A tough start to the season just got a whole lot tougher for the Rangers. The loss of Marc Staal for the beginning of the season to headaches, neck pain or concussion-like symptoms - depending on which story you prefer at any point - suddenly makes the defense look a whole lot less dependable.
Yes it's true that the Rangers have much the same defensive corps as they had last season, but Staal was clearly the number one blueliner for the Blueshirts, and we're about to find out what it's like playing without your best defenseman.
It wasn't bad enough that the Rangers have been touring around Europe playing a schedule that a politician would find overwhelming, or that the team will open the season Friday and Saturday with back to back games against the Kings and Ducks, a mere 3,905 miles from their home ice. Then there's a four game western Canadian trip to welcome them home, after a one-game cameo out on Long Island.
And Marc Staal may miss them all.
The problem is that no one really knows what the problem is. Diagnosis of concussions is only moderately removed from the dark ages. Physicians and the medical establishment understand the symptoms and can diagnose the problem, but are generally unable to pinpoint the exact cause or damage, and are even less able to address any such damage.
Pretty much the only thing that resolves a concussion is the human body's ability to repair itself naturally, and the human body has no deadlines or dates that it needs to meet.
As such, the Rangers are left in the difficult situation of facing the start of the season without one of their key players and will have to rely on others to step up.
Dan Girardi has certainly become a mainstay of the Rangers' defense, but he remains more a role player. He's a guy who can play on the first or second pair, add some offense and be a reliable defender when the team needs it. He'll likely be paired with Ryan McDonagh, himself very similar in style to Girardi.
On the second pairing it looks like Mike Sauer and Michael Del Zotto. Sauer may be a little underdone after suffering a shoulder injury during the preseason clash with the Flyers, and not being able to practice until today.
His projected partner remains even less reliable. Del Zotto has shown an improvement offensively in this European tour, but his defense remains questionable and the opposition for the most part has been below NHL standards. He still struggles with his positioning in his own zone, demonstrating a tendency to chase the puck, and his acceleration remains below par.
For the third pair, it looks like the Rangers will go with Steve Eminger and Tim Erixon. Eminger was superceded last season as Tortorella found better options, and his play in the preseason has been less than impressive. The rookie Tim Erixon has shown his ability to play calmly under pressure, but he still has plenty to learn.
As for Stu Bickel and Brendan Bell, it's telling that Tortorella is looking to the rookie Erixon ahead of either of them.
Clearly the Rangers are a much weaker team defensively without Staal in the line-up. It'll be up to the forwards to help relieve some of the pressure in his absence, both by providing a quality backcheck, and perhaps more importantly by scoring goals.
Henrik Lundqvist is going to have to step up his play in net too. He'll start the season in his homeland, and should be as prepared as any of the Rangers.
Ultimately the Rangers will do well simply to be at .500 by the end of October. Here's hoping they get a few breaks along the way, and that Marc Staal can regain his health and fitness quickly.