Yes, I know the answer many fans will give to that question. I ask that you please hold that thought for a second as I’m not saying I disagree…yet.
Currently, the Rangers have a backlog on defense. They have eight defensemen and if we’re being honest, Torts only trusts 4 1/2 of them. (I say 1/2 because on some nights Anton Stralman gets 26 minutes and others he barely hits 10. Seeing how he played Tavares on the Islanders only goal Thursday night, most fans can understand why. It wasn’t his only mistake on the night but all in all, he covered admirably. I just can’t see him doing it on a nightly basis.)
If we take out those five, that leaves Matt Gilroy (who I’m still shocked has been the one most trusted so far), Steve Eminger (who plays the 7th role perfectly) and Stu Bickel. I’ve said it before but I feel Bickel is the one Torts wants to be the 6th defenseman. Why? One, look at how hard he’s tried to get him in the lineup. Two, he would’ve gotten rid of him by now if he didn’t want him around. So the question is why keep him?
Through eight games this season, Bickel is averaging 5:16 in ice time per night playing either defense or forward. For those wondering how it’s so high, take out the second game of the season where he played 14:15 and that average becomes 3:42. (Yes, he played over 14 minutes as a defenseman this season. He had one horrible play that night that directly led to a goal against but if my memory serves me correctly, he wasn’t bad the remainder of the evening. I’ll admit I do have a bad memory but at least nothing else stood out to be remembered.)
At 3:42, he is a waste. Anyone who knows anything about hockey knows that. Could he cost the Rangers more if he played more? Yes, there is a good possibility he could. There is just as good of a possibility that any of the teams’ other defensemen could cost the Rangers more from all the extra time they’re getting due to the team only have 5 defensemen each night.
So what does Bickel bring to the lineup? Well for one, he brings his fists. I’m not going to start a debate about if teams should have a “goon” in their lineup but sometimes, an enforcer is needed. With Mike Rupp gone, our only true enforcer is Arron Asham. I may be wrong, but I don’t think he actually puts fear in other teams’ lineups. I know I was never worried about him when he played on every other team in the Atlantic. Bickel, on the other hand, can throw a punch and everyone knows it.
In the two games against Philly this year, he fought Sestito early on in the first one (video above) and the rest of the game went without incident while in the second one, there wasn’t a single fight. Do I know for fact that his presence stopped that? No, I don’t. But when was the last time there was a Rangers-Flyers game that didn’t have at least one fight? It wasn’t like Sestito and Rinaldo weren’t in the Flyers lineup. (They both were.)
But do we want a defenseman gone for five minutes or more each night? No, most teams probably wouldn’t. Being that he barely gets that in ice time at the moment, it’s not a real loss but I do agree it could be if he got a more regular shift. That said, there are plenty of teams who have a defenseman who drops the gloves on a regular basis. It’s not the worst thing in the world if he isn’t your number one d-man and you trust the other five.
Other than his fists, why should the Rangers put Bickel in the lineup?
Last season, Bickel averaged 10:25 over 51 games. (It was literally an even split on the number of games over and under the ten minute mark.) In March, with Michael Del Zotto out of the lineup, he was thrust into a top four role over two games playing over twenty minutes a night where he was a plus-2 against Carolina and a minus-3 against Pittsburgh. (I don’t remember the Pens game so won’t hold it against him especially since Girardi, Staal and McDonagh were all minus-2 that night.)
What is my point? The guy can play hockey. No he’s not a regular top four defenseman. He definitely isn’t now and probably never will be. But given the chance, there is no reason he can’t play eight to ten minutes a night. He did it last year and no one hated him until the playoffs when his ice time dropped dramatically for reasons I don’t know. I’m not saying to give him twenty minutes a night or even twelve. But Torts trusted him last year. He saw something he liked otherwise the Rangers wouldn’t have re-signed him for two years. The fans saw that too as he quickly became a fan favorite (and yes I’m sure his fists had something to do with that). Now everyone hates him?
Look, I get there is a backlog on defense and once Girardi is healthy, it looks like Gilroy will have the sixth spot. I’m okay with that if he continues to play the way he has been rather than how he played in Connecticut. But everyone saying Bickel is worthless just doesn’t make sense to me. When the opportunity arises, let him play and see if he can gain that confidence he obviously had last year when he ended the season with a plus-2 rating. If he can’t, then move him. But at least give him a chance to show what he did last year when he remained in the lineup playing actual minutes for almost every game (missed one game in February) after his December call-up.