Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sauer Steadily Climbing Rangers Defensive Ranks

Photo brought to you by DigDeepNYR
The New York Rangers knew what they had in Marc Staal and Dan Girardi as a shutdown pair to anchor their defense for the 2010-11 season.  What the team did not know when training camp started was the a pair of rookies, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer, would combine to give the team a second set of shutdown defenders to roll out against any team.  It is in large part because of the play of these two that I believe that the Rangers do not need to go with the conventional wisdom and trade for a veteran defender just because the group is young and might lack NHL experience as a whole.  Today in part one of the mini-series on the Rangers defense I am going to take a look at Rookie Michael Sauer.
Michael Sauer, was sort of a forgotten prospect, having been taken in the second round of the 2005 draft.  For those who do not remember, the pick that was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Brian Leetch trade.  Part of the reason that Sauer was forgotten or at least overlooked coming into the year was his injury history that has hampered his development at times and the fact that he did not fit the mold of what was thought of as a John Tortorella type defender.  A combination of a more defensive shift in the system and, quite frankly, the waiver system gave Michael Sauer a chance in training camp to earn a spot on the team.  Sauer did not let the opportunity go to waste.
Sauer earned a spot on the opening day roster and while initially part of a rotation system with Matt Gilroy and Steve Eminger, but it did not take long for Sauer’s solid play to solidify his spot in the lineup as a regular.  Over the course of the season Sauer, just like his steady play, has steadily worked his way up the depth chart.  At the moment he is paired with fellow rookie Ryan McDonagh to form the team’s second pair.  Sauer also showed before the break, while Dan Girardi was out with his rib injury, that he is more than capable of playing on the team’s top defensive pair alongside All-Star Marc Staal.
Statistically speaking Michael Sauer is not the kind of defenseman that will get to All-Star game or any accolades, but neither is a guy like Brooks Orpik, and we all know what a shutdown defensive defender can mean to a team.  On the season Sauer has one goal, five assists and playing at a plus eight while logging an average of 16:11 in 52 games this season.  Sauer’s ice time has steadily climbed throughout the year as he has gained the trust of the coaching staff and earned promotions through the defensive ranks.  In October he was averaging only 11 minutes a game.  His ice time rose to 14 minutes a night during November and December.  It has taken off to another level in January and February with the rookie defenseman logging 19:30 a game.  So, what can you expect to find when you watch Sauer?
What you have to love about Sauer is the way he goes about his business.  There is no flash.  There is no pretense.  There is just tremendous defensive awareness, positioning and attention to the basics.  Add to that a man who loves to hit, clears the crease and fights to defend himself and his teammates and you get a keeper; you get Michael Sauer. 
Those things show themselves in different situations in the game.  You notice more and more each game with how his stick-checking improves both in the zone and against the rush.  What you also see is how well he does in standing up at the blue line to prevent a clean rush into the Rangers defensive zone.  On the offensive side of the puck you notice how well he reads the play in terms of when to pinch to keep a play alive as well as when to step up in the neutral zone and close the gap.  All of these things speak to the intelligence and instincts with which Sauer carries himself.  One thing that I know John Tortorella loves as much as what Sauer does on the ice is that way he carries himself, in that, there is never a sense of fear for Sauer no matter who they pair him with or who they match him against.
The questions I had about Sauer coming into this year were never about his talent or his ability to play at the NHL level.  The issues always revolved around his ability to stay healthy and whether this particular system would fit him.  To this point, Sauer has proven more than up to the task in both departments and is cementing himself as a key part of the Rangers defense not only this year, but a priority to sign this summer, so he can bring what he does for years to come.  Welcome to the core Michael Sauer, the Department of Defense is happy to have you.
*Want to give a big thank you to Mike Murphy aka DigDeep for the photo you see at the top of the post.  You can find Dig at that twitter page linked, as well as Blueshirt Banter.