In the modern day era of the sport, successful teams are ones that build from the back out. Securing a top goaltender and protecting him with a solid and balanced defensive group is something many teams, including the Rangers, have put at the top of their to-do list.
The piecing together of the Rangers' current defensive unit began in the summer of 2005, when Marc Staal and Mike Sauer were selected by the club in the NHL Entry Draft. At the start of the 2005-06 season, the Rangers welcomed 2000 draft selection Henrik Lundqvist to training camp. Later on in the season, Lundqvist showed the organization that he was the team's goaltender of the present and future.
The following summer, Dan Girardi was signed as an undrafted free agent. The signing came two years before the Rangers selected Michael Del Zotto in the NHL Entry Draft and three years before they acquired Ryan McDonagh from Montreal.
The group was rounded out by the additions of Matt Gilroy, Steve Eminger, Stu Bickel and Anton Stralman; all of whom are no older than the age of 29.
What's impressive is that, despite being so young, this team finished third in goals against last season. And as good as that is, coach Torts will look for improvement in 2013, because not only is this defense the best young defense in the league, it's also the best in the league period. Here's four reasons why.
Balance is one of, if not the most important aspect of a top-notch defensive corps.
Puck movers and shut-down guys are equally valuable, but guys who can do both are tough to find. That's why the Rangers' defense is so impressive.
McDonagh, Girardi, Staal and Del Zotto all can shadow opposing team's top players and contribute offensively on a nightly basis. And even Stralman, although to a lesser degree, can pitch in effectively on both ends of the ice.
What this means for the Rangers is that they can run through all three defensive pairings, if they choose, in just about any situation imaginable. Power play, penalty kill even strength; it really doesn't matter. These guys all posses enough athleticism and skill to be considered two-way defensemen.
This is good news for the Rangers because it gives them options. They can roll through their three pairings to keep everyone fresh, or they can lean on certain pairs while not worrying about a letdown when the depth pair is on the ice. Basically, the defense has minimal weaknesses.
The Rangers top five defenseman are set in stone; McDonagh, Staal, Girardi, Del Zotto and Stralman. That's a solid group of five and, for the most part, you're going to get what you'd expect: sound defensive hockey. But the team also employs three other defenseman; Gilroy, Eminger and Bickel.
Only one of them—or in some, but rare instances two of them—will see action a night. The beauty of carrying these three spare defensemen is that they are all very different, which gives John Tortorella options.
Depending on the Rangers' opponent on any given night, he can insert one of the three extra defenseman in for different assignments. If they're playing a team like the Islanders or Devils, Torts may want to dress Bickel for some added toughness.
Maybe the Penguins are in town, well then Torts will probably insert Eminger into the line-up because he is the most defensively responsible. And with Gilory, he may see action when the power play is struggling.
Eight playable defenseman also allows smooth transitioning if and when there is an injury. Having a wide selection of depth defensman allows an injured player to be replaced fairly easy.
The Rangers' head coach and assistant coach should receive just as much credit for the strides their defenseman have made over the course of their tenure as the players themselves do.
They've not only realized the potential these players have, but built a system around them that enables them to succeed.
The team plays a defense-first style, and after they defend they create their offense. Most of them have the ability to make an excellent first pass or even skate the puck into the neutral zone or the other team's zone, but they are given these freedoms only if they are responsible in their own end first.
It's this philosophy, along with a merit-based ice-time structure that has allowed this group of defensemen to become great individual players while also succeeding as a group. Both of these aspects allow for a minimal amount of mistakes and a great sense of accountability.
Even Stralman and Eminger, guys who were thought to be done has NHL players, have benefited from the current regime's system. Whether or not they can continue to build off their progress this season is something to look for.
But as long as Tortorella and Sullivan occupy the Rangers' bench, the defense will be in good hands. Defense first is a system many Stanley Cup champions have used in the past,
As was stated earlier, this defensive group's oldest player is Steve Eminger who's only 29-years-old. That being said, they've accomplished so much, and one would have to assume that things are going to get better.
And why is that? Because aside from Michael Del Zotto's stumble in 2010-11 and Marc Staal's injury laden 2011-12, each one of these players has improved on a year-to-year basis since joining the Rangers.
Dan Girardi was a quiet, steady and reliable guy on the back-end when he joined the team. Now he's become a leader, a shot blocker, a physical force and an All-Star. The same can be said for Marc Staal, who entered the league as a strict stay-at-home type, but over the course of his development he's blossomed into a well-rounded first pairing defenseman who could be used in every situation.
Although their careers have been short thus far, McDonagh and Del Zotto made unpredictably large strides in 2011-12 to solidify their positions in the team's top-4.
But most of these guys are still so young and years away from what is considered "prime years" in the NHL. Their talent and progression up until this point tells us that these guys are still developing, and chances are we haven't seen the best of them.
Plus, with high-end prospects like Brady Skjei and Dylan McIlrath in the pipeline, this defense has the potential to become even better in three to five years.
This group's potential is what makes them such a threat for years to come.