Friday, January 14, 2011

Rangers Young Defense Core Proving It's Ready Now

For the New York Rangers much of the talk this week in the wake of the trade that sent Michal Rozsival to Phoenix for Wojtek Wolski has been about the youth and inexperience in their defensive blue line.  The Rangers now boast the youngest defensive group at just 24.9-years-old, with Steve Eminger now the eldest at all of 27-years-old.  Beyond just age there has been much discussion about the level of experience the group has with only Staal, Girardi and Eminger having amassed more than 100 NHL games at this stage of their career.  The other three defenders, Matt Gilroy, 26, Michael Sauer, 23, and 21-year-old Ryan McDonagh now have a combined 144 games in the NHL following Thursday’s game.

No one who questions the Rangers defense at the top as Marc Staal, 24, and Dan Girardi, 26, combine to form unquestionably one of the best defensive tandems in the league.  The pair plays against the top line of every opponent along with as the first penalty killing unit.  This season Marc Staal has also been asked to take a more advanced role on the power play with the struggles the team has had solving the issues it has had on the point. 
The questions have been asked about the other four and how they will hold up in roles they have not been asked to play at this level before.  Eminger, Sauer and Gilroy started the year battling it out for the fifth and sixth spot in the defensive core and now they are three, four and five on the team which equates to a huge difference in the quality of competition they face.  The trust the coaching staff and management has in these young players has been earned through their play this season.
While the defense has not been nearly as decimated by injuries as the forward core has the injuries to Michal Rozsival set the stage for the unit the Rangers have now.  Without the Rozsival injury in early November Steve Eminger does not get the extended chance to prove he can play in the top four.  Along with the Eminger opportunity Matt Gilroy does not get that nine game stretch to show the level of improvement he has made in his defensive game over his rookie season.  The solid play of Gilroy in that stretch was not immediately rewarded as he went back to being scratched when Rozsival returned.  What the play did do was allow coach John Tortorella to put Gilroy back in the lineup in the place of struggling second your Michael Del Zotto.  Gilroy in that opportunity would cement his place in the top six on defense.
With Gilroy becoming entrenched in the top six the Rangers made the move to send Del Zotto down to work on hiss game and called up rookie Ryan McDonagh.  Once again it would be a Rozsival injury that played an important role.  When McDonagh was initially called up it was deemed unlikely he would play but the injury gave McDonagh an opportunity to prove he belonged.  Against Dallas there were some nervous moments, but his play against St. Louis proved he could play at this level.  Combine that with  Michael Sauer showing he could move up to a top four role gave Glen Sather the flexibility to deal out his most experienced defender for a talented forward. 
Obviously when you are dealing with a defensive core that is as young and inexperienced as the Rangers are there will be some speed bumps, but what these six and maybe more importantly Sauer, Gilroy and McDonagh have shown is they are ready for this level and with each passing game they improve.  There was no sense of intimidation from any of these six against one of the best offenses in the league last night and that is a tremendous sign for the future.  With each game this unit will gain experience and more importantly confidence that they can be the core that prepares the Rangers for what will hopefully be a deep playoff run.
There will be that talk about needing a more experienced defender to come in before the deadline, but with the way this group is learning and improving daily at this point my money is on them to be better than whatever could be brought in via trade.  So while a move for a guy with more recognition in his name or more numbers on his stat card might make some feel more comfortable it does not mean it will make the team better.  Give these players the opportunity and they will continue to do what they have done all year in seizing the moment to prove they belong.  In the end this group is showing age really is just a number.