It’s pretty remarkable that I’m even writing this article. During the 2008-2009 season Michael Sauer was called up to the Rangers to fill in for an injury. He played one game, and Tortorella was so turned off by his play that he sent him back down in favor of Cory Potter. Then, during training camp the following September for the next season, Sauer was an early cut. Tortorella was hardly impressed with his play, and Sauer was notably angry that he wasn’t given much of a chance. It’s pretty remarkable that both sides agreed to another contract at the end of the season, but it’s a good thing that they did. Let’s review Sauer’s season:
What We Expected
Well, what can I really say? Were there really expectations for him? While I wouldn’t say he was an afterthought, he wasn’t a favorite to make the team by any means. Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko were newly signed prospects that had a lot of hype, and Del Zotto and Gilroy were expected to keep their spots from last year. It’s easy to say now that choosing Sauer was the correct decision, but back in September, was there really an “expectation” for Sauer?
Once he did make the team and started to get playing time we could create some expectations. With 6 other defensemen on the roster who could all contribute something and 2 others in the minors who wanted badly to get to the NHL, we expected Sauer to give Tortorella reasons to keep putting him on the ice. We expected him to add some grit to a blue line that desperately needed it. We expected him to not look lost. When it comes to rookie depth defensemen, what you’re really looking for is to not really notice them. If that’s the case, then he’s most likely not taking penalties, not blowing coverages, not turning the puck over, etc. And that’s the job you want from your bottom defensemen. If Tortorella could put Sauer on the 3rd pairing and trust him to do those things on a game-by-game basis then I think we would all have been happy.
How He Did
I think he surpassed everyone’s expectations by a lot. Sauer was a healthy scratch for most of the games early in the season, but eventually Tortorella put him in, and Sauer didn’t give him a reason to change that. As the season went on Sauer’s play became better and better, but it was when Michal Rozsival was traded that we really saw some great play from Sauer. Del Zotto’s incompetence plus Rozsival leaving with no one coming to New York opened up a spot on the 2nd pairing, and Sauer took advantage of the opportunity. He rarely made any mistakes in the defensive zone. He threw the body around, cleared the crease, and was never afraid to drop the gloves. With Boogaard out of the lineup, there was some concern over who would do the policing. Sauer certainly helped out with that. By the All-Star break he was consistently getting minutes on the 2nd pairing. From there, Sauer REALLY started to show everyone what kind of player he can be. Just look at these statistics:
Pre All-Star Break: 46 games, 1 goal, 8 assists, 15:46 Average Time On Ice
Post All-Star Break: 30 games, 2 goals, 7 assists, 20:12 Average Time On Ice
Before the All-Star break Sauer was a solid depth defenseman. Afterwards, he was a key player logging significant minutes and registering more points in fewer games. His defense certainly improved, but it was his sudden offensive prowess that was most impressive. In the first half of the season, Sauer was really strictly adefensive defenseman. While he’s by no means an offensive one now, he certainly showed the ability to contribute on the other side of the rink. Sauer began to pinch and skate deeper into the offensive zone. He passed and shot the puck with more confidence. Tortorella even began to put him on the power play every now and then. The defining moment of Sauer’s season, and some might argue even the whole team’s season, was his game winning goal against Boston in the final minutes of a tied game on April 4th, which helped the team pull off one of the best comebacks in team history, a game that might have been the difference between making the playoffs and missing it once again.
Final Grade: A
If you want to get nit-picky, we would have liked to see some of that offense earlier in the season. But really, how much more could Sauer have realistically done this season? It was an accomplishment in itself that he made the roster and played 76 of the 82 games in the regular season along with 5 playoff games. John Tortorella really had no reason to expect Sauer to become a 20 minute defenseman, and yet Sauer did that anyway. Considering how at one point we believed Sauer ran out of time with the organization, this was truly a remarkable season for him.
Sauer is a Restricted Free Agent once again this summer. Unlike last June, though, there is no doubt about whether Sauer will be Rangers property going into next season. The only question is what kind of contract he gets. If the Rangers and Sauer decide to do another one-year contract then he’ll definitely get a pay raise, perhaps around 850K. However, it would be nice if the Rangers could get him under contract for multiple years. If everything remains status quo then Sauer will once again be on the 2nd pairing next season. But if the Rangers bring in a defenseman of relatively high caliber then Tortorella will have an interesting decision to make. Still, Sauer’s spot in the lineup is safe.