New York Rangers Season Preview
What should you be expecting from the Rangers? Read on and find out.
It was a long, hard...summer, I guess...spent reliving the final days of a season in which the Rangers wildly outplayed their expectations and still, somehow, came up short of them.
Entering the 2011-2012 season, many figured the Rangers a vastly improved squad, but few would have suggested that they'd contend for the President's Trophy, sit atop the Eastern Conference at season's end, and enter the playoffs a favorite to win Lord Stanley's Cup. Few would have been right, then, as the Rangers willed their way to each, and put the Eastern Conference on notice for years to come: this will not be over quickly, you will not enjoy this.
Offensively inconsistent, much of that success should be attributed to the Vezina-winning campaign of professional life-winner Henrik Lundqvist and those immediately in front of him. The Rangers' young defense shined in 2011-2012, lead, most notably, by the combination of relative veteran Dan Girardi and rising star Ryan McDonagh.
Admittedly, though, there was something larger at work last year. And though it sounds both corny and out of place without a janitor lecturing Sean Astin, you can't mention last year's Blueshirts without noting the John Tortorella/Ryan Callahan play-to-die style that became the club's calling card - and made it one of the easiest teams to root for in professional sports, even if it didn't get them past the Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals.
KEY DEPARTURES: Following the game-six loss that ended their campaign, the off-season saw the departures of at least two fan-favorites, forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Brandon Prust, as well as that of Artem Anisimov. Dubinsky and Anisimov were both moved in a trade you'll read about below, and Prust took a significant raise from the Montreal Canadiens. Dubinsky and Prust's mentalities will be missed, as will Prust's ability on the penalty kill, but in the grand scheme of things, Glenn Sather made the right decision with each.
KEY ARRIVALS: Sandpaper-guy Arron Asham, and talented face-off man Jeff Halpern are solid acquisitions, but the story of the summer for the Blueshirts was the trade for Rick Nash - a winger with such offensive prowess he managed to get noticed while playing in Columbus, and whom the Rangers hope will be the resounding answer to their only real problem.
WEAKNESS: Is it intellectually dishonest to color Rick Nash a "resounding answer" to the Rangers' problem, then dub his speciality the team's weakness? Yes. Am I doing it anyway? Yes. Is my vivid memory of the unit's lack of production in last year's playoffs the reason? Yes. Nash is without a doubt a huge piece, but the way in which he fits the puzzle still needs to be figured by coach John Tortorella. As of now, the former Blue Jacket is expected to team up with fellow scorers Marion Gaborik and Brad Richards to create one of the league's most threatening offensive lines. Will the line realize it's potential? Who knows. Even if they do, however, who comes next? Captain Ryan Callahan and speedster Carl Hagelin are expected to be top six forwards. Perhaps they'll combine with the speed of rookie Chris Kreider, who exploded onto the scene during last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, to create a line that would, if nothing else, be hellish on the forecheck. How does Stepan fit? Boyle? Asham? Is there scoring to be had beyond the top two lines? Only time will tell.
STRENGTH: As I said above, the young Ranger defense proved to be, Lundqvist included, the team's biggest X's and O's strength in 2011-2012. This year, they're just more experienced. The combination of Girardi and McDonagh is a shut down one, so much so that they've relegated a healthy Marc Staal - a top defender on almost every team in the league - to second line status. Great things are once again expected from Michael Del Zotto and though the absence of Michael Sauer, still out with a concussion, will hurt, with Henrik Lundqvist in net, to quote Chris Cooper in Seabiscuit: "I don't think it's going to matter much, honest."
EXPECTATIONS: Undoubtedly, the Rangers are a favorite, if not the favorite, to win the East. On paper, they're one of the more complete teams in the league. A healthy Sidney Crosby, however, means even a Staal-less Penguins team is re-loaded and will likely to be the Rangers' biggest foe in this shortened season. The Rangers may very well end up the four seed in the Eastern Conference after finishing second in their division, but either way, with the pieces already in pace, and the new pieces ready to join the fold, nothing short of a deep playoff run should be expected.
The season opens Saturday night in Boston. Game on.