I guess this would be Part 2 of my breakdown of the combinations I would like to see the rangers employ to start the year based on player styles, performances previous and the games of the preseason. This year, especially on the blue line is shaping up to be a transition year not in allowing another year for the growth of prospects, but for them to actually start cracking the lineup and playing critical roles. The vast majority of us at least in my take away from the comments during the four preseason games have a lot of optimism for the future of the rangers defensive core and luckily for us a portion of that war chest appears to be ready to step in right now and with that I am specifically referring to Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto. Both of these players are in their own ways a large piece of what this team has been missing for the last number of years in terms of both a quarterback to lead the powerplay but also a legit threat out of the defense to put up significant points and ease the pressure on the forwards and also the all world goaltender we are privileged to have because if we can put up a little more offense it eases the pressure on Henrik as well.
We all, at least I am pretty sure we all, would agree that after Tortorella took over the best defensive pair on the team was the combination of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. The easiest thing to do and something I thought about myself until the preseason games started was to keep that pair together, but I no longer thing that is the right course of action for this team this year or in the future development of those two players. People outside of NY forget the impact that having Jeff Beukeboom back there had on the numbers that Brian Leetch was able to put up. Would Leetch have put up excellent numbers without Beukeboom, I am sure that he would have but I don't think they would have gotten to the same level that they did with the freedom playing with Jeff afforded to Brian. In a sense I am proposing those kinds of pairings with the talent of the two new offensive defenseman with the two young "veteran" more defensive minded d-men, but let me break them down one at a time.
What we have seen of Matt Gilroy has been extremely impressive in the 3 preseason games in that he plays with the mentality of a forward from the blueline as he is always looking for an excuse to join the rush, pinch in deep and push the tempo of the game, which this team probably hasn't had since Leetch. That said Matt has shown solid defensive play in his own zone other than the occasional positioning mistake and that bodes well for his continued growth. What pairing him with Marc Staal will do is precisely what Beuk did for Leetch in that it allows him to be free to rush and Staal can cover on plays that go the other way either entirely or until Gilroy can use his excellent skating ability to get back into the play. What playing with Gilroy will do for Staal is what Tortorella and Schoeny have been trying to do for Staal in getting him to be a little more aggressive on the offensive side, pinch in more, rush the puck more and that mentality will rub off some from Gilroy. I don't think Staal will ever play the style of game that Gilroy plays, but add more offensive threat to the defensive stud Marc Staal is already and the sky is the limit.
Projections: Gilroy 15-18G, 30-34A; Staal 8-10G, 16-22A
With Michael Del Zotto we have seen less of the all out forward drive that is Matt Gilroy, but more of a vision and offensive feel that marks the quarterback of a powerplay and in that he has shown a great chemistry with Ales Kotalik on the powerplay. Del Zotto is a very instinctive offensive player and has shown the vision and passing skills precisely in plays like the tape to tape outlet to Brashear vs Boston that could be deadly when talking about springing a player like Gaborik for a breakaway. His instincts were on display in the way he was able to hold the puck and draw the defense on the power play to draw them to him before feeding Prospal across the ice who then brought the puck back across to a wide open Kotalik for the one-time goal. Having a true powerplay qb I think can easily add 5-8% to the team percentage over the course of the year which over the course of the season could mean another 20-30 goals for the team. On the defensive end I have been pleasantly surprised by his fight in the corners, he taking off the body and his general play in his own zone though I wish he hip checked a little less because it leaves him vulnerable to being out of position. Yes, he will make his mistakes, but that is why you pair him with a steady if unspectacular player like Dan Girardi. The best world to describe Girardi is probably just solid. He does all the things that are necessary to be successful and he does them all at good rates, but none of them is he really spectacular. I wish that Girardi in his game played with a little more of the confidence or even arrogance than MDZ plays with because I think Girardi is fundamentally sound enough to push a little further without compromising what he already does so well.
Projections: MDZ 5-9G, 18-22A; Girardi 6-8G; 18-24A
I guess all that is left is to talk about the two players that because of their age, experience and salaries should be the leaders of our blue-line and yet are probably the pair that worry all of us the most and that is Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival. I think that Tortorella will rely on this pair probably more than their play would warrant just because of their experience, but to me the act of splitting Staal and Girardi up and pairing them with the two rookies also diminishes that need because of the trust Torts has in both Staal and Girardi and it is not a choice between playing rookies or playing Rozi and Redden. I have to hope for my own sanity's sake that a year in Torts system will make Redden more offensively aggressive because if he isn't going to be that then his purpose is completely lost on me. I also think if Gilroy and MDZ make the club and get significant opportunities to get powerplay time they will eat into the point production of Redden and Rozi. I still think Semenov gets kept as the experienced 7th d man even though I have not been impressed with his game on its own merits.
Projections: Redden 6-9G, 19-23A; Rozsival 9-12G, 18-23A
So to wrap it up while this team other than Gaborik probably does not have a huge scorer, Cally could net 30, the balance and ability to conceivably have all 9 of the forwards on the top 3 lines top 20 gives this team a great deal of balance and the added production from the defense through the growth of Staal and Girardi but the addition of dynamic offensive players like Gilroy and Del Zotto can make this team much more dangerous offensively to the point where I think that anemic offense that netted 200 goals (inflated by some huge outburst games) can be more consistent and score more like 250 because of its balance. This preseason has shown us fans that the future not just for this year but down the road with prospects like Grachev, Bourque, Werek, McDonagh, Sanguinetti, Stepan is bright as well.