Gone are the days of the frivolous free agent spending that defined the pre-lockout New York Rangers. The team’s salary cap is not longer clogged by massive contracts to washed-up superstars like Theo Fleury, Eric Lindros, Petr Nedved, and Pavel Bure. Instead, general manager Glen Sather has comprised a roster of young talent, skilled veterans, and sound goaltending.
New York’s last second entrance into the 2010-11 playoffs did little to motivate them. Washington defeated the Rangers in five games while holding the blueshirts to nine total goals. The result was devastating for a squad that featured five players with 20+ goal regular seasons.
After making a splash in free agency, New York expects to once again finish in the East’s top eight.
The Rangers are looking to move from a balanced offensive attack to a superstar dominated onslaught. Coveted free agent Brad Richards signed with New York and will play on the top line with one of hockey’s finest goal-scorers in Marian Gaborik. The two should form the division’s top scoring line.
Gaborik, who missed 20 games last season, has scored 40+ goals twice in his career and 30 or more goals six times since 2001. The impressive totals have come despite not playing alongside a forward even half as talented as Richards.
The duo’s 2009-10 NHL seasons cements this point adequately:
Richards collected 67 assists playing for the Dallas Stars that year. Gaborik, in his first year with the Rangers, led the team in goals with 42. Outside of Gaborik, no player on the Rangers recorded more than 40 assists. Think what the Slovakian superstar is capable of doing with a player of Richards caliber centering his line. A Rocket Richard Trophy and 100 point season is not out of the question.
One glaring question is who will fill the last spot on the first line?
Early candidates for the position are Brandon Dubinsky and Wojtek Wolski. Dubinsky led the Rangers in scoring last season with 24 goals and 54 points. He is only 25-years-old but has tallied 71 goals in his short NHL career.
Wolski is a frustrating player if nothing else. He has shown flashes of brilliance and will look to finally live up to his 2004 Daft selection of 24th overall. The left wing posted a career best 23 goal, 65 point season in 2009-10 but followed it up with a miserable campaign last year. If he can rebound, New York will feature one of the finest offenses in the conference.
Derek Stepan is also in the mix for top-six duty. He was fifth in rookie scoring last year and is only 21-years-old. He heads a talented youth movement that is backed by Artem Anisimov and Mats Zuccarello.
Newly named captain Ryan Callahan will make an offensive impact for the blueshirts as well. The American Olympian posted 23 goals and 48 points in only 60 games last season.
All-Star Marc Staal is the leader of the blueline. He is an offensive minded defenseman who could be a Norris Trophy candidate this season. Defensively, there are not many better. His 6’4″ frame provides him with the reach to keep attackers in check. Physically, the 24-year-old is also a force—just not as much as his older brother, Eric. Marc will be forced to sit out the first few games of the 2011-12 campaign with concussion symptoms thanks to last year’s hit from big bro.
Until Staal returns, the defensive responsibilities will rest upon his shot-blocking partner, Dan Girardi. Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh round out the top four. Together, the group led the Rangers to the fifth best goals-against-average last season.
While Staal and Girardi combined for 60 points last season, only six of their goals cam on the powerplay. Thankfully for the Rangers, Richards is slated to quarterback the man-advantage this season.
Steve Eminger will likely fill the fifth defensive position while Michael Del Zotto and new acquisition Tim Erixon duke it out for the final roster spot.
The group as a whole is young, but established. They may struggle while Staal is out of the lineup but there is more than enough skill here to keep the pressure in the opposing team’s zone.
Henrik Lundqvist is the best goalie in the Atlantic Division—not an empty compliment considering that four other Olympic netminders play in the division. King Henrik led the NHL with 11 shutouts and finished with 30+ wins for a sixth consecutive season last year.
There may not be another goalie in the league that plays more positionally sound than Lundqvist. He has recorded 28 shutouts over the past four seasons and is almost unbeatable in a one-on-one scenario. The Swedish netminder challenges accordingly but is conservative enough to retreat on fake shots or quick passing plays. On the few occasions that he is caught out of position, Lunqvist relies on his lightning reflexes to bail him out. The rare combination of hockey IQ and talent that the 29-year-old features makes him perhaps the best goalie in the NHL.
Behind the Rangers iron man is Martin Biron. The backup is on his third Atlantic Division team and is past his prime. Unfortunately for foes, the former Sabre was a starting goalie in his early years and is still a capable backup. Biron is a solid replacement should anything happen to Lundqvist. The Canadian is more than capable of handling the work load when used in a limited capacity.
If you thought Bruce Boudreau was entertaining in HBO’s 24/7 wait until John Tortorella takes the stage. Tortorella has won more games than any other American born coach (passing Peter Laviolette who he also replaced as the Team USA’s national coach and will face in this year’s Winter Classic).
The former Tampa Bay Lightning bench master won a Stanley Cup with the team in 2004. That same year he won the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL’s top coach.
Tortorella, known as a disciplinarian, is the perfect fit for a young Rangers team. He develops skill and motivates talent like few coaches can. His reputation has been a source of trouble in the past, but Torts is an outstanding coach.
Lundqvist was perhaps the best goalie in the league last season even though he wasn’t playing behind a top-tier offense. Now that Richards is in the Big Apple and the young talent is starting to develop, the Vezina candidate will have an impressive stable of forwards to relieve heavy pressure.
A solid defense headed by an All-Star blueliner in Staal will also cause problems for opponents. The Rangers haven’t won the division since 1993-94 or advanced to the conference finals since 1996-97. This season will mark their best opportunity since the lockout to accomplish those feats.
To view my 2011-12 preview for the New Jersey Devils click here.