Getting to know Anton Stralman, the Rangers' unsung hero on defense

Bruce Bennett

Playing on the Rangers' second defensive pairing, Anton Stralman has long gone unnoticed. But that time is over.

SB Nation 2014 NHL Playoff Bracket

NEW YORK -- If Anton Stralman isn't a name you're entirely familiar with, it's quite all right. Even under the scrupulous media scope of New York, the former seventh-round pick has long gone relatively unnoticed.

Game by game, though, that's becoming a thing of the past.

In his third season with the Rangers, Stralman has emerged as a very capable defenseman. At 27 years old, he's not quite a late bloomer as much as a quick riser. It's just more the type of plays he's making now, and the stage, which is making everyone realize when he soon hits the open market, he'll command a pretty substantial contract.

In Game 4 against the Kings Wednesday night, Stralman was quite visible. Juxtaposed to the down play of Dan Girardi and the development of Ryan McDonagh, maybe the former helped Stralman's game seem that much better, while the latter provided a good measuring stick for just how well he was in fact playing. It was Stralman who lined up the shifty Drew Doughty with a hip check in the first period, setting the tone before McDonagh followed suit and separated Justin Williams from the puck with a similar move.

"It was just one of those plays that I'm trying to go wide instead of cut in the middle," said Stralman on the podium. Earlier, a horde of reporters stalked his locker room stall, the largest media crowd for any player in the Rangers' locker room. "It's just a matter of trying to close down the space.

"Most guys will stand up. I'll use my hip."

Meanwhile, Stralman was only getting started.

In what would become a theme Wednesday night, after Henrik Lundqvist got most of a shot, one of his teammates (in this case, Stralman) came to the rescue, throwing himself into the blue paint and keeping the puck above the goal line, first denying Jeff Carter and then stymying any follow-up chances.

In an elimination game, it takes a by-any-means-necessary approach to keeping the season alive. For Stralman, it was simply a matter of making a winning play.

"I just saw the puck and all I tried to do basically was get the stick out, and obviously the puck as well," said Stralman.

"I got a little lucky and was able to save it."

The only Ranger who currently gets more defensive zone starts than Stralman is his partner Marc Staal.

Luck being the operative word, as it has been all Stanley Cup Final. But bounces can be earned, and while before Game 4 it might have been the Kings outhustling and beating the Rangers to the puck — maybe pouncing on that loose change on the goal line — Stralman and company picked up Lundqvist at Madison Square Garden with their season was on the line.

"[Lundqvist] came out big numerous times," said Stralman. "When the puck was dancing on the goal line, a couple guys cleared it."

And his postseason isn't an aberration: Stralman has consistently been a rock for the Rangers stretching back to last season.

It was something New York recognized, as the team tried to extend Stralman before the Olympic break, according to the New York Post. But Stralman reportedly rejected a three-year, $9 million offer, a development The Post called "shocking."

The only surprise now would be if Stralman's AAV when he inks a new contract is in the ballpark of $3 million. An unrestricted free agent-to-be, Stralman's Corsi Rel this year was seventh-highest among defensemen in the league at 6 percent.

His playing style (sans a hip check mixed in every now and then) is steady, but not flashy. Maybe it's why he's flown under the radar for so long. His offensive skill is quite average, not even good enough to get him looks on the Rangers' anemic power play. He won't be winning a Norris Trophy, but for what he brings, there are plenty of benefits.

He's a quick decision-maker, and an above-average skater who deals with pressure well in his own zone. He's also possesses above-average vision up ice, and has been a key piece in Alain Vigneault's system, which stresses getting out to the races and quickly turning defense into offense.

"Anton plays top minutes. He's been real steady managing the puck," Vigneault said after Game 4. "He's defended really well. He's really an important player for us."

Is he a top pairing defenseman? He's certainly more than equipped to be the third or even fourth guy, depending on where you rank him against Marc Staal. Many have clamored to bump him up to play alongside McDonagh with Girardi struggling. The only Ranger who currently gets more defensive zone starts than Stralman is his partner Staal.

Whoever pays Stralman this summer could very well bump him into an expanded role. There's no telling how he would handle potential increased responsibilities. For now, Stralman is just trying to do his part against a deep Kings team. He hasn't been on the ice for a 5v5 goal since early in the second period of Game 1. But through this entire Rangers postseason run, Stralman has been an unsung hero, while the lyrics to his song grow more popular each time he takes the ice.

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