Staal

Let’s get this out of the way first. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have both been a part of the Rangers top-defensive paring at one time or another in their careers. For Marc Staal it was in seasons past However, Girardi is currently the number two defenseman on the Rangers roster. While both haven’t played the sharpest hockey of their careers as of late, both are still extremely capable defenders with a lot of experience playing against the top stars on opposing teams.

At the end of the day, the fact that Staal and Girardi are both still available to potentially take over as New York’s top pairing is something the Rangers and their fans should be very thankful for. Not all NHL squads have that sort of depth.

Dan Girardi has been on the Rangers’ top defensive pairing for a while now. He’s an NHL veteran with an impressive track record of playing against the league’s best offensive lines, and in turn he struck a six-year, $33 million deal last February. And yet, despite his long-term deal and proven NHL success, Girardi has come under fire recently as many have criticized him for not being a top-2 defenseman without his partner across the way, Ryan McDonagh.

(Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)
(Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s no secret that Dan Girardi did struggle during the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. Girardi was out of sorts, and was on the wrong end of a number of uncharacteristic giveaways. Girardi has also had moments during this new ’14-’15 campaign where he’s been less than sharp, especially on the power play. However, it’s pretty widely known that Dan Girardi is not exactly an offensive powerhouse. Girardi will more than likely never score 20 goals, and he’ll certainly never be a full-time quarterback on a power play. Nobody should expect that.

But with a depleted blue line such as the one the Rangers are currently working with, an offensive defenseman on defense is not what the Rangers are in desperate need of. The Rangers need someone who can play defense, nothing more.

The fact remains that Girardi is a tremendously strong defenseman who is no stranger to playing against opposing teams’ top lines. With McDonagh now injured, Girardi has a chance to silence the critics and show that regardless of whether McDonagh is alongside him, he is still a key player capable of playing sharp, simple defense as a top-2 defender.

Girardi got off to a strong start in making that case as he set a regular season career-high 34:50 of ice-time Saturday against Winnipeg.

And then there’s Marc Staal. Of the six defenseman that currently make up the Rangers defense, Staal probably has the most to prove.

At the end of this season, Staal’s contract is set to expire. Though contract negotiations have been intermittent and open-ended, there hasn’t been very much progress towards reaching a deal between Staal and the Rangers. Staal is currently asking for a six-year, $36 million deal. However, Glen Sather and the Rangers are not yet willing to go that high in order to re-sign Staal. And on the part of the Rangers, that’s probably smart.

In a 2013 contest against the Flyers, Marc Staal received a puck to the face off of a Kimmo Timonen slap shot. It was a gruesome injury that took Staal months to recover from, and depending on who you ask, he may still be recovering. Staal has just not been the same shutdown defenseman that he was since sustaining the eye injury.

Staal has been slower with the puck, and not as quick with his decision making in the defensive zone. It may not be a whole lot, but in a game as fast as hockey, milliseconds can make all the difference. For Staal, it has made the difference.

With the state of the Rangers’ defense, Staal, like Girardi, now has a big opportunity to prove himself. For the past couple of seasons, Staal has not been a top-2 defenseman. Now, there’s the very real possibility that Staal will be joining Girardi to fill out the Rangers top defensive pairing. Whether or not he’s with Girardi though, the inevitable heightened responsibility for Staal is the perfect time for him to step up his game, and prove to Sather and the Rangers that he deserves the new contract which he’s demanding.

Fight for the Seventh

We all saw what occurred a couple of weeks ago when Michael Kostka was in the lineup during the Rangers loss to the Islanders. It wasn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination. However, Saturday against Winnipeg was a very different performance from Kostka. Unlike his prior game against the Islanders, on Saturday Kostka looked like a steady, confident defenseman. In 21:56 of ice time, Kostka recorded three shots-on-net, three hits, and three blocked shots. Best of all for Ranger fans, though, was the fact that he didn’t have any giveaways; impressive compared to the three he had (two which led directly to goals) in his only other game of the season against the Islanders. Kostka even nearly put himself on the score sheet Saturday when he had a point-blank opportunity in which Ondrej Pavelec made a nice save to preserve the 0-0 tie.

Following his October 14th performance, it seemed unlikely that Kostka would get a second chance with the Rangers this season. However, given the situation the Rangers now find themselves in, Kostka has a chance at redemption. He’s done well in one game so far. He just needs to duplicate that performance and show some consistency in his play.

Playing opposite Kostka on Saturday was Matt Hunwick. Hunwick has now played in eight of the Rangers ten games this season, and he’s become better and better. In four of his eight games this season, Hunwick has exceeded 17 minutes on the ice, and topped out at 27:58 during Saturday’s shootout loss to the Jets.

Hunwick has been smart with the puck, good in his own zone, and even made an impressive save on the goal line to preserve the shutout for Henrik Lundqvist against San Jose back in October, which may or may not have gotten him on the “good side” of the vast majority of Ranger fans. As the Hunwick-Kostka duo moves forward here, Hunwick will have to continue his stellar play. If he does, he may be well on his way to solidifying himself the seventh defensive spot once full health returns to the Rangers’ defensemen.

Opportunity For The Kids

On Sunday evening the Rangers announced that Conor Allen and Dylan McIlrath had both been called up from Hartford. For these two young defensemen, in their second and third AHL seasons respectively, this upcoming stint with the Rangers is crucial for many reasons.

McIlrath, 22, was the 10th overall pick of the 2010 NHL entry draft, and has only played in two NHL games in his career up to this point. He will need to prove that he is more than just a big, bruising defenseman, as the narrative has started to suggest.

Allen, on the other hand, was undrafted and signed with the Rangers after three seasons at UMass-Amherst. He, like McIlrath, has only played in two NHL games, both with the Rangers. Allen will need to show that he can transfer the success that he’s had this season with the Hartford Wolf Pack, to the NHL.

Given the lack of available open spots on defense with the Rangers recently, neither McIlrath nor Allen have yet to spend an extended stay in New York. This is a big chance for both of these players to show what they are capable of. As opportunities like this don’t come often, McIlrath and Allen are both going to need to make to most of each and every shift that they play on Monday, and possibly beyond.

Keep It Smart, and Keep It Simple

The Rangers are missing four of their top six defenseman. The current defensive roster is a skeleton of what it was almost a month ago on opening night. However, the injuries and suspensions that currently plague the Rangers’ defensive squad have created many opportunities for the current six defenseman to display what they’ve got.

McIlrath and Allen have been recalled from Hartford and must make the most of every shift to show they’re NHL ready. Hunwick has played stellar defense as of late, and in his case he simply needs to continue what he’s been doing. Michael Kostka has been given a second chance after his October debacle against the Islanders. Showing consistency in his defensive game is key for him. Dan Girardi has an opportunity to silence the critics who have tried to discredit him as a top-2 defenseman. And Marc Staal, now back on the team’s top-defensive pairing, must prove that he deserves the large contract extension he’s currently requesting.

In New York’s current defensive state, trying to do too much will only get the Rangers in trouble. The best way for this group of six to succeed? Keeping It Simple.