I don’t want to talk about it. You don’t want to read about it. There are plenty of places you can go for your lockout wrap-up information fix, but this article isn’t one of them. Was it stupid? Yes. Am I pissed off? Yes. But you know what? Like most hockey fans I’m moving on, and I can’t wait to watch the sport and the team I love. All I know is that New York Rangers hockey is returning. This team is exciting, skilled, physical, fast, and very, very good.
Still, as we await the announcement of a shortened schedule and the beginning of training camp, I present to you 8 pre-season questions facing John Tortorella and the Blueshirts.
1) How Did The Lockout Help The Rangers?
In a way, the shortened season could very well play right into the hands of Torts and his minions. New York is well renowned for their grueling, physical, self-sacrificing style of play- a method that takes its toll in the form of bumps, bruises, broken bones and weary bodies. Including their playoff run, the Blueshirts suited up for a total of 102 games last season. For guys like Callahan, Girardi, and McDonagh, who spend every second of their shifts bumping bodies and deflecting pucks, the season must have felt like an eternity. The labor dispute not only provided NYR skaters with ample time to recover from last season’s schedule and other off-season medical issues (Gaborik), but it also means that this upcoming season will be just over half as long as a normal 82 game schedule. Fewer regular season games means fewer bumps and fresher bodies come post-season play. Most importantly, King Henrik should be as fresh as ever for a deep playoff run.
2) How May The Lockout Have Hurt The Rangers?
For a team that makes significant off-season roster changes, the first few weeks of the 82-game season provide some leeway for a team to hammer out its kinks and discover its true identity. In a shortened season, no team is allocated much room for error out of the gate. Should Rick Nash struggle to find the anticipated chemistry with Brad Richards, Ranger Nation will quickly grow impatient, and the Rangers could find themselves in a hole in the standings that can be difficult to climb out of with limited games and points available. Additionally, a shortened season such as this often results in a more condensed schedule. More games being played in fewer days does not allow the athletes to get the proper amount of rest needed to heal a tired, aching body- the result of which is often injury. Should the Rangers suffer such a fate to any of their core players, (Lundqvist, Girardi, Callahan, Gaborik, Nash, McDonagh, Staal) it would come as a devastating blow. The Rangers are a good team with four capable forward lines and six solid defensemen, but beyond that they lack much depth. This is an issue Sather must address after locking up Del Zotto. Speaking of which…
3) When Will Michael Del Zotto Sign?
After a concerning sophomore season during which Del Zotto was relegated to Hartford of the AHL, there were many who doubted whether the kid would ever return to The Garden. Shedding his party-going ways, and learning what it meant to be a professional athlete (thanks in part to the tutelage of Brad Richards) , DZ stepped his game up to a new level, re-becoming part of Broadway’s vaulted young blueline. He posted 41 points (18th among NHL defensemen) and an eye-opening +20 (25th overall), while making just 875K for the season (the last of his entry-level deal). Now a Restricted Free Agent, the 22 year old will command a hefty pay raise. Sather will want to lock him up for a few years, but at a price that won’t hinder his team’s ability to sign upcoming RFAs including Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh. I think that a 3-year deal in the $3million range should be sufficient to keep the talented kid in blue, while leaving Sather enough room to add depth this year and re-sign who he needs to at years end. But what does DZ think he’s worth? What does Sather? Contract disputes like this can get ugly (remember Dubinsky?), lets just hope for a quick resolution that allows him to start the season on time.
4) How Will Off-Season Moves Effect Special Teams?
With the losses of Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov to Columbus in the Nash trade, and Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko via free agency, the Rangers 5th ranked penalty kill will certainly see an influx of new blood. Holdovers Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle and Derek Stepan are known to excel while down a man, but others will now be counted on to play major shorthanded minutes. Second-year speedster Carl Hagelin will get a look, while imports Jeff Halpern and Taylor Pyatt are more seasoned killers. Brad Richards saw spot duty on the PK last year for NYR, while Nash regularly killed penalties for the Blue Jackets (including 14 career short-handed goals). Assistant Coach Mike Sullivan will have to find the right pairs to ensure that the Rangers aren’t burned by penalties in the short season.
Meanwhile, the Power Play has remained a main source of frustration for the Rangers and the MSG faithful in recent years. Ranked 23/30 teams with the man advantage last year, New York’s inconsistency 5-on-4 allowed far too many opponents’ infractions to go unpunished. The addition of a sniper (not to mention 6’4 219lb body) of Nash’s caliber is sure to result in more Power Play tallies for the good guys. A front line of Nash-Callahan(team-leading 13ppg)-Gaborik with Richards-Del Zotto manning the points SHOULD BE as potent a unit as the league has seen. Unfortunately, this isn’t a math test. Forming chemistry quickly will be essential.
5) The Future Is Chris Kreider?
After leading Boston College to an NCAA Div-1 title, Chris Kreider (19th overall, ’09 draft) burst onto the MSG ice and into the fire that is the NHL playoffs. The kid had the Blue Seats drooling after a 5-goal (tying a league record for most goals in a playoff season by a player who had not played an NHL regular season game), 7-point performance in his first 18 big-league tilts. Kreider has the size (6’3, 225lb), speed, and shot to be an elite-level NHL player, but only time will tell if he can put the whole package together on a regular basis. While he has proven he can score, CK has a lot to learn about playing away from the puck if he wants to gain the trust of Tortorella and reach his potential. While playing for the Connecticut Whale of the AHL during the labor stoppage, he has looked disinterested and rather unimpressive, totaling just 5-goals and 12-points in 33 games. It could be a simple case of being uninspired at the lower level while waiting for the NHL to resume, or this could mean that he still has much to learn about playing professional hockey. If he has a poor training camp, he could very well be left off the opening night roster (Though surely a quick call-up).
6) Is Marian Gaborik Ready?
After his 41-goal regular season, Marian Gaborik seemed primed to be a key offensive force in the Rangers post-season attack. However, unbeknownst to Ranger Nation at the time, a shoulder injury sustained early in the first round series against Ottawa left #10 unable to unleash his rifle-esque shot, or even battle for proper positioning in the offensive zone (other than a clutch 3OT goal against Washington). After lighting the lamp just 5 times in 20 playoff games, Gaborik underwent surgery and was subsequently expected to remain on the Injured Reserve until January. Since that time, certain circumstances have allowed Marian to rehabilitate his shoulder without missing a single drop of the puck. All reports indicate that he is healed up and ready to go, but those theories will surely be tested during Coach Tortarella’s always demanding training camp. Given Gaborik’s injury history, the fact that this is an upper-body injury is somewhat relieving. Still, the Rangers will need Gaborik to rediscover his scoring touch quickly if they are to meet expectations.
7) Is Rick Nash Ready To Star On Broadway?
We have all seen this before: promising youngsters traded away for a big star with a long, hefty contract. The crushing weight of expectations takes its toll as the bright lights of Broadway wilt away the great talent that once was. What makes Rick Nash any different? Well, a lot… I think. First, unlike the numerous aging stars that have donned the red, white and blue far past their primes, Nash, a former #1 overall pick by Columbus in 2002, is still just 28 years of age. He has topped 30 goals in 7 of his 9 NHL seasons, (he missed with 17 in his rookie year, and 27 in ’06) including hitting the 40-goal mark twice. These statistics are even more impressive when you consider that he skated 9 years for a team that played a total of 4 playoff games during his tenure. The most notable names he has played alongside? Derrick Brassard, RJ Umberger, and Antoine Vermette. When flanked by talent in international competition, (i.e. Olympics, World Championships) Nash has flourished. He will finally get his first chance in the NHL to play with a #1 center (not to mention one of the league’s best playmakers) in Brad Richards. It’s hard not to be skeptical, seeing as how cant-miss pairings have been off the mark in the past (Jagr-Gomez/Drury), but the fact is that Nash is a proven star in this league. And while he gave Ranger fans a scare with a minor injury playing overseas (he is said to be 100 healthy), he has no history of missing games, having played less than 74 games only once in his career. Still, whether Nash can find chemistry with his new line-mates while dealing with the high expectations that NYR have as a team this year remains to be seen.
8) How Long Will King Henrik Reign?
No player in the National Hockey League is more instrumental to his team’s success than Broadway’s Henrik Lundqvist. Coming off his first career Vezina Trophy as the league’s most outstanding goaltender, Lundqvist is the firm backbone of a defense that allowed an Eastern Conference-low 187 goals last season. Now 30 years old and approaching his 8th season, how long he can sustain his tremendous standard of play is a question that both fans and the organization must begin to consider. If the Rangers hope to continue their rise and improve on last season’s Eastern Conference Finals appearance, they are going to need The King to remain at the top of his game. A condensed schedule is never ideal for a goaltender, but should the Rangers stumble out of the gate they will be sure to lean heavily on the Swede. If his outstanding 57-save performance at the Hurricane Sandy Relief/Operation Hat Trick charity game in Atlantic City was any indication, that shouldn’t be a problem.
9) Should The Rangers Sign Alexei Kovalev?
I’m done here.
I will return next week with the second part of my Season Preview; a player-by-player breakdown of the roster, complete with point projections and expectations. Stay tuned… it’s sure to be a hell of a ride.
Lets Go Rangers!
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