COMMENTARY | One of the more profound positives heading into the 2013 NHL season for the New York Rangers is the team's overall defensive depth. It starts between the pipes with the world's best goaltender -- Henrik Lundqvist -- but it doesn't stop there.
The Blueshirts' top six is one of the most impressive in the league. Solid through and through, the Rangers can use all three pairings in every situation. Players like John Moore and Anton Stralman may be at the bottom of the pecking order, but both boast immense skating ability, sound defensive instincts and above-average offensive skills.
Further up in the ranking is Michael Del Zotto. Despite his struggles last season, Del Zotto has proved he can handle the rigors of an NHL season; he just needs to work on consistency. When he's at his best, he brings a lot of physicality to the rink and, furthermore, he possesses the skill set to quarterback a power play.
But it's the top three that makes the Rangers' defense corps so special. Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal have all at different times over the past three seasons been the team's go-to, No. 1 defenseman. And seeing as all three are expected to be healthy and ready to go in October, the question is: Which of the three will assume the top-defender role in 2013?
With former coach John Tortorella gone, it'll end up being a matter of preference for new boss Alain Vigneault. There could be a lengthy feeling-out process before it's obvious who his first choice is but in the meantime, we'll break it down and look at the three stud defensemen and make a case for each to be AV's top dog.
The oldest of the group at 29 years old, Girardi has been the team's No. 1 defenseman for the majority of the last three seasons. After news of Staal's post-concussion syndrome struggles broke in the summer of 2011, Girardi took it upon himself to assume the bulk of the team's defensive responsibilities.
He averaged 26:14 minutes of ice time during the 2011-12 season, playing in all situations, but it was his shutdown ability and shorthanded fortitude that stood out most. An ideal role model, Girardi sacrificed his body every night on the penalty kill, and even finished fifth in the league with 185 blocked shots.
Although he doesn't possess great offensive skill and instinct, Girardi was a participant in the 2012 NHL All-Star game and even finished in sixth in Norris Trophy voting, collecting two first-place votes.
Girardi's performance in 2011-12 made him Tortorella's top choice again in 2013, despite the improved health of Staal. Although his performance during the regular season wasn't as impressive as the previous season's, he made up for it in the playoffs, shutting down Alex Ovechkin and Nik Backstrom in the first round.
It's easy to make the case for Girardi to retain his spot as the No. 1 defenseman for the Rangers in 2013-14, but the arrival of a new coach means nothing is certain. Girardi is certainly one of the league's best shutdown defenseman, and his ability to make a solid first pass out of the zone is also very valuable, but his lack of maneuverability could prove troublesome for Vigneault.
Assuming the new boss wants to play an uptempo style, Girardi could struggle when fetching the puck in his own corner and turning defense into offense quickly, although his first-pass ability may save him here.
He's also the worst skater of the three. If Vigneault wants his No. 1 defenseman to join the rush on a regular basis, he may opt to use Girardi as a complementary No. 2 on the first pairing.
Two years ago, Staal was far and away the Rangers' best defenseman. He'd come a long way from being a lanky, indecisive and sometimes lethargic teenager and was finally blossoming into one of the league's premier shutdown defensemen.
Upon drafting Staal, the Rangers knew they were selecting a stay-at-home defenseman, but the organization foresaw Staal further developing his offense while also becoming more physical. And they were right.
A lot should be said about Tortorella when dissecting Staal's development. Torts' confidence in the quality of the young defender was what turned Staal into an All-Star. He demanded Staal play a nastier brand of hockey, and whatever motivation tactic Tortorella opted to use worked. Some of Staal's greatest displays of physical hockey have come amidst the grueling battles he's had with some of the league's top-end talent, most notably Ovechkin.
Tortorella also expressed his desire for Staal to join the offensive rush. Although Staal isn't the fastest of skaters, his long legs and superb skating technique allowed him to apply offensive-zone pressure when the opportunity arose. Despite never scoring more than 30 points in a season, Staal is still only 26 years old, and his further development under the supervision of Vigneault could spark more offense.
Staal has missed a lot of time over the past two seasons, and it could take him a while before he gets back into the swing of things again, but he's got the tools to retake his No. 1 defenseman role with the club. Mobility is an advantage he's got over Girardi, as is offensive ability. In terms of shut-down capability, it's probably a wash, but one would assume a coach would like prefer the size of Staal (6-4) to that of Girardi's (6-1).
Staal is the more complete player, and that's what I assume Vigneault will look for in his top defender. The only thing holding Staal back is his lack of playing time the past couple of seasons. But as he showed last season, when he gets back on his game, he's a top defender in this league. I wouldn't expect any less from him in 2013-14, provided he's healthy.
At 24 years old, McDonagh has played in just 169 NHL games, which is a lot less than both Staal (388) and Girardi (488). But what he lacks in experience he makes up for in potential.
Of the three, McDonagh has the highest ceiling. His skating ability is out of this world. Easily considered one of the league's best skaters, McDonagh uses his strength to his ability by cutting off streaking forwards and using his balance to knock them off the puck. He practically made a living off shutting down Ilya Kovalchuk the past two seasons.
McDonagh also has an ideal attitude. Always looking to improve, McDonagh has put to use all that Tortorella and former assistant coach Mike Sullivan taught him, and he's a better player today because of it. Tortorella entrusted the youngster almost immediately. After playing just 40 games in 2010-11, McDonagh began the 2011-12 season on the top pairing with Girardi.
To truly argue the defensive abilities of McDonagh, Staal and Girardi would be nearly impossible; they're all excellent in a shutdown role. But what McDonagh has that the other two don't have is the latent -- and sometimes not-so -- offensive ability.
McDonagh is a player who I think could let loose under Vigneault. We've seen flashes of brilliance from him when joining the rush under Tortorella, but the former coach's overall reluctance to play an attacking style means McDonagh was limited in terms of offensive-zone time.
This could change under AV.
One thing we know about Vigneault is he plays to his players strengths, and if there's an opportunity to attack and make a play, he lets his players go. This philosophy is ideal for a player with the skating ability and offensive instincts McDonagh possesses. Furthermore, Vigneault wouldn't have to worry about McDonagh making poor decisions on when to join the play, because his on-ice intelligence is one of his best assets.
All of this leads me to believe that even if McDonagh isn't Vigneault's first choice come the beginning of the season, he eventually will be. He's just got too much to offer. It won't be easier for him, though. Girardi and Staal are accomplished All-Stars who've been around the block more times than McDonagh. But there's no arguing with talent, and McDonagh's got it.
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