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THN.com Blog: Young Rangers defense needs more veteran support

Marc Staal leads the Rangers in average time on ice per game with 22:33. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

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Marc Staal leads the Rangers in average time on ice per game with 22:33. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)

This season started out with so much goodwill in Manhattan. But it seems like ages since the New York Rangers were on top of the NHL, bursting out of the gates with seven wins in their first eight games.

Since then, the Blueshirts have gone 6-12-1 and are now – sacrilege! – tied with the New York Islanders for last place in the Atlantic Division and ninth in the conference (Philly also has 27 points, but has three games in hand on the two New York squads).

So where did it all go wrong? Let me posit a theory: ‘Safe is Death’ is death.

Coach John Tortorella’s man-the-torpedoes, push-the-puck-and-worry-about-defense-later strategy may have won him a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay, but the thing is, people catch on. Like hockey people, who watch a lot of video.

Tortorella hasn’t won a playoff round since getting his ring and his first full season in New York is getting ugly fast.

The key for me is the team’s young defense. ‘Safe is Death’ was great fun early on, but when opponents counterattack and you’re forced back on your heels, the NHL dream becomes a living, breathing monster. And for players still learning to deal with the size, speed and smarts that only the best league in the world can showcase, it’s a tough dragon to slay.

Now, Tortorella can only play the blueliners he’s been given by GM Glen Sather, so in that respect it’s not his fault the only vets on the squad are Wade Redden (better than he was last season) and Michal Rozsival (scorned by all locals, as I understand it). But something must be done to take the burden off what will be an amazing core down the road.

Marc Staal has been fantastic in his short Rangers career, but his ice time is climbing this year. He’s up more than a minute per game this season (averaging a team-high 22:33 versus 21:08 last year) and plays hard minutes – he’s not a stalwart on the power play, but does log significant penalty-kill time. In a shootout win over Florida last week, he played more than 30 minutes. And he’s only 22 years old.

Physically, I know Staal can handle the workload, but mentally that’s too much pressure for such a young player.

Michael Del Zotto, who graced THN’s recent rookie issue cover alongside John Tavares and Tyler Myers, is swooning now that teams are learning how to pick on him. He’s a minus-7 in his past three games and has four points in his past 10 after starting the year with 13 through 17. Del Zotto also leads the team in giveaways with 18.

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Seventeen points in 27 games is still amazing for a rookie NHL defenseman, but the Rangers aren’t winning and I’m sure Del Zotto would agree which is more important.

The trickle-down effect of relying so heavily on Staal, Del Zotto, rookie Matt Gilroy and Dan Girardi is that goaltender Henrik Lundqvist doesn’t look as comfortable as he has been in the past.

There’s no doubt ‘Hank’ will be starting in net for Sweden at the Olympics in February, but his stats aren’t very world-beating right now. Lundqvist’s 2.74 goals-against average is by far the worst of his NHL career and his .910 save percentage is also a low.

The Rangers have the No. 2 scorer in the NHL right now in Marian Gaborik and another top-25 man in Vinny Prospal. They’ve gone from 28th in NHL offense last year (2.44 goals per game) to 14th this season (2.89 GPG).

So although ‘Safe is Death’ is working in that respect, now the question becomes, is it worth it?

Ryan Kennedy 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 Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays. 

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

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