The New York Rangers' identity over the past few years has been worn by the men that patrol its blue line, and when it was announced that one of the team's leaders was returning, a collective sigh of relief emanated from the team's fanbase.
Staal says he'll play tomorrow.— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) December 30, 2013
In Staal's absence, bench boss Alain Vigneault has had to get creative, so how will his alternate captain's return impact the blue line?
Due to the nature of his injury, it is fair to say that Staal will be eased back into the lineup. Currently the Rangers have a caucus of defensemen that includes John Moore, Michael Del Zotto, Conor Allen and Justin Falk who don't have a guaranteed spot in the lineup.
Staal will step in for one of these rear guards, and there is the potential that Anton Stralman will make a return on Tuesday night in Sunrise.
If both make a return to the lineup, Del Zotto and Falk will sit, and Falk will be the odd man out if only Staal returns to the lineup. During the Rangers' 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, Falk only had 8:45 of ice time, the least of all suited defensemen.
Even rookie Conor Allen had 15:47 of ice time, including important shifts during a tightly contested third period. Vigneault was very impressed, saying this about the former University of Massachusetts-Amherst blueliner:
AV says he used Conor Allen in crunch time because he was one of team's better d-men and outplayed some of the others.— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) December 30, 2013
Conor Allen logged 15:47 in his NHL debut, including 6:59 in the third period. AV used him in waning crucial moments.— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) December 30, 2013
As you can see, Vigneault accomplishes two things by making this statement. Firstly, the Rangers' bench boss praises a rookie for a job well done, and he tactfully takes a jab at his other blueliners. Frankly put, the Rangers blue line has been downright ugly at points during the season outside of Ryan McDonagh and the aforementioned Stralman.
In all honesty, no one should be surprised, because the team's style has changed dramatically with Vigneault behind the bench. Over The Whitestone is a statistical blog that focuses on New York sports, and an interesting point was raised about the team's change in play:
It is difficult to see in the shot chart (courtesy of somekindofninja.com), but the table below highlights the difference in shot distance against Lundqvist between this season and last. Clearly, a greater percentage of shots were taken from a farther distance (greater than 30 feet) in the 2012-13 campaign.
The average distance of shots against Lundqvist was nearly a foot greater. The difference in shooting percentage (success of shooters against him) has increased this season as well. Opposing players are taking shots closer to the net and with higher percentage of accuracy.
This season the Rangers blue line has been more mobile, and as a result has been more involved offensively. This change in style has led to more odd-man rushes, and it has afforded opponents an opportunity to skate in and take closer shots. As a result, the team has surrendered more goals on average this season.
The bottom line is that the Rangers need to be better defensively; luckily they are getting back one of their top blueliners. Staal should help shore up the defense corps. Here are the potential pairings for the Rangers' matchup against the Panthers:
|Pairing||LHD (without Stralman)||RHD (without Stralman)|
|No. 3||Del Zotto||Allen|
|Pairing||LHD (with Stralman)||RHD (with Stralman)|
These pairings are very balanced and should allow the Rangers to get back to playing their style of hockey. Tuesday's contest will mark the Rangers' last game of 2013 and will be the end of a year full of up and downs. January's schedule is set to be challenging because of the upcoming Sochi Olympics.
Because the NHL is breaking for the Olympics in February, the league will have a tightly packed January schedule. During the month of January, the Rangers will have two back-to-backs, and they will only have a day off between games for the first four weeks of the month.
This was already going to be a daunting task, but having a healthy blue line is certainly something that will aid the Rangers as they try to climb back into the playoff picture. The month of January means a lot, and it certainly will be a make-or-break month.
All stats via NHL.com unless noted.