The single most underrated sport in this American sporting landscape will begin its season this Thursday.  No, I'm not talking Curling - though I could, and maybe should be - I'm talking NHL Hockey. Surprised it's starting?  Don't worry, no one else has noticed yet either.  The New York Rangers will begin Friday afternoon in Europe.  The Rangers are coming off a disappointing first round exit from the playoffs last season.  Can they improve?  What should you expect from the Blue Shirts?  I'll give you everything you need to know in this New York Rangers 2011-2012 season preview.

LAST YEAR: Last year was, in a word, disappointing.  No one was expecting a parade down through the Canyon of Heroes for the 2010 Rangers, but we were certainly expecting more than a dog fight for the last playoff spot and a five game series loss in the first round to the perennially underperforming Washington Capitals.  What was the culprit in this less than stellar season?  Simply put?  Offense.  The Rangers couldn't find the back of the net with both hands and a map last year.  They finished 16th in goals for last season, placing them in the bottom half of the league.  Even with an extra man the flaciddity of the Blue Shirts' scoring game continued, in fact, worsened.  The Rangers were 18th in the league on power play efficiency looking comical at best, horrific at worst much of the time.

Much of the blame for this lackluster production falls at the feet of one Marian Gaborik.  Gaborik was signed to a monster deal and billed as the goal scoring answer, much the way Jaromir Jagr was.  Gaborik was only able to net 22 goals, however, in what was a year that brought heavy scrutiny on the former Minnesota Wild.  Disappointing?  Yes.  Surprising?  Maybe not.  Gaborik's performance was just another in a list of underperforming Glen Sather super-star signings.  Sather seems to have a talent for finding multi-million dollar stars, bringing them to Manhattan and watching them fall apart.

There was no such disintegration in the Rangers defense, however, as the squad was nothing short of stellar in 2011.  This young Rangers defense was fifth in the league in goals against last year and was without a doubt the strength of the team.  Much of that strength had to do with the once again stellar goaltending of former olympic gold medalist and should-be GQ model Henrik Lundqvist.  Just look at that picture.  Ok.  Now keep reading.  "King" Henrik led the NHL in shutouts last year with an oustanding eleven.  Any problem with the Rangers was certainly not on that side of the blue line.

OFF-SEASON: Coming out of the season the apparently endlessly tenured and never hot seated Glen Sather had one job.  Get offense.  He answered the bell with another big signing, this time in the form of center man Brad Richards.  The former Dallas Star and Tampa Bay Lightening was without a doubt the best offensive player on the market this year with 28 goals and 49 assists last year. He'll replace former Ranger captain Chris Drury as the team's top center and will also assume the role of assistant captain.  Taking the captain position from Drury will be the obvious choice, Ryan Callahan.  Callahan is a heart and soul player who, while probably undersized, consistently makes big plays on a combination of talent and extraordinary effort.  He missed the playoffs last year after breaking his leg blocking the north of 100 mph shot of 6'9 monster Zdeno Chara.  His presence on the team was sorely missed.

Joining Callahan and Richards with the other assistant captain title will be defensemen Marc Staal, though the young yet superb defensemen won't be with the team when the season opens Friday.  Staal is suffering from headaches and dizziness, the apparent result of a hit he sustained last February.  The Rangers are being overly cautious with Staal; he has not yet been cleared for contact.  He remains the only real question mark on a team that truly does look pretty good heading into the season.

THIS SEASON: Look, we've all been down this road before.  The Rangers have started many of these past years with high expectations, only to have those expectations met with utter disappointment.  But you know what?  Something feels different about this team.  This Rangers squad is filled with young budding stars who are much more grit than they are glamor - an identity handed down by Coach John Tortorella and a real gear change from what the Rangers have been recently.  The addition of Richards figures to improve the offense, including the maligned Gaborik who will be helped mightily by the new offensive minded center.  Aside from those two, who will be the premier scorers, the Rangers also have a slew of potential twenty goal scorers in the form of Anismiov, Callahan, and Dubisnky, as well as Boyle and Stepan who surprised to score twenty goals each last year.

Defensively the Rangers are still going to be solid.  Though young - no defensemen is older than 28 years of age - the Blueshirt's defense was fifth in the year last year and is only getting better.  Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are rocks, and when healthy, these two make up one of the best defensive pairings in the league.  Michael Sauer, Ryan McDonagh, Steve Eminger and even young Michael Del Zotto are other defensemen showing great promise. With nothing but experience coming to this squad, they have a chance to be truly great.  It also doesn't hurt that they have a premier goaltender behind them.  Henrik Lundqvist is in the prime of his career and shows no signs of slowing down, despite the intense workload he's been carrying so far in his career.

There is, no doubt, a reason for high hopes in New York, and for what it's worth, the Rangers are buying in.  Henrik Lundqvist said when asked for his expectations this year "I definitely think we're a better team this year than last year, so I think we should expect more out of the team and ourselves."  Dan Girardi took it a step further, saying "We're trying to be one of the top teams in the league...We're tired of battling until the last day of the season to try to get into the playoffs... [we want to be] at least top four in the conference."  The defensemen is setting a lofty goal for the Rangers.  When asked if he thought that was a possibility the once brilliantly 'stached Brandon Dubinsky backed his defensemen saying, "I certainly think so, we've got the team and the fire, so I think we can do it."

It may seem a ridiculous ambition to those outside observers who have watched the Rangers flounder around the middle of the conference for the past few years.  I can't lie, the thought has crossed my mind.  But an outside observer wouldn't see that these past few years the Rangers have dramatically underperformed.  With an offense rejuvenated since the pick up of Brad Richards and the defense only improving with experience, the sky may is the limit - if you don't mind the cliche.

PREDICTION: Even with the disappointment these last few years I remain steadfastly optimistic and excited for this Rangers season.  With an eye toward a prediction, I say thus: I'm expecting a big year out of the Blue shirts, particularly when Staal returns.  If Staal remains out for significant time this prediction changes. However, assuming a healthy Marc Staal I see a terrific young defense that will only get better as the year progresses.  Offensively, the pair of Richards and Gaborik will work well together, with Richards handling the puck and feeding Gaborik.  Both should have big years.  I see Artem Anisimov continuing his development into an excellent puck handler and goal scorer.  Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky will be nothing short of the lead by example, clutch goal scoring, excellent defensive players they have been all of their career.  This young leadership will keep this team away from the disappointments they've been so prone to and ultimately, I see a Rangers team that has an awful lot of young talent, character and heart.  Now, I know heart isn't something you hear talked about unless you're watching a sappy (fantastic) sports movie (a la Rudy - brilliant film, just brilliant).  But I think heart is something that can help you win games in hockey - more so than any other sport.  That extra effort and never quit attitude will, I think, drive this Rangers squad and while a Stanley Cup may not be in the team's future, they'll certainly contend for one.  This Rangers team will be a top four team in the Eastern Conference and make, if not deep run in the playoffs, a deeper run than years past.

Follow me on Twitter @JoeBianchino for my thoughts all year on this Rangers squad and other news and opinion throughout the sports landscape.