If you polled 50 hockey fans, asking them to name the New York Rangers top-6 defenseman, you can take it to the bank that the name that would be omitted most frequently is that of Anton Stralman. The 27-year old Swede is neither big–just 5'11–nor offensively inclined–only 4 points this year–allowing him to fly under the radar.
But what he has been is an extremely solid, steadying, presence on the back end. There's very few peaks and valleys in the puck moving defenseman's game–making him valuable to a team that's been no stranger to peaks or valleys this season.
Stralman came to the Rangers in 2011 as a relatively unknown free agent signing–scratch that, a completely unknown free agent signing. In the words of his then-coach John Tortorella:
"I didn't know who the hell he was when we got him. When I first saw him, I didn't like him."
At the time, the always blunt Tortorella had a point. After being let go by Columbus following the 2010-11 campaign, Stralman, who had a reputation as an offensive-minded defenseman with an aversion to contact, failed to make the Devils when he was brought in on a tryout contract. The Rangers, who at the time were ravaged by injuries on the blueline, brought him aboard, as much out of desperation as anything else.
Stralman, once considered scarcely more valuable than Steve Eminger, is now in his 3rd season with the Blueshirts, and has transformed his game–turning himself into a bona fide top-4 defenseman. This season, the smooth-skating Swede is 4th on the team–just seconds behind his partner Marc Staal–in ice time with 19:32 per game.
For the Rangers, his ascension couldn't have come at a better time. It's no secret that before the recent acquisition of Kevin Klein, the Blueshirts had a shortage of defenseman capable of playing the right side. Michael Del Zotto tried unsuccessfully to play his off side before being traded, and John Moore, while talented, doesn't appear ready to handle major minutes just yet.
Which left the cupboard save for Stralman in terms of options alongside Staal on the 2nd pair. Thankfully for Alain Vigneault's Rangers, the pending UFA was up to the task and raised his game.
Detractors would point to his minus-8 as evidence Stralman really isn't worthy of this praise. But, plus/minus is at best, a flawed stat–especially for stay-at-home defenseman who really aren't on the ice for that many goals for. Case in point: Marc Staal–good enough to earn consideration for Canada's loaded Olympic squad–has been a plus in just 4 of his 7 NHL seasons (minus-9 so far this year).
Of more note is the Swede's sterling Corsi For percentage (CF%), which measures puck possession. Stralman's CF% is 56%–best on the team–meaning when he's on the ice, 56% of the shots attempted are by the Rangers and directed at the oppositions net, indicative of a defenseman who is adept at starting the breakout. (stats per extraskater.com)
Think it's meaningless? The Rangers top-3 in CF% are Stralman, Chris Kreider, and Mats Zuccarello. The worst? Taylor Pyatt, Justin Falk, and Brian Boyle. Maybe there is something to this stuff after all.
Fancy stats notwithstanding, the eyes don't lie–Anton Stralman's emergence on the blueline has given a Rangers' team that would otherwise be top-heavy defensively a major boost–and made Alain Vigneault's life a lot easier. Now maybe if he could find the back of the net every now and then, he wouldn't be so anonymous anymore.
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