The New York Rangers have an impressive group of young and talented defenders on the NHL roster. The group has the potential, if each plays at their peak, to be the best defense corps in the league. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are the constants, and the Rangers will need them to maintain their elite level as a top pair to go far this season. However, as important as Staal and Girardi are to the team, the emergence of Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh last season was critical to the Rangers success. There is no question as to whether Staal and Girardi can bring their level again this season, but should there be more questions about Sauer and McDonagh slipping in their level?
Neither Sauer nor McDonagh were expected to play the roles they did last season. Sauer was a fringe bet to even make the roster heading into training camp while McDonagh was seen as a top prospect, but certainly not expected play 20 minutes a game and be as composed as he was game after game. Now the expectations for each has risen considerably as they are considered locks to be the second defensive pair on the club this season and play huge minutes. The fact that they are more defensive minded should limit the potential for a slip in their game, but it is interesting to see that there is little to no concern over whether the two of them will regress this season.
For Sauer the concern is more with his prior injury history than his ability to play at the NHL level. Sauer always had the game made for this level, but could not seem to stay healthy long enough to get a legit shot with the Rangers. The 76 games he played last season were his most as a professional, so there is some concern there, but the other side of that is he went into the offseason healthy and training for next year instead of rehabbing an injury.
With McDonagh the most interesting part of his first professional season was the differential in the two adjustments he had to make to the AHL and NHL competition. When starting out with the Connecticut Whale McDonagh struggled early, but then found his stride before his January call-up. With the Rangers he seemingly took one game to shake off the rookie nerves and never looked back from there. The concern with McDonagh is that the staff is going to push him to get more of the offense he is capable of, as they have with Marc Staal, and could lead to some early season struggles, but do not expect him to lose confidence and have a sophomore season like Del Zotto did last season.
I do not expect either of these two to regress from last year, and the lack of concern over their regression is a testimony to how well they played last year and the faith it created for them with the fan base.