Rangers coach Alain Vigneault looks up at the scoreboard during...

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault looks up at the scoreboard during the third period of a preseason game against the New Jersey Devils. (Sept. 16, 2013) Credit: AP

On paper, and based on last season's performance, as a group, the Rangers' top six defensemen arguably could be ranked among the best in the Eastern Conference.

But through five games this season, this group doesn't resemble the cohesive unit that protected the zone and limited scoring opportunities. They often have been out of position, admittedly confused and disjointed, especially against the faster forwards from Western Conference teams such as the Sharks and Ducks.

Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, for example, each is minus-7. Michael Del Zotto is minus-6, Ryan McDonagh minus-5, John Moore minus-4 and Anton Stralman minus-2. Last season, Staal was plus-4, Girardi minus-1, Del Zotto plus-6, McDonagh plus-13, Moore plus-9 and Stralman plus-14. (Moore played in 13 games after arriving from Columbus.)

Some of the fault lies in new coach Alain Vigneault's scheme, which asks two defensemen to hunt in the corners, battle, recover and start the transition or clear the puck out of danger. A center often is deployed in front of the net.

Vigneault, trying to get a feel for the team in October, refused to specifically critique the defensemen, but he did deploy Justin Falk as a seventh blueliner against the Blues on Saturday. In his debut, Falk played 5:16 and was whistled for two penalties.

"I thought our 'Ds' were fighting it a little bit," Vigneault said. "On two of the goals, that was a simple read by the 'Ds'; I'm not quite sure what happened. Those are reads that good players can make and they're good defensemen, so we'll find out on Monday."

After a day off yesterday, the Rangers will practice Monday and Tuesday before playing their sixth consecutive road game in Washington on Wednesday.

Vigneault spread the minutes around Saturday. Del Zotto played the most at 21:05, Moore was at 14:20 and the rest were in between. Del Zotto and McDonagh each played almost six minutes on the power play, which went 2-for-3 and is 4-for-17 (23.5 percent).

"The last two games [blowouts in San Jose and Anaheim], there wasn't a lot to take out of them," Staal said. "[Saturday], we were a lot smarter and we worked a lot harder. We'll take that part out of it and get geared up for the next one."

Notes & quotes: Brad Richards, playing on left wing, has a team-high four goals and an assist . . . Derek Stepan has a team-leading five assists . . . It is unclear whether Rick Nash, who is believed to have suffered a concussion on a high hit from Sharks defenseman Brad Stuart and was sent back to New York, will skate on his own or practice Monday.

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