Monday, July 11, 2011

Veteran Defenseman: True Need Or Luxury Want For Rangers?

Now that the New York Rangers have seemingly solved their issues finding a top line center with the signing of Brad Richards the talk has shifted to the rest of the roster.  The addition of Mike Rupp and retaining of Ruslan Fedotenko leaves the Rangers with an excess of forwards once the remaining three restricted free agents get their contracts.  Beyond discussing what to do with the excess and which player is most likely out, the main conversation about the roster has been about the need for the club to bring a veteran defenseman.

This conversation is not much different than the one that went on leading up to the trading deadline in which the Rangers dealt for Bryan McCabe in order to help out the young defensive unit.  There is little doubt that heading into training camp Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and newly extended Michael Sauer will be the top four defenders for the club this season.  The questions arise in discussing the third pair in which John Tortorella failed to find combinations he was comfortable with in the second half in order to reduce the workload on his top four defensemen.

As the roster stands currently, beyond those top four you are looking at a competition between Michael Del Zotto, Tim Erixon, Tomas Kundratek, Pavel Valentenko and possibly Dylan McIlrath for the final top spots in the defense corps.  The concern is not about talent, but about experience and the overall age of the group. 

If Del Zotto and Erixon are the third pair to go with the assumed top four, the New York Rangers will start the season with Marc Staal (24), Dan Girardi (27), Ryan McDonagh (22), Michael Sauer (24), Tim Erixon (21), Michael Del Zotto (21) for an average age of 23.16 on the blueline.  Beyond the average age you would be looking at a blueline with four players who had below two full seasons in the NHL and a combined game total of only 927 games at the NHL level.

There is no doubt that is a concern for the Rangers to potentially be relying on a group that is that young and lacks NHL experience as a group to that extent.  However, that does not mean the organization has to sign or trade for someone just because they are older or have played a lot of games in the NHL.  That failed with McCabe.  Beyond that, at least with respect to the top four, Staal and Girardi regardless of age are veterans at this point while Sauer and McDonagh showed last season they can be relied on as a second shutdown pair regardless of the number of games of experience.

This is not to say the Rangers could not use another defender who has more experience to add to the young defense corps they have, but there is no urgency and it should be done either to deal off an excess forward or as a tryout in training camp as opposed to making a signing now.  As I suggested earlier in the weak, Erik Christensen would be a prime candidate for such a trade to bring in a bottom pair defender with a reasonable contract that has some NHL experience and swap out contracts/roster spots.

Unless there is real doubt within the organization about the ability of Del Zotto to rebound from last season or Erixon to make the transition to the NHL, adding a veteran defender is more of a luxury than a true need.  In essence that defender is an insurance policy in case of injury or struggle with the expectation that they will spend the majority of the year wearing a suit instead of a sweater on the ice.