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Top Shelf: Blueshirts' blueline making Atlantic foes see red

Already flush on the blueline, the Rangers' Marc Staal is on the precipice of becoming a top-end defenseman. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Already flush on the blueline, the Rangers' Marc Staal is on the precipice of becoming a top-end defenseman. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

The New York Rangers are starting to stand out from their Atlantic rivals and it’s not all just about a fast start.

For the past couple seasons, the Rangers were a team most believed had two-thirds of a winning trinity covered. A talented crew of forwards had enough dash and grit to create the requisite amount of offense, and with King Henrik guarding the crease all the Blueshirts were missing was a high-caliber blueline.

But that’s changing fast.

Let’s be clear; it’s not as though New York’s defense was a sore spot last season. In fact, the Rangers gave up just 25.9 shots per game in 2007-08, the third-lowest total in the league.

That stat, however, was more an outgrowth of a team commitment to protecting the cage. The Rangers’ back end, when bound together, was competent, but lacked players excelling in definitive rolls.

This young season, however, has seen some Ranger rearguards start to fill important roles with a little more vibrancy.

Dan Girardi, whom the Rangers signed as an undrafted free agent in July of 2006, has five assists through five contests. New York has lacked a real point-producer/power play quarterback since, really, Brian Leetch left town before the lockout. Girardi, 24, is never going to be among the offensive elite at his position, but if he can become that 45- to 50-point defenseman, it would go a long way towards filling the gap that’s existed since Leetch’s departure.

On a side note, the horizon holds legitimate hope the role of puck-moving, offense-driving defenseman will be aptly filled soon in the form of prospect Bobby Sanguinetti. The 20-year-old, currently playing with Hartford of the American League, has great offensive instincts and scored 29 goals and 70 points in 61 games last season with Brampton of the Ontario League.

Speaking of young bucks, 21-year-old Marc Staal, now in his second NHL season, just gets stronger and stronger with each passing game and will imminently fully evolve into a 6-foot-4, 210-pound shutdown guy who’s more smothering than an overprotective mother.

In Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden, the Rangers have two players equally capable of contributing some points, while taking care of business in their own end. Rozsival has been the best defenseman on Broadway the past couple seasons and Redden, with two goals already this year and a plus-3 rating, looks to be rediscovering his game at age 31.

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Furthering the Rangers’ hopes of an Atlantic title this season is the fact their blueline progression stands in stark contrast to what’s happening on back ends across the division.

It’s a downright dangerous time to be a defenseman in Pennsylvania.

Both the Penguins and Flyers – more so the Pens – have suffered substantial losses on the blueline. With Sergei Gonchar gone for most of the year and Ryan Whitney out until at least December, Pittsburgh is going to find out in a hurry how good Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski are.

Philly has problems of its own, with young Ryan Parent out until the New Year and Randy Jones out until at least January recovering from hip surgery. That precipitated a move to pick up Andrew Alberts from the Bruins.

New Jersey’s defense corps has been dropping big names like some insecure B-movie actor at a Hollywood party and if you think the Isles still merit mention, it’s worth noting Chris Campoli is on injured reserve with a shoulder problem and Radek Martinek left Saturday’s tilt against the St. Louis Blues with an undisclosed upper-body ailment and will miss four to six weeks.

Add it all up and it’s easy to see how a healthy, emerging blueline is going to help the Rangers sustain their standing atop a tough Atlantic Division.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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