SUNRISE, FL - The term 'work in progress' has been tossed about as of late around the Rangers, who since the trade deadline - and several weeks prior - have deployed one of the youngest defensive units in the NHL.
Last night's group of six had just one member over the age of 25, while just one other had more than 70 games of NHL experience to their name. So with the transition towards a younger squad in the years to come, growing pains are to be expected.
But those pains don't have to be negative. In fact, the only way for these players - three of whom last night had fewer than 20 games of NHL experience - is to use mistakes as lessons to improve down the road.
"You've got to learn of what's expected of you every day. You're learning every day when you come into the league," said Marc Staal, the elder statesman on the blueline. "I think making sure that they know what's expected of them every day and what they have to do on and off the ice. If they have any questions or concerns about anything, there's some guys in here that can answer their questions and we'll do that."
Staal, with his 747 games in the NHL, said the opportunity given to players like Neal Pionk, John Gilmour and Tony DeAngelo is huge for the development, even with the mistakes that are bound to arise with a lack of experience.
"They've gotten a great opportunity here to play some important minutes," Staal said. "I think they're getting better. They're working hard and all have a good attitude. They're ready to learn and they're competing, so it's been good. Hopefully we can continue to help them improve and we should be better because of it."
Another player looking to improve and make the most of this chance on a team in transition is Rob O'Gara, who came over from Boston in the trade last month that sent Nick Holden to the Bruins.
The 24-year-old had 11 games of experience before joining the Rangers and registered his first NHL point in the team's loss in Tampa.
He admitted the change - both on and off the ice - has been something he's trying to get acclimated to, but it's getting easier with each passing day.
"I'm settling in a little bit. It's certainly a big change, not just on the ice but living in a different city and all that," said O'Gara, who grew up on Long Island. "It's been good. It's becoming easier and easier every day thanks to the guys, thanks to the staff. Learning the system and trying to get better every game. It's a work in progress and the guys have been really helpful."
Coach Alain Vigneault praised O'Gara's work ethic and said like any player, the more he plays, the better he'll perform.
"He's working hard. He's playing within his limits but working extremely hard," he said. "Working on improving his skill and his game. He's got good size, a good stick and defends well. The more he plays the more he's going to improve and that's what we're trying to do with him."
Is there a benefit to so many kids on the blueline at the same time? O'Gara believes so.
"It made it easy, coming into this new situation, to kind of have a crew of younger guys to hang out with and say 'hey, what's this, what's that?' They've been very receptive," he said. "It is definitely helpful to have guys to lean on who are going through the same thing."
One thing is for certain: This stretch of games for the young blueliners will pay dividends down the line.
"I think it'll definitely drive them this summer in whatever they're doing," Staal said. "Now that they've gotten a taste of what this league and the team is all about. I'm sure that'll drive them to do whatever they have to do to make an impact and try and be here next year and for years to come. I think it's great that they're getting a big opportunity to play a lot of big minutes. It's been fun to watch."
Vigneault said that as of Friday, Chris Kreider is 50/50 to play Saturday night against the Panthers after sustaining a hit to the head Thursday in Tampa that led to his removal from the game for precautionary reasons after the first period.
While he skated with the club Friday morning at practice, he did not take part in line rushes, leaving his status in flux.
"Today he practiced, not with a regular line," Vigneault said. "I just want to see how he's going to feel tomorrow. It's always better in these situations to be on the safe side and that's what we're doing with Chris right now."
Vigneault said Kreider "seemed fine" Friday, but they'll see what his status is on Saturday before deciding.
Henrik Lundqvist, who was pulled Thursday after allowing four goals on 31 shots, will start against the Panthers.
Video: Kevin Shattenkirk on return to practice
Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk skated with the team again but did not give a timetable on a possible return to the lineup.
"I feel good. It's come a long way," he told reporters. "I feel like I have my stride back, which is good. Kind of have that last little bit of push I felt I was lacking before the surgery. It's getting better and better every day and now that I'm able to skate with these guys, you take little steps and try to immerse yourself into practice and situations that you can't really replicate without playing with the team."