This is not to excuse the Blueshirts’ ugly 18-19-2 record, but theirs has been an injury-riddled season.
Neither Ryan Callahan nor Carl Hagelin played on the team’s opening road trip from hell. Rick Nash was sidelined three games into October. Dominic Moore missed half of November. Marc Staal was concussed on the first night of December’s nine-game homestand; Callahan went down (again) on its third. Neither has played since. The latest to join the infirmed is Anton Stralman – another key cog in the Rangers’ operation – and thus another door has opened.
This time, it’s defenseman Conor Allen stepping into the picture.
Allen, 23 years old, will make his NHL debut Sunday night against the Lighting. He’s a physical presence on the ice at 6’2, 210 lbs.; Dan Girardi, by comparison, is listed at 6’1, 203 lbs. So Allen will bring some needed size to a smallish blueline, especially with Staal (6’4) out indefinitely and Justin Falk (6’5) basically incapable of keeping up with the competition.
But Allen, unlike his Hartford counterpart Dylan McIlrath, is more than just a body at this point in his career. The U-Mass product impressed the coaching staff with his puck-moving abilities in training camp and then held his own in three preseason appearances. And though he struggled in the season’s early goings with the Wolf Pack, he has since adjusted to the pace at the professional level and has thrived of late. Seven of Allen’s 13 points this season have come in his past seven games.
So don’t be fooled by the fact that 30 teams passed on him in the draft. Allen has NHL-size and a skill set that can catch up with his body, and if that’s not proof enough of the kid’s potential, take a look at the contract the Rangers offered him last spring: 2 years, $3.55 million. And they weren’t his only suitors. Scouts and management may not have noticed Allen three or four years ago, but they’re noticing him now.
If he can carry his momentum with the Wolf Pack onto the Rangers, Allen may affect how Glen Sather handles this team going forward. It’s already known that the team is shopping Michael Del Zotto – although his play has improved of late – and Dan Girardi may now be on the block as well. Both have struggled under Alain Vigneault, and with the team in dire need of some scoring help, not to mention another right-handed defenseman, it makes sense to gauge interest around the league. (With Stralman out, only one of the Rangers’ top-six defenseman is a right-handed shot (Girardi), and Ryan McDonagh is the only lefty that can reliably play on the right side.)
Girardi, then, is rendered more valuable to the team, but if Allen can prove to be a steady defensive presence and chip in some offense on the side, Del Zotto becomes a dispensable asset. He has already been connected to defensemen Jake Gardiner and Cody Franson in Toronto, although the Rangers need additional scoring before anything else. It’s all speculation right now, of course, and much of what Glen Sather can do is tied to how Allen performs. But if his strong play in Hartford translates to success in New York, expect some rearrangement sooner rather than later.
At the very least, expect some controversy when Stralman and Staal return. And speaking of Staal, don’t rule him out of any trade scenario either. The Rangers need Stralman for his right-handed shot and defensive reliability, but Staal has slowly been replaced by McDonagh as the team’s shut-down defenseman (a.k.a. the guy that matches up with Alex Ovechkin.) As a left-handed shot, he doesn’t offer any special utility to the team, and after suffering the third concussion of his career three weeks ago, there has to be some concerns about his health moving forward. That being said, Staal remains an elite matchup defenseman in this league with a movable contract, and could net a big return for the Rangers.
The worst-case scenario for Allen, through all of this, is simply a demotion. But if he plays his best, the worst-case changes for basically any defenseman not named McDonagh (and, tentatively, Stralman.) Demotion isn’t an option in the case of Del Zotto, Girardi or Staal – or Falk/John Moore. Relocation is.
So keep an eye on the play of Conor Allen, the young American out of Chicago. He has a chance to make a career in New York, and alter a few others along the way.