Rangers’ Young Defense Ready To Step Up
By Christopher Decker (@HockeyGuy_Chris)
(Photo courtesy of USA Today)
There was no question heading in to the season the New York Rangers not only had one of the best youth systems in the league, but one of the best defensive cores (who just so happen to be a major part of that youth) also.
When it was made known that Rangers all-star Marc Staal would be out for a prolonged period of time due to a concussion he sustained at the hands of his brother Eric last year, many questioned how well the back-end of the Rangers would perform in his absence.
While Dan Girardi and Michael Sauer could be relied upon because of their stellar defensive prowess, question marks surrounded the remaining defensive players on the roster to start the season.
Steve Eminger has had a career that has seen him bounce around to six different teams; Michael Del Zotto suffered the dreaded Sophomore Slump last year and many felt his first season could have been an aberration; expectations on Tim Erixon reached unfathomable heights, which doesn’t always bode well for the player; Ryan McDonagh had a stellar first 40 games of his career last year, but there was no way of knowing if he’d carry that success over to his first full NHL season; Jeff Woywitka was a first round draft pick who has found it hard to find a home in the NHL; and Anton Stralman has had success with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but really suffered in the plus/minus department.
But here we sit 30 games in to the season and the Rangers hold the second best goals against in the league despite those aforementioned question marks, trailing the Boston Bruins by only four goals.
Sure, you can credit the Rangers’ defensive success to goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who has practically single-handedly led the Rangers to the playoffs four out of the last five years. But this year, the team’s defense has really stepped up their game. There is no further proof that symbolizes this strong defense other than back-up goalie Martin Biron’s record. Not to belittle Biron’s strong play this year, but he is currently 6-1 with a .934 save percentage. And a large part of his success is due to the guys in front of him. When a back-up goalie puts up numbers like that, it’s usually a sign of cohesiveness on the back-end.
But the Rangers have now run in to the dreaded injury bug. As a result, more question marks have popped up. Staal and Sauer are now both out with concussions; Eminger has suffered a shoulder injury that will sideline him for over two months; and Woywitka is suffering from a foot injury.
The real test begins tonight as the Rangers dig deep in to their farm system to try and alleviate the injuries they currently face.
Tim Erixon briefly played earlier in the season for the Rangers, but after some shaky games, John Tortorella decided to send him back down to the Connecticut Whale to help develop his game. Now that the Rangers defense has been decimated with injuries, the club is no relying on one of their most highly-touted young guns. This will be a great test for Erixon to show coaches and management how much he’s matured from his stint in the minors. In 14 games with the Whale, Erixon has registered a solid 12 points. The Rangers are hoping he carries his game over to the big club starting with tonight’s match-up with the New Jersey Devils.
Stu Bickel, another member of the Whale, will make his NHL debut tonight. And while Erixon got a taste of what it was like to play for the Rangers earlier in the year, Bickel is chomping at the bit to deliver a great first impression.
The Rangers should be proud of how deep their system goes. At this juncture, inexperience may cause this current Rangers defensive core some troubles until their players start returning from injury. But one thing is certain. Much like they’ve done most of the year, the Rangers plan to play resilient, passionate hockey. And there is no question this mentality always bodes well for the youngsters.
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