Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sauer's Absence Brings Tests, Opportunities For Rangers Defenders

The New York Rangers have been playing without one top-four defenseman all season as Marc Staal has been out of the lineup while trying to recover from a concussion.  The defense has held up better than most could have hoped, and while much of the credit has gone to Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh for elevating their games to another level, the contributions of Sauer on defense should not be overlooked.  It is because of those contributions that additional impact of Sauer’s absence, due to the concussion he sustained Monday night, that the Rangers depth on defense is going to be tested to a whole other level.

The initial reports on Sauer have him listed as day-to-day, but as we have seen with Staal’s own recovery there is no way to fully know how short or long of an absence Sauer could have.  The lessons learned from Staal coming back quickly last season only to have him struggle with post-concussion issues this year could also have the Rangers exercise extra caution in when to bring back the 24-year-old shutdown defender. 

Michael Del Zotto and Steve Eminger are the two most directly impacted by the absence of Sauer from the lineup.  Del Zotto loses his rock solid defense partner and is asked to be even more aware of mistakes he would make in his own end.  This is a test of where Del Zotto is in his development as he has had moments this season that show he is back on track while some of his play recently suggests he is still struggling mightily in his own end.  He will have to be cleaner without Sauer back there to help clean up for defensive lapses.

Eminger is elevated from the third pair where he has been averaging 13:10 of ice time per game to a role where he will likely see upwards of 20 minutes a night.  Eminger played very well when forced into a top-four role early last season as the Rangers were dealing with an injury to Michal Rozsival.  His familiarity with Del Zotto and history in the role certainly should help Eminger, even if he is no Sauer back there. 

Also impacted is Anton Stralman.  Stralman will get another chance in the Rangers’ lineup after only getting a single game against Florida on Nov. 23 to show what he can do.  Stralman likely will see limited minutes at even strength, but he could gain the opportunity on the power play to leave an impression with the coaching staff.

The Rangers defense has managed to survive the absence of Marc Staal all season because individuals have answered the bell to raise their levels.  In the absence of Sauer as well the level will have to go up once again because while the name is not as large as Staal, the impact to the Rangers defense corps is significant.