Strong in their own end, the Rangers defensemen need to step up to Alain Vigneault's challenge

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers defensive corps has been great for years below the blue line, but under a new head coach, it's time it contributed offensively.

Last Tuesday night's loss versus Boston marked the Rangers 21st game of the season, giving us more than one reason to drink besides the '13-'14 campaign coming of age. Over 25 percent of the way through the season, the Rangers are below .500, where they've found themselves for the majority of the season. The pretty good news for the team? The new Metropolitan Division has underperformed as a whole, and if the playoffs started today, the Rangers would find themselves in them. Will that be the case if this keeps up for another 61 games?

In part 2 of the series, we examine the Rangers defensemen, who, despite excelling in their own end, need to begin to find more ways to contribute offensively. Keep in mind, this report card is only grading players through game 21.

Ryan McDonagh, B+

Part of me almost thinks Alain Vigneault should tell Ryan McDonagh to go out and score a hat trick every night. After the Rangers new head coach charged his defensemen to contribute more offensively, McDonagh has done just that. After the entire Rangers defensive unit went through some growing pains in adjust to Vigneault's new system, McDonagh has emerged again as the Rangers top defenseman, and a bona fide Norris candidate with eight points in his last 11 games.

Of course, McDonagh is charged with the task of going against the other team's best players on a nightly basis. He handles his role quite well, and continues to excel in moving the puck out of his own zone, and operating under duress.

Highlight of the season: A textbook blue line crash, exactly what Vigneault is looking for, and a big goal.

Anton Stralman, B

Anton Stralman has been the picture of consistency this season, and after starting the season on the third pairing with John Moore, he has moved up through the lineup onto a 1B pairing with Marc Staal. He hasn't scored many points, only two on the season, and apart from the odd hip check he hasn't had a great amount of standout plays that make you go "Wow!". But no matter the partner, matchup, or number of minutes he has played, the Rangers have dictated the play when he has been on the ice.

Stralman currently leads all defensemen in the league in FF% (percentage of unblocked 5v5 shot attempts while the player is on the ice, a measure of puck possession) by a significant margin and the difference in possession of the Rangers with and without Stralman (14.5 percentage points) has been bigger than the difference in possession between the Chicago Blackhawks (57.5%, 1st) and the Edmonton Oilers (44.9%, 28th). This dominance in puck possession hasn't come from sheltered or soft minutes either. While McDonagh and Girardi have been getting the most difficult minutes, Stralman and Staal have led the team in 5v5 TOI on many nights this season, and their minutes could hardly be described as sheltered.

But while his ability to drive the play has been fantastic, he still hasn't been able to put points on the board. While that may not be the primary job of a defenseman, considering that McDonagh has seven even strength points on the season while Stralman only has two, despite being on the ice for more scoring opportunities, it has to lower his grade a bit.

Highlight of the season: The Rangers found themselves on the PK early on against the Flyers when Stralman, in an impressive showing of skill and anticipation, stripped Lecavalier of the puck in the neutral zone and set up Fast for a great scoring chance.

- Axel Fant-Eldh (Axel's Grade, A-)

Marc Staal, B-

After a rough start to the season alongside Michael Del Zotto where he managed to go -7 in five games, Marc Staal has formed a formidable pairing with Anton Stralman. Usually logging over 20 minutes a night, the two have consistently been driving play and made sure that the puck has spent a lot more time in the opposition’s zone than in their own, most likely due to the pairing’s ability to make quick plays with the puck out of their own end. Because of their strong possession play, the Rangers have been allowing very few goals against with them on the ice. Their 0.346 goals against per 20 minutes (5v5) is a lot less than the 0.636 of Moore-Del Zotto and less than half of McDonagh-Girardi’s 0.735.

However, like his partner, Staal has struggled to score points. He only has three on the season so far, despite getting some PP time. But considering the amount of chances that are being created with him on the ice, the points, or at least the plusses, should come.

The only caveat is that Staal has struggled without Stralman while the latter has done well in any situation, which suggests that he may be riding his lesser known partner’s coattails to some extent. But any concerns that he wouldn’t be the same player after his eye injury should be long forgotten by now.

Highlight of the season: The New Jersey Devils had just grabbed a 1-0 when Staal one-timed a low, hard shot through traffic, beating Martin Brodeur on the short side. The game was lost in the end, but Staal’s goal was perfectly timed right after the Devils had taken the lead and as the cherry on top broke Brodeur’s shutout streak that had been going for 180+ minutes.

- Axel Fant-Eldh (Axel’s Grade, B)

Dan Girardi, B-

In Dan Girardi, the Rangers know what they're getting: A rugged, stay-at-home defenseman who has no problem matching up with the opponent's top line, or going down to block a shot. For the most part, Girardi has been that reliable defenseman, but there have been lapses and moments and defensive liability. Of course, it's always worth noting the pairing of Girardi and McDonagh consistently goes up against the best the league has to offer, and on most nights, does so more than admirably.

Girardi, like many of the Rangers other defensemen, has also struggled to score this season. His battering mate McDonagh has certainly answered the call, while it's clear Girardi is still trying to navigate those offensive waters himself. At his current pace, Girardi would register about eight points this season, a number Vigneault and the Rangers brass would certainly want to see increase. Will his defensive zone contributions continue to stand out, Girardi needs to figure out a way to get more involved up the ice, and contribute in the Rangers' new system.

Highlight of the season: After just missing a chance out in front, Girardi stays with the play, and scores his first of the season off a point shot to tie the game late against the Devils.

John Moore, C

In the preseason, John Moore was dazzling us with his speed and looked as if he could be a real threat on the rush in Alain Vigneault's system, but thus far he's looked unsteady and forgettable. In 13 regular season games with the Rangers last year, Moore had six points and had many Rangers fans thinking that he could bring stability, speed, and even more youth to the Rangers blueline. But through 21 games this season Moore has just three points and has made some troubling mistakes in his own end.

Moore, still just 23, is currently on the third pair, and that is just where he belongs. He hasn't been given the best defensive partners (his most frequent partner, according to leftwinglock.com, is Michael Del Zotto) but he is third among Rangers defensemen in PP TOI/G with 1:51, so one would hope that he would have more than three points at this point in the season... but the number of Rangers skaters that are struggling to produce far outweigh those who are producing as they were expected to. Moore must improve at both ends of the ice. He's getting a "C" because he skates like the wind and has a name that sounds like it belongs on the Declaration of Independence.

Highlight of the season: During 4-on-4 play Moore, snapped a wrister past Holtby in a 2-0 win for the Rangers on October 16th. Moore's goal was the game-winner.

- Mike Murphy "Dig Deep" (Mike's Grade, C)

Michael Del Zotto, C-

Much has been made of Michael Del Zotto's potential future with the Rangers. While that's all speculation, here's what we do know: Del Zotto needs to elevate his level of play. In a group of defensemen that was asked to produce more offensively, Del Zotto seemed like the likeliest candidate to take that call to task. But instead, Del Zotto has been anemic on the score sheet, posting only one goal and four points in 16 games. His inconsistent level of play recently found him on the outside looking in, as he was a healthy scratch for three straight games.

Del Zotto is certainly a player who hit the NHL level with a ton of intrigue. Still young (at 23-years-old), he burst onto the scene in 2009 as a teenager, in a season where he played 80 games, and posted nine goals and 28 assists. His offensive game is his biggest strength, and it's been something missing from Del Zotto's game as of late. If his future does involve the New York Rangers, Del Zotto will be looked at as an effective contributor if he's able to produce offensively.

Highlight of the season: In a big, comeback win on Long Island, Del Zotto assists on the game-winning goal by connecting with Benoit Pouliot on this outlet pass.

Read part 1 of the series: Per usual, the Rangers biggest strength has come between the pipes


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