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Rangers defenseman Stralman quietly gets job done

by Corey Masisak

LOS ANGELES -- Now that enough time has passed since the New York Rangers changed coaches, it's obvious some players have enjoyed more success playing for Alain Vigneault than they did for John Tortorella.

Ryan McDonagh blossomed into a No. 1 defenseman and a fringe Norris Trophy candidate. Chris Kreider became a regular up front and an important offensive weapon.

The player who might end up prospering the most from the change is defenseman Anton Stralman. Not only has Stralman been given more responsibility by the new coaching staff, he's become a key player for a Stanley Cup finalist because of his ability to play well in those situations.

"I think this is obviously his best year since he came to New York," Rangers forward Carl Hagelin said. "The coaches have a lot of confidence in him, and you can see how he's growing throughout the year. ... He's not going to be a flashy player but he's always finding ways to break the puck out pretty smoothly. He's a good skater. He's finding ways, even when the forecheck is hard on him. He will pivot off guys and find a way to break out.

"He's showed a lot of improvement over the year too. Maybe that's all it takes, is some more confidence and you can do the things you want to do on the ice and make the plays you know you can make. He's not a guy who gets too down on himself. He benefited from the change for sure."

Stralman was a journeyman before landing with the Rangers. A seventh-round pick (No. 216) by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2005 NHL Draft, he was traded twice in one season, and after 2010-11 was a free agent who couldn't find a team.

The New Jersey Devils gave him a tryout contract but released him. Stralman spent the first month of the 2011-12 season without an NHL home. The Rangers signed him in November 2011, and he's improved steadily during the past three seasons.

In 2012-13 Stralman was deployed almost exclusively as a third-pair defenseman. That typically means sheltered ice time, either facing weaker competition, starting more shifts in the offensive zone, or both.

Stralman had four goals and seven points during the lockout-shortened season, but his possession statistics were strong. There were caveats about where and when his ice time took place.

Vigneault promoted Stralman to the second pair and placed him alongside Marc Staal. They have become a prototypical shut-down pairing for the Rangers.

"I think both of us, we're pretty reliable guys," Stralman said. "Neither of us is real flashy and taking too much of a risk, but I think the biggest part is we've been playing together for quite some time now. That's certainly something that I haven't done in my career earlier. That's obviously a good feeling to know you're going out there on the ice with the same guy for 90 percent of your shifts. It is just a comfort level when you get to play with someone that much. You kind of know and read off each other and [that] makes everything a lot easier."

Stralman's quality of competition has gone up and his percentage of shifts that start in the offensive zone has gone down. But his possession numbers have held strong. The ability to tilt the ice despite that type of deployment is incredibly valuable.

Stralman's proficiency against top players in tough situations has been on display during the Stanley Cup Final. He and Staal have played a lot against the top lines for the Los Angeles Kings, who lead the best-of-7 series 3-1 with Game 5 Friday at Staples Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS).

In Games 2 and 3 Stralman had a Corsi-for percentage (shot attempts) at even strength of better than 60 percent despite starting more shifts in the defensive zone. In Game 3 Stralman wasn't on the ice for one offensive-zone faceoff. The Kings are the best possession team in the League, but in those two games they were chasing the puck when Stralman was on the ice.

He, like the rest of the Rangers, was pushed back more by the Kings in Game 4, but New York won 2-1 with Stralman making a key play to keep the puck out of his net in the first period.

"It's great," Stralman said of the increased responsibility. "That's a situation that I haven't done a lot in my career. It obviously takes some learning, playing against better players. You can't have a bad shift because you know they're going to execute on the chances you give them. It is really a matter of playing strong on every shift and making sure everybody is on the right side. When you're counting where all the players are, don't miscalculate. You try to play with a nice, tight gap. That's about all you can do."

The breakout season and playoffs for Stralman is coming at a great time. He will be an unrestricted free agent if the Rangers do not re-sign him before July 1.

Stralman's next contract will be something of a litmus test of where analytics are in hockey. He had one goal and 13 points in 81 regular-season games, and has no goals and five points in 24 playoff games.

Dig a little deeper, however, and Stralman's value becomes more apparent. There are marks in all the boxes that get checked for someone who could be undervalued.

The Rangers had a low shooting percentage while he was on the ice, helping depress his traditional numbers. He starts more shifts in the defensive zone, which can hold down goal and point totals. All of his advanced statistics are better relative to New York's team average, and the Rangers were a borderline-elite team in the regular season based on those metrics.

Stralman has other advantages in what doesn't appear to be a deep class of unrestricted free-agent defensemen. He is 27 years old, and fewer potential impact players are hitting the open market at that age because of long-term contracts signed by restricted free agents that buy out UFA seasons.

He also is a right-shot defenseman, which is a little like being a left-handed pitcher in baseball. There aren't as many of them, so demand often outreaches supply.

A player with Stralman's profile could be undervalued, but given the proliferation of teams giving more credence to analytics, it is a good bet a bidding war is coming if the Rangers do not sign him before the market opens.

"I did think about it earlier this season, but there's still a week left in this season," Stralman said. "Whatever comes after that, I'll deal with it. There's no real reason to think about it right now. We've got plenty to think about. It's fun, and I just try to enjoy it as much as I can."


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