There is no way to prepare for the absence of an All-Star defender like Marc Staal from your lineup. The combination of the level he plays at, the competition he shuts down and the sheer number of minutes that he eats makes him one of the most valuable New York Rangers. However, that is the situation before the Rangers now and the question is not about if they have to cope without him, but which set of pairings is the best way to do so?
The plan for now is to have Ryan McDonagh move up and play with Dan Girardi on the first pair while Michael Del Zotto will partner with Michael Sauer on the second pairing. There is no question that McDonagh is capable of playing against the top opposition around the league, but would the Rangers be better off leaving him with his regular defense partner, Michael Sauer, and letting them become the de-facto top pair?
Argument For Girardi With McDonagh:
Dan Girardi has been playing excellent quality defense against the top lines in the league for the past three seasons. That level of experience playing against the best in the league is exactly what the team needs on the top defensive pairing with Staal missing. Girardi can impart what he knows to McDonagh and they would be ahead of where McDonagh-Sauer would be in knowing how to best limit the league’s elite players/lines.
In terms of the team, there is no defender on the club, including Staal, that epitomizes the character of the team like Girardi with how he sacrifices his body on a nightly basis blocking shots. While Michael Sauer did an excellent job last season of making himself into an integral part of the defense, he has not done anything to warrant him moving ahead of Girardi on the depth chart. There is also the consideration that the pairing of Girardi and Del Zotto had their struggles when together in parts of each of the past two seasons
Argument For Sauer Remaining With McDonagh:
Michael Sauer was the Rangers most consistent defender on a nightly basis last season and showed that he can handle any and all situations against every level of competition. Sauer did not have significant time against top line competition, but he had some, playing with Staal, during the brief absence of Girardi last season. Obviously he had some on the penalty kill and during different shifts throughout games last season.
This is not an argument to say that Sauer is better than Dan Girardi or anything of that ilk. Sauer has less experience in the NHL in totality than Girardi does in taking shifts as a top pair defender. The difference for Sauer is the relationship he has with McDonagh on the ice. The two are one of those pairings that has just clicked from the very beginning as they complement one another very well. How quickly they developed the understanding of what one another were going to do on the ice was one the most impressive aspect of last season, so it seems strange to playing around with it.
Leaving the continuity of a tremendous pairing that knows exactly what one another are going to do on the ice is something that is appealing, especially with the flux that is the rest of the defense corps right now. The decision came down to the fact that Tortorella is more comfortable with Girardi’s experience against top line competition. There is no arguing against that experience, but maybe that experience was better served building Del Zotto’s confidence as he in thrown into playing against better competition than expected while leaving McDonagh-Sauer together. It is tough to argue against having McDonagh rise and Girardi stay where he has earned his place in the lineup, but maybe a little continuity might not have been so bad when the ability differential in Sauer and Girardi’s game is so slim.