The New York Rangers' defense has gone through some significant changes this year, the most serious was losing Marc Staal at the beginning of the year to a concussion.
Since then, the Rangers have brought in the likes of Jeff Woywitka and Anton Stralman, have called up Tim Erixon and Stu Bickel and have made Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh the top defensive pairing. Michael Sauer is still injured -- and the Staal return has helped us all forget that there's still no timetable on his return -- but for the most part the Rangers' defense is healthy again.
No, Staal won't be back to regular minutes for quite a while. It might be a month, it might be a couple of weeks. A lot depends on Staal's progress. What we do know is that the Rangers will be extremely cautious with him, which is the right move.
Join me after the jump for more.
Since his return Staal has played 12:41, 12:51 and 15:00 respectively. Staal saw the most minutes against Pittsburgh, and it was his most physical outing by far. How he responds Tuesday against the Phoenix Coyotes should give us a good indication of where he stands physically.
A significant amount of credit needs to be given to Stralman as well, who really filled in while the Rangers were without Steve Eminger, Staal and Sauer. Even now, Stralman is an important part of the Rangers' defensive corps and has even started contributing offensively.
Michael Del Zotto has also stepped up for New York, and is averaging 23 minutes a night. He admitted during HBO 24/7 that John Tortorella has been on him to keep up his confidence and swagger. He's had that confidence all year, and he's had it in both zones. Even as a rookie Del Zotto knew how to lay the lumber and was always protective of his goaltender. Now he's doing everything consistently.
The biggest difference with Staal being back? Staal being back. He hasn't been his usual self -- although he looked close against Pittsburgh -- but he's getting there. His presence has also helped Tortorella keep even out the minutes on defense.
Look, I'll be the first one to admit that Woywitka played a big role in the Rangers' early season defense, and filled the role the Rangers needed him to valiantly. But Woywitka only averaged 10:29 a night, forcing Girardi and McDonagh to shoulder a significant amount of the load.
Now that Staal is back, even with the Rangers' cautious attitude, Tortorella has been able to keep Girardi's minutes closer to 25 than 30. While that difference might not be noticeable right now, it will pay dividends in the future.
Basically, the Rangers' defense is getting closer and closer to being completely healthy. Thus far, the Rangers have been able to win games with all the injuries they have dealt with.
Great teams generally do.