Is it October yet?
I have to admit it: ever since the New York Rangers signed Brad Richards to a monster deal on the second day of free agency I’ve been counting down the days until the season starts.
The makeup of this team just has me way more excited than heading into previous years and I can’t help imagining what this team can do and how far they can go once the season officially kicks off. I can hardly wait until the first practice, the first preseason game and the first John Tortorella press conference fight with Larry Brooks to really kick off the start of the season. So just how far can the Rangers get this season? Well, that’s the million dollar question. I think I can speak for most Rangers fans when I say that I feel way more confident in this hockey club than I did last season. As a matter of fact, I think on paper this Rangers team might be the best as far as talent is concerned since the 2006-2007 team that gave Buffalo a run for their money and almost advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. There’s no question that this team has enough talent and good enough coaching to be able to compete with just about any team in the league, but we all know things don’t always work out the way they look on paper.
The signing of Brad Richards was, of course, the biggest splash the Rangers made this offseason. Coming to New York, Richards knows what the expectations are and what his responsibilities are going to be. First and foremost, he has to be a healthy Brad Richards and play the way he’s capable of. If he has a typical season by his standards on his first year on Broadway, Rangers fans wouldn’t complain one bit. By that, I mean he’ll need to stay healthy and be better than a point-per-game player like he has been over his career as a No. 1 playmaking center. If Richards can do that it’ll allow guys like Ryan Callahan, Artem Anisimov, Brian Boyle and Ruslan Fedotenko to play their natural roles as second or third liners without John Tortorella needing them to play like first liners the way he often did last season. Additionally, Brad Richards’ presence in the lineup gives Marian Gaborik the premiere elite center that he needs to get back to scoring goals the way he did his first season with the Rangers. Brad Richards will be a huge key to the type of season that Gaborik has for the Rangers, and also the continued development of Brandon Dubinsky, who will likely open the season on that top line. Those three players, along with Ryan Callahan, will be depended on to lead the Rangers in scoring when it’s all said and done, and it’s vital that all of those guys play to the stats on the backs of their hockey cards or else things could be very difficult for the Rangers. The Rangers will get their fair share of secondary scoring from Boyle, Fedotenko, Anisimov, Wojtek Wolski, Sean Avery and Brandon Prust, but there’s no doubt who the top guns are on this team. Gaborik scoring 22 goals again won’t be enough, and an off year from Brad Richards would be a bad way to start his Rangers career. I’m personally not concerned about Richards because the Rangers are getting a better player than the Chris Drury and Scott Gomez bust signings, and Richards is coming back to play in an offensive system in which he thrived under in Tampa Bay. Brad Richards will be the key to the Rangers offense as their first line center and Power Play quarterback, and I really do believe he’ll handle that pressure and make everyone else on the team better in the process.
One of the biggest question marks surrounding the team that comes to my mind is the continued growth of their defense. For the most part, last season the Rangers didn’t suffer many hiccups with rookie defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer manning the blueline – in fact by the end of the season John Tortorella was using them as his second shutdown d-pairing behind Staal and Girardi. I thought Ryan McDonagh played just about as perfect as the Rangers could’ve hoped from their rookie defenseman coming out of college, but his biggest hiccup undoubtedly came in the Rangers’ 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals in the postseason. It’s hard to kill McDonagh for that one awful play since he otherwise had a solid season, but it served as a painful reminder that mistakes are going to happen when you have a lot of inexperience. Michael Sauer also played steadily all season long and displayed a lot of guts and physicality that I didn’t know he had in his game. The most important thing was that Sauer was finally able to stay healthy for a full season, and the Rangers saw how talented he can be when he remains in the lineup. This season, Michael Del Zotto and Tim Erixon will both have the opportunity to make the team out of camp, and how they choose to take advantage of that situation remains to be seen. Tim Erixon has loads of potential and I really believe he’ll develop into another stud defenseman who will man the blueline with Staal, McDonagh and Sauer for many years to come. But there’s no guarantee that Erixon will develop as quickly as the Rangers would ideally like him to. I think Erixon is much more of a lock to make the team out of camp than Del Zotto is, but there’s no telling if he’ll have as smooth of a transition to the NHL as Sauer and McDonagh did last season. Everything I’ve read has said that this kid is ready to step in and be an NHL player right now, but he’s still just 20 years old and it remains to be seen if it comes that easy to him. Del Zotto also has a lot riding on this season for his NHL career, and he’ll need to come to camp determined to play more like the kid we saw during his rookie season. The Rangers would love for Del Zotto to make the team and have a good season because he has by far the most offensive upside out of any of the Rangers’ defensemen on the roster. The addition of Brad Richards, though, takes some pressure off Del Zotto in that he now isn’t faced with the pressure of having to be the Power Play quarterback for the Rangers this season with the responsibility of turning around their Power Play. Del Zotto can pretty much just go out there and keep things simple and just let the game come to him versus having to force plays that aren’t really there. The re-signing of Steve Eminger gives the Rangers some roster flexibility with their defensemen, but I think in a perfect world the Rangers would like to see both Erixon and Del Zotto play well enough to make the team out of camp, with Eminger sliding over into that veteran seventh/extra d-man role.
The other question about the Rangers is, ironically enough, their goaltending. Well, let me explain. I have no doubts Henrik Lundqvist will have another typical Henrik Lundqvist season, and I think the addition of Brad Richards will help take a lot of pressure off Lundqvist from feeling like he has to be perfect every night in order to get out with a win. The biggest question will be how John Tortorella juggles his goaltending combo of Lundqvist and Marty Biron. Last season, Lundqvist struggled early on when he was getting more time off than he was used to during the first six seasons. The plan was to give Lundqvist extra rest during the regular season so that he would be fresh and healthy come later in the season when the Rangers needed him to play every game down the stretch, but those plans changed when Marty Biron broke his collarbone during practice on Feb. 28. Lundqvist actually played much better down the stretch when he wasn’t given as much time off, so it’s quite possible Biron’s injury actually helped Lundqvist’s game last season. I think a large part of Lundqvist’s early struggles last season was the fact that he simply wasn’t used to not playing every single game. The Rangers really haven’t had a backup goalie as solid and as reliable as Marty Biron since Henrik Lundqvist came into the league, and Tom Renney and John Tortorella really couldn’t afford to give Lundqvist consecutive games off before last season. I think Torts will stick with his same gameplan as last year, where he’ll try and give Lundqvist some more games off earlier in the season to keep him fresh. Frankly, Torts really doesn’t have much of a choice. Last season Lundqvist appeared in 68 games, which was his lowest total since his rookie season when he played in 53 games while splitting time with Kevin Weekes (plus six more games playing for Sweden in the Olympics that year). From the 2007-2008 season through the 2009-2010 season Lundqvist appeared in 70 or more games each season and has played over 4,000 minutes each season since his rookie campaign. Keep in mind that Lundqvist is 29 years old and he already had a well-established career in Sweden before he even came into the NHL. Henrik Lundqvist’s importance to the New York Rangers is obvious to every Rangers fan and every hockey fan in general – he’s the whole damn team. The Rangers need to give him time off now so that he doesn’t develop knee or hip problems later on in his career from the workload he’s endured. Torts might as well take advantage while he has a backup as competent as Martin Biron, and I fully expect that he will. Getting some more games off is just something that Lundqvist will have to adjust to – and I fully expect that he will – because it’s just going to benefit him and allow him to extend his career longer in the long run.
I feel confident that this Rangers team will make the playoffs, which is more than I could say heading into any of the past few seasons. I say this because for the first time in a while I don’t think this Rangers team will head into the final week of the season needing to win every game to be able to barely sneak in with the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. I could see this team ranking anywhere from third to sixth place in the conference once the regular season is over, so I’m going to say the Rangers finish fourth in the Eastern Conference and finish second place in the Atlantic Division to Philly. Yes, I’m probably being overly optimistic and buying into the hype after what I believe to be a strong showing by the Rangers in free agency, but I don’t care. As I said, I just have a different feeling about this team heading into the season than in recent years. I don’t want to predict how far they can go, but I really do believe this Rangers team has enough talent to be able to skate with just about every team in the league. If they can mature from last year and show some more mental toughness to provide breakdowns like the one we saw in Game 4 against the Caps, this team really has a chance to go far.
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