When the Rangers arrived for training camp before the 2011-12 season, it was revealed that Marc Staal was battling post concussion syndrome and would be sidelined indefinitely.
The big question then was how would the team perform without their All-Star defenseman.
Dan Girardi and Mike Sauer had established themselves as dependable NHL stalwarts, but Michael Del Zotto was coming off a season which saw him demoted to Connecticut of the AHL. Ryan McDonagh, although promising, only had 40 games of experience under his belt, and Steve Eminger had become a career journeyman.
What complicated things even more was Mike Sauer's concussion—which he is still recovering from—early in the season. By then the Rangers has expressed interest in Swedish defenseman Anton Stralman, whom they would later sign.
Despite nearly every force working against them, the Rangers became one of the stingiest teams in the league. Girardi went on to have an All-Star season of his own while also making a serious run at the Norris Trophy, and Del Zotto and McDonagh solidified themselves as a couple of the best young defensemen in the league.
Also, Stralman's strong play should not go without mention.
It wasn't a fluke, either. The team's defensive play remained consistent throughout the entire season and playoffs. They finished third in the league in goals against, and despite Marc Staal's return on January 2nd for the Winter Classic, he really didn't contribute anything until late in the playoffs.
Compared to the rest of the league, it's safe to say the Rangers have just about as good a top-five as anyone in the league—that sixth defenseman is still the team's only problem back there.
The Penguins still feature Letang, Orpik and Martin, but the latter two have seen better days. The Bruins have a solid core back there too, and even more so now with the emergence of the young Dougie Hamilton to go with the rather large group that includes Chara, Sidenberg and Boychuck.
Out in the West there are several teams with top defensive units. Chicago's is very solid; the addition of Johnny Oduya last season and Michal Rozsival this past offseason only further solidifies their superstar group featuring Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
The Blues, again, are very solid, but outside of Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk I find them to be a bit thin.
There's also the Kings and Canucks. The Kings are a bit top heavy with Doughty, but are fairly solid throughout. Vancouver, on the other hand, boasts an impressive group of defensemen who are effective at both ends of the ice. Their core is similar to the Rangers, except just a lot older.
When talking about out-and-out depth, I think the Blackhawks probably have the best defense in the league, but the Rangers are right behind them. They've got everything: size, speed, skill, and maybe most importantly, youth. The oldest player on their backline is only 29.
Furthermore, any one of the Rangers top-five can play in any situation—even strength, power play, penalty kill, it doesn't matter.
The potential is there for the Rangers. They may not have the best of the best right now, but with this team's potential, it's tough to not think next season this team could be the class of the NHL in terms of defense.