Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Rangers In Need of A Blueline Shakeup?

The idea of mixing up players is nothing new for the New York Rangers as with every struggling period of offense coach John Tortorella gives the line lottery wheel another spin to see what combination of players it kicks out.  On the flip side of that, there is little to no consideration of changing things up when it comes to the defensive pairings, at least not when it comes to the top pair of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi.  Maybe it is time for that to change.  I have thought about and even suggested this for some time and now I think the time has come to put real consideration into splitting up Staal and Girardi.  I know it is crazy to think about doing this down the home stretch of a playoff chase, but hear me out first and see if it sounds a little less insane by the time I am done.
The pair of Staal and Girardi has played very well together for much of the season, but their work together has slipped of late and was horrendous against the Ducks before rebounding against San Jose over the weekend.  Part of the issue for them could be the sheer number of minutes that are being heaped on them this season.  Both players are in the top 20 in the league in minutes per game with Staal 6th (25:35) and Girardi 20th (24:23).  By mixing the Staal, Girardi pair with that of McDonagh and Sauer you allow for the minutes to be more evenly distributed between the two sets and I think stylistically actually get better combinations.
Dan Girardi is an excellent positional defender and terrific shot blocker, but he struggles in terms of clearing his crease, handling odd-man rushes and playing against speed.  By pairing him with Ryan McDonagh who’s biggest strength right now is his tremendous skating and does not seek to join the rush you limit the number of odd-man rushes Girardi has to face and give him a player who shows more of a willingness to clear the crease than Staal does.  Another possible benefit would be Girardi might look for his own offense a little more knowing he has speed to help cover for him.
In terms of Marc Staal he is tremendously physical against guys when they come down on him off the rush or along the walls but he is not physical in front of his net.  Giving him Michael Sauer who is the most physical and willing to clear the crease of all the blueliners would be a huge benefit for Lundqvist in allowing him more vision on shots.  I also believe Sauer being more a of shot preventer than just relying on blocking the shot once it has happened would be a huge plus for the Rangers against the top players right now and limit the fluky goals they cannot escape.
Offensively the Rangers want Marc Staal to be more aggressive whether it is on the carry or just joining the rush.  When he does this under the current pairing he leaves the potential for odd-man rushes the other way which is one of Dan Girardi’s biggest weaknesses.  Girardi often time panics and goes down to his knee or stomach for no reason and fails to get the puck in the process leaving Lundqvist hung out to dry.  Odd-man situations are going to happen when you Staal being more aggressive, so why not pair Staal with a guy like Michael Sauer who plays those exact scenarios better.  Sauer while not the best or fastest skater plays much more composed in those situations, typically leaving Henrik the shooter which is what you want to happen. 
The biggest benefit for Sauer and McDonagh in this scenario is playing with a partner that has more NHL experience along with added responsibilities and ice time.  If Sauer can add Staal’s ability with the stick to his current skill set it takes his game to another level.  For McDonagh learning how Girardi goes about blocking shots is always a skill you want in your arsenal.
There are obvious concerns in making a move like this, especially at this time of year in that both pairs have played well together as they are and there could be a learning curve to play with a new partner.  Staal-Sauer and McDonagh-Girardi have had their limited time together while both Staal and Girardi were out of the lineup injured, but there would certainly less of a natural knowledge for the others moves than exists now.  For me the potential benefits outweigh those concerns because you are able to better balance minutes, experience and skill sets within your defense.
We changes forward lines all the time in hopes of adding to what this team can do in the long term, so why not look at it on the back end as well.  Maybe it is something that is better left for next season, but at some point I think this is the best course of action for the future of this team.
Let me know what you think.