Season Preview Part 3: The Thin Blue Line

If there is one gruop of players that is being counted on most by the Rangers to step up this season, it is the the defense. The Rangers did not sign any big name players to add to their blue line in free agency and lost veterans Paul Mara and Derek Morris. They are convinced that their No.1 pairing of Wade Redden and Michal Roszival will have bounce back seasons and youngsters Marc Staal and Dan Girardi can continue to make strides towards being a true shutdown pairing at the NHL level.

Wade Redden in a familiar position last season.
Wade Redden in a familiar position last season.

Redden and Roszival (aka “The Toxic Twins”) were an unmitigated disaster on defense last season. The team’s No.1 pairing (only in name and experience, not in production) seemed to be on the ice for every goal against. Redden, who after only one year (of a 6 yr. 39 million dollar insane contract) already has the distinction of being the worst free agent signing in franchise history, looked lost from the get go and was a complete non factor offensively for the team throughout the regular season. If his struggles were only on the offensive side maybe he would gotten a pass but he was completely inept in his own zone as well. Brought in for his ability to quarterback the power play, Redden contributed a measly 2 PP goals the entire season and was a big reason why the Rangers surrendered an astonishing 14 short handed goals. The worst part of this horrible experiment gone wrong was that even while fighting through the worst season of his career, Redden didn’t seem unfazed by his terrible play and his lassez faire attitude began to anger many of the team’s most vocal fans. Redden did improve slightly in the postseason but was still nothing close to his former self. He will need to work extremely hard early on this season to erase the memories of last year’s debacle and Coach Tortorella seems to be inclined to giving him the minutes to make an impact. If he struggles out of the gate, don’t be surprised if he finds himself without a job by season’s end.

The signing of Michal Roszival after the lockout came with little fanfare. The Czech born d-man had an unremarkable but steady few seasons in Pittsburgh and was thought by most observers to be a depth move at best by Glen Sather. Roszival surprised everyone by becoming the Rangers most dependable defenseman and capable power play cog over the next few seasons (even when saddled with former partner/whipping boy/human traffic cone Marek Malik). After the Rangers began disbanding their roster laden with Czechs (Jagr, Straka, Prucha, etc.), Roszival’s game slipped and he has spent the last two season’s trying to recapture it. Last season, partnered with fellow “Chicken without a Head” Redden, Roszival was constantly out of position both at even strength and on the man advantage and was the culprit on many of the defensive gaffes directly in front of Henrik Lundqvuist that led to easy scores by the competition. Roszival, like Redden, needs to get off to a quick start and prove that he can contribute not only on the PP but more importantly in his own zone. Roszival is a hard worker and a good teammate and I believe the beating he took from the fans and the media last season will push him to have a much better season.

Marc Staal obliterates Chris Campoli (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Marc Staal obliterates Chris Campoli (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The Rangers second pairing of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi experienced it’s growing pains last season but worked hard and came through with flying colors. Staal is on the verge of being a star in this league and a shutdown defenseman. His battles with Washington’s Alex Ovechkin showed that he could play against the world’s best players on a nightly basis and at times turn them into non factors. This is the season that Staal makes the next step and adds offense to his game. Coach Tortorella believes Staal can be an all around player if he trusts his instincts and jumps into the play when given a chance. Staal will be the Rangers best defenseman this season (as he was last year) and will be on the ice during the biggest pressure moments for this club. Girardi’s biggest asset is his steadyness. He makes smart decisions, does not panic with the puck and plays a physical game. He may struggle (as he did during camp) adjusting to the new attacking style of Tortorella but if he plays his game in his own end and protects the puck he will continue to be a big part of the Rangers present and future. I would not be surprised to see Girardi moved to the third pairing with prospect Michael Del Zotto to give the kid a defensive safety blanket.

The blueshirts will start the season with two rookies on the blue line. As we mentioned in Part One on monday, Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto have won spots on the big team and will be counted on to make an immediate impact. Gilroy will bring his exciting offensive skills to a team which lacked a big time game breaker on D last season and should have success as long as he remembers to work just as hard on his defensive zone coverage. Del Zotto will begin the season as the team’s power play maestro and should continue to improve as he gets used to the speed of the NHL game. The seventh defenseman slot (which the Rangers are hoping to fill with a banger type veteran) is open currently as the Rangers decide whether to extend a contract to Alexei Semenov. Semenov played throughout camp with the team and was steady but was not overly impressive in any areas. The team may be waiting to see if an attractive yet affordable veteran option hits waivers before committing to Semenov. Hartford holds a few options (Corey Potter, Bobby Sanguinetti, Illka Heikkenen, Michael Sauer) for a short term fix should the club need one starting friday night or if anyone on the blue line sustains an injury. The Rangers do not have a long term fix should they lose a player for a significant amount of time so the number one job for these players is to stay off the trainer’s table. If the team loses one of their top 4 for an extended amount of time, it could be a huge blow and would probably cripple the team’s chances of making the postseason.

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