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How Will Marc Staal's Return Affect the New York Rangers' Blue Line?

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 03:  Marc Staal #18 of the New York Rangers in action during the home opening NHL game against the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena on October 3, 2013 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Coyotes defeated the Rangers 4-1.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Tom Urtz Jr.Contributor INovember 16, 2016

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.

Marc Staal has had some terrible luck when it comes to injury, but he announced that he would be reporting for duty for the Blueshirts' contest against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night.

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:

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:

Potential Defense Pairings vs. Panthers
PairingLHD (without Stralman)RHD (without Stralman)
No. 1McDonaghGirardi
No. 2StaalMoore
No. 3Del ZottoAllen
ScratchesFalkStralman
PairingLHD (with Stralman)RHD (with Stralman)
No. 1McDonaghStralman
No. 2StaalGirardi
No. 3AllenMoore
ScratchesFalkDel Zotto
@TomUrtzJr's prediction

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.

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