The New York Rangers have produced a wonderful season, but their lack of defensemen depth will result in their early exit from the playoffs.
Recent Stanley Cup winners and most of the current playoff contenders have five defenders who have played 1,000 or more minutes during the respective seasons for their teams.
Moreover, those Cup winners have generally played those defensemen similar minutes per game in the playoffs as their minutes during the regular season.
The Rangers' core three of Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto do not have reliable teammates to absorb the load. The team has rotated Anton Stralman, Marc Staal, Steve Eminger, Stu Bickel and a host of others but has yet to identify firm No. 4 and 5 defensemen. Del Zotto and McDonagh are in their first more-than-20 minutes per game season, so there is no evidence they can be counted upon to handle a 27-minutes per game burden in the playoffs.
Here are recent Cup winners' profiles:
Pittsburgh in 2008-09 had a very balanced defense corps with Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi, Hal Gill and Mark Eaton sharing the load.
Carolina in 2005-06 employed similar balance with Bret Hedican, Aaron Ward, Frantisek Kaberle, Mike Commodore and Glen Wesley anchoring the blue line.
So too did Tampa in 2003-04 with Pavel Kubina, Dan Boyle, Cory Sarich, Brad Lukowich and Jassen Cullimore providing the defense.
Detroit in 2007-08 leaned more on Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski, but they were ably supported by Niklas Kronwall, Brett Lebda and even Chris Chelios and Andreas Lilja.
The 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks similarly relied on stalwarts Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell while Niklas Hjalmarsson and Dustin Byfuglien were important contributors.
The 2010-11 Boston Bruins called upon Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg to log heaviest ice-time while Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference and Adam McQuaid complemented them effectively.
The one exception that might give Rangers' fans hope is the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks Cup winner. They only had four key contributors and two of them—Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer—averaged more than 27 minutes per game in the regular season while Francois Beauchemin averaged 25.5 minutes.
What is truly remarkable is that they markedly increased their ice time in the playoff run, averaging a stunning more than 30 minutes per game per player. Put another way—these three guys accounted for almost 91 minutes of the 120 minutes per game that a team needs two defensemen or 76 percent of the workload.
But Pronger was accustomed to this heavy ice time, having already played six years of 27.5 or more minutes per game including two consecutive years over 30. Niedermayer had seven years experience at 23.3 or more minutes with a recent two-year stretch of 25.5 plus minutes per game.
Girardi, the Rangers' most seasoned strongman, still has only one previous season exceeding 24 minutes per game.
Sports Illustrated journalist Tom Verducci discovered what is now called the Verducci effect in baseball. He found that young pitchers making a significant leap year-to-year in innings pitched were at more severe risk of injury. I suspect that there is a comparable type hockey threshold in jump in minutes played per year and performance plateau.
Among top contenders for this season's Cup, St Louis, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Nashville, Pittsburgh and Ottawa all have the five-guy foundations, which I believe is critical. Florida is another exception; they need Dmitry Kulikov to be fully recovered to provide them a fourth core guy; Ed Jovanoski and Erik Gudbranson have not played well enough to be considered adequate fifth guys.
So, despite Henrik Lundqvist's spectacular goalie play, the 2011-12 Rangers are destined to lose and management will be left trying to answer why the team did not cultivate the defensive depth that has become the norm for quality NHL teams.