New York Rangers
coach Tom Renney almost felt bad, as if his repetitiveness was beginning to sound a bit ridiculous.
Not at all, coach. In fact, each time Renney used the term "two-way defenseman," it further hammered home exactly what New York believes it has in 20-something blue-liners Fedor Tyutin, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal.
While Tyutin, Girardi and Staal still have some developing to do in order to earn the moniker Renney persistently spoke of, the three are good enough right now to help the Rangers in their postseason push.
Not one of the three has reached his two-way potential yet, but together they provide all the necessary qualities, despite an aggregate age of only 68.
Tyutin, the veteran of 233 NHL games, is the most physical of the three. Girardi, who needed only 14½ months to make it from ECHL to the NHL, has the best first pass. Staal, the 21-year-old rookie with the strongest pedigree, has impressed with his poise as well as his flashes of brilliance while skating with the puck.
"You look at the way the League is going now and you have to develop your own talent," Rangers veteran defenseman Jason Strudwick told NHL.com. "You want chemistry and these three guys get along really well. I think the Rangers' defense, if these guys keep progressing, will be solid for years to come."
The Rangers believe so, too, which is why on back-to-back days last month GM Glen Sather made sure to lock up Girardi for the next two seasons and Tyutin for the next four. Staal will be a bargain under his entry-level contract for another two years as well before he'll undoubtedly be due a big raise, too.
"What we want to do now is make sure that we challenge these guys with what they're able to do offensively because there is some offense in all three of them to the point where they can really contribute," Renney said. "I'd like to see them not be afraid to do it from our goal line on out, use all 200 feet."
Strudwick believes they're already doing that in their own way. He has seen Tyutin take "more control of the play" this season by "dictating play, which is a big change from last year."
Toss in his obvious physical play – Tyutin led the Rangers and was eighth in the League with 176 hits entering the week – and you can see why Renney went to the "two-way defenseman" well with Tyutin.
"He's the type of guy that can finish a check and move the puck to be part of the attack," Renney said.
Regarding Girardi, Strudwick believes that while he stuck in the lineup last season because of his defensive prowess -- Girardi was a plus-7 -- his offense has stood out this season.
Girardi had only six assists in 34 games as rookie last season, but he entered this week with eight goals and 14 assists through 64 games. The 22 points are second among Rangers' defensemen behind Michal Rozsival's 34.
Signs of a two-way threat? You bet.
"He's got a heavy shot and he can get it off," Strudwick said. "That's a big change from last year that he's more offensive. That comes from confidence. Confidence, you know, in this League is everything."
As for Staal, who is Strudwick's road roommate, the veteran has been as impressed as everyone else who pays attention to the Rangers.
"I saw 'Staaler' a couple of years ago in training camp and I thought he was pretty good. I hadn't seen him since until this past camp, and he's really impressed me," Strudwick said. "He has guys like (Ilya) Kovalchuk coming down on him, or all these great players every night, and he's a guy that doesn't seem phased by it.
"He's a smooth player," Strudwick continued. "With him you see flashes like skating the puck up. When a D-man can skate from his own zone into the neutral zone with the puck and beat a guy it really opens up the offense. With him and Tyuts and Danny, they're really starting to do that. They're starting to beat guys and that opens up the offense for a 3-on-2 instead of a 3-on-3."
Renney believes the Rangers may have to wait until Staal fills out his 6-foot-4 frame before his full potential becomes obvious. At that point Staal may not only be an All-Star puck mover, but intimidating around his own net, too.
Can you say two-way defenseman?
"You want chemistry and these three guys get along really well. I think the Rangers' defense, if these guys keep progressing, will be solid for years to come." - Rangers defenseman Jason Strudwick
"He's not a pounding, punishing checker, but he's not afraid of it at all," Renney said. "And, I think there are some transition skills there. As he gets stronger and more confident I think you'll see this guy jumping up to join the attack."
While Tyutin (second-round selection, 2001) and Staal (first-round, 2005) were projected to be major contributors, Girardi has seemingly come from nowhere to be more than just a reliable fifth or sixth defenseman.
Girardi, 23, signed with New York as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2006 after spending five seasons in the OHL. He played his first seven professional games with the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL before getting the call to join the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL, where he played the next year and a half.
Through 45 AHL games last season Girardi had 24 points, including 22 assists, more than enough to earn a shot with the big club. Girardi was steady for the rest of the season into the playoffs. He never appeared overwhelmed in the moment.
"Sometimes I look back and think about what could have been if I stayed in the ECHL for the whole year, or if I don't get called up last year who knows where I'd be right now?" Girardi told NHL.com. "Everything happens for a reason. The call-up to Hartford from the ECHL and then the call-up to New York from Hartford meant things were snowballing for me in a good way."
A little more than a year later, with 99 NHL games behind him, he's turned into a millionaire living in the Big Apple.
"There is never comfort, but I know I at least have two more years after this one," Girardi added. "There is a feeling of security."
For the Rangers, too, because Tyutin, Girardi and Staal are expected to be on the same blue line until at least 2010 when all three should have fully blossomed into what, coach?
Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.