Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Rangers Player Review: Michael Sauer Steady As A Rock

Coming into the 2010-11 season the Rangers defensive core was assumed to consist of Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, and Michal Rozsival as locks.  The training camp battles for the final spots were supposed to be between Matt Gilroy, Steve Eminger and Ryan McDonagh.  Michael Sauer was rarely if ever mentioned as being in the running for the roster, but with his excellent training camp, along with a fear of losing him through waivers, Sauer made the club to start the year and he never looked back.  What the Rangers found in the 23-year-old rookie was the tough, hard-nosed, crease-clearing defender they have been searching for over the past number of years.
Sauer played 76 games during his rookie season and not only did he prove he belonged in the NHL, but he was arguably the most consistent player on the roster.  There is no player, at any position, that was as consistent from game-to-game as Sauer was in his first season.  He will never dazzle with flash, but the steady play he brings is something that was critical to the Rangers success this season. 
There is a great comfort knowing what you are going to get from a player every time he steps on the ice and coach John Tortorella every time #38 hit the ice for the Rangers. With Sauer you get a player with 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 solution to a void the Rangers hadn’t filled in years. 
After making the team and being part of a rotation with Steve Eminger and Matt Gilroy to open the season, Sauer solidified his spot in the rotation as a third pair defender.  As the season progressed, the trust in Sauer grew and eventually he earned his chances to assume a top four role and he did not disappoint.  By the time the second half of the season came, Sauer was playing an average of 20:12 a night and playing as well as any Rangers defender on the roster.
While he will always be a defense first type defender, Sauer showed flashes of offense during the second half of the year.  After recording one goal and five assists in 46 games before the All-Star break, Sauer had two goals and seven assists in 30 games during the second half.  While the numbers showed improvement, his offensive strides go beyond what the stats would say.  With each passing game his confidence grew and his aggression on the offensive end both shooting the puck and reading the play made him much more effective.  Sauer was among the most effective defenders in reading the play and knowing when to pinch to keep possession alive, which is something the coaching staff the Rangers preached all year.
Those traits were on display Monday night against Boston as Sauer read the play beautifully and slid down to a position where he was able to take advantage of the hustle by the forwards behind the net and beat Tim Thomas for his second game winning goal of the season.  You can easily argue that goal was the biggest goal of the season for the Rangers because without that win the team does not make the playoffs at all.
The combination of Sauer and McDonagh gave the Rangers a second shut-down defensive pair and one of the best top four defensive groups in the NHL.  For a 23-year-old rookie who was never expected to make the team to play 76 games, scoring three goals, adding 12 assists and playing to a tremendous plus 20 is a special year and gives hope for the future.
Grade: A