The New York Rangers finished the 2011-12 season 51-24-7. Their regular-season record was best in the Atlantic Division and best in the Eastern Conference. The team finished just two points shy of the Presidents' Trophy for top team in the league.
Despite all their regular-season success, their playoff run was cut short at the hands of their cross-river rival New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference finals.
With two months to go until training camp—pending a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, of course— here are seven things to watch for in the 2012-13 season.
Chris Kreider had a whirlwind finish to his 2011-12 season. Just eight days after winning the NCAA championship with Boston College, the 21-year-old winger suited up for his first NHL game—a playoff game, no less. While he was held scoreless in his first three games, his strong play led to more ice time, which, in turn, led to more scoring opportunities.
He finally broke through in his fourth game, scoring his first goal, a game-winner, in Game 6 of the opening-round series against Ottawa. His second, against the Capitals, was also the difference-maker in the game, making him the first player in NHL history whose first two goals were playoff game-winners.
Kreider went on to score four more goals in the postseason. His total of five playoff goals tied him with the Coyotes' Shane Doan, the Caps' Alex Ovechkin, and the Devils' Patrik Elias and Adam Henrique. It also put him ahead of Eddie “Spider” Mazur's previous record, set in 1953, for the most goals scored without playing in a regular-season game.
The 6'3", 230-pound Massachusetts native comes into this season with greater pressure.
He'll be counted on to pick up where he left off in the playoffs, especially with Marian Gaborik on injured reserve to start the season. His five goals in 18 games equates to 23 over a full season, but Kreider has the potential to improve on those numbers. He'll benefit from an additional summer of training, increased familiarity with his teammates and a better understanding of what is required to compete at an NHL level.
While he shouldn't be expected to challenge Tony Granato's Ranger rookie goal-scoring record of 36, he can very well be the first Ranger freshman to hit the 30-goal mark since Petr Prucha in 2005-06.
The biggest trade of the offseason saw Jordan Staal join his brother Eric in Carolina. The move gives the Hurricanes depth and strength up the middle, and should be enough to get the Canes back into the playoffs. Despite all the attention this reunion has drawn, the real Staal to watch will be in New York.
After two All-Star appearances and a career-high 29 points in 2010-11, Marc Staal missed half of the 2011-12 campaign with post-concussion symptoms. Staal returned to the Rangers lineup at the Winter Classic on January 2, 2012. Having missed training camp and the first half of the season, Staal wasn't quite in midseason playing shape when he returned.
Staal's game rounded into form in time for the playoffs, when he finally began to turn in some All-Star-caliber performances. His skating, passing and hitting had all returned to pre-injury levels.
Staal improved upon his five-point regular season by scoring six points—three goals and three assists— in 20 games. The highlight of his postseason play was his game-winning overtime goal in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Capitals.
Now healthy, with a full offseason to train and a camp to prepare for the upcoming season, the Rangers should expect Staal to be in top form for the 2012-13 season. Staal will help to fortify the second defensive pairing with Michael Del Zotto, and help to share some of the minutes played by the top pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi.
For the first time since Martin Brodeur in 2006-07 and 2007-08, the NHL will have a repeat winner for the Vezina Trophy, which is awarded to the goaltender judged to be the best at his position.
Sure, it won't be an easy win, but Henrik Lundqvist's only real competition will come from Jonathan Quick of the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. Rangers fans can only hope that the Stanley Cup hangover knocks the Kings netminder's performance down a notch.
As for the rest of the competition?
Nashville's Pekka Rinne will be without one-half of what was possibly the top defensive pairing in the league, now that Ryan Suter has left for the greener pastures of Minnesota. The decrease in offense from the blue line will impact the low-scoring Predators, and the team will likely struggle to find offense, possibly moving away from its defensive approach in an attempt to score goals.
Mike Smith of the Phoenix Coyotes has another year with goaltending coach extraordinaire Sean Burke. Even so, his performance from 2011-12, with career bests in save percentage and goals against average, will be tough to recreate. The return of Zbynek Michalex helps, but the possible departure of Shane Doan would be a big blow to the Coyotes—enough to trickle down to the goaltending.
St. Louis will again be strong, but its two-headed goaltending monster of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott will continue to split the minutes, and the Vezina votes, with no clear No. 1 goaltender on the Blues, will be split as well.
Two-time winner Tim Thomas will be fishing out in Colorado, so he's out completely.
There are a number of other talented netminders who have the potential to put up Vezina-caliber numbers, including Ryan Miller of Buffalo and Roberto Luongo, wherever he ends up. At this point, though, the favorite is most certainly Lundqvist.
Brandon Dubinsky, 26, is coming off his lowest scoring professional season, one where he put up a meager 10 goals and 24 assists, for a total of 34 points. After four straight years of steadily increasing point totals, Dubinsky took a huge step back in 2011-12
Last season was also the first under his new four-year, $4.2 million contract, a contract under which Dubinsky's play suffered.
Further distractions impacted Dubinsky later in the season, as he was frequently mentioned in trade rumors for Columbus Blue Jackets forward Rick Nash. Dubinsky's play improved after the trade deadline. He posted four goals and five assists in the final few weeks and played with a bit more edge to his game.
Dubinsky was ineffective in the playoffs though, to be fair, he was injured for the entire second round. He was limited to one assist in the first round before suffering a foot injury in Game 7 against the Ottawa Senators. He returned for Games 5 and 6 against the Devils in the conference finals, but only managed one assist in those two games (both losses).
The native of Anchorage, Alaska, has a lot to prove this year. He needs to step up his game and live up to the multiyear deal he signed back in 2011.
If Dubinsky ends up being moved, his new team will be getting a motivated player—one that will be determined to take advantage of a fresh start. If he remains in New York, Dubinsky will need to approach it the same way he did the playoffs: wipe the slate clean and start anew.
He's shown that he has the talent and ability to be a valuable contributor to his team's lineup. Whether it's with the Rangers, the Blue Jackets or somewhere else, Dubinsky will be working hard to prove his worth in 2012-13.
Last season, Tim Erixon was shuttled back and forth between the Rangers and their AHL affiliate, the Connecticut Whale. This year, he should expect to spend the year in the Big Apple.
The son of longtime Ranger Jan Erixon, Tim posted two assists in 18 games with the Rangers in 2011-12. This season, he'll be expected to put up more points and see quite a bit more action.
Erixon's offensive talents, including his good shot, passing and vision, should help to improve a Rangers power play that struggled throughout the year (15.7 percent, 23rd in the league). Like Chris Kreider, Erixon's additional maturity and time with the big club last season will help him prepare for the upcoming year.
Erixon was with the Rangers for the season opener in Europe and for the first nine games of the season, taking the place of Marc Staal, who was struggling with post-concussion symptoms. In November, the Rangers signed free-agent defenseman Anton Stralman, and Erixon was sent down to Connecticut. He returned for four games in December, filling in for the injured Steve Eminger, before being returned to the Whale.
Though held scoreless, Erixon's play was solid, if not overly impressive.
Back in the AHL, Erixon's continued his strong play, and coupled with another injury to Eminger and subpar showings by both Stralman and Jeff Woywitka, he earned him a third call-up in March. In this five-game stint, Erixon finally broke through on the scoresheet, picking up his first two NHL points— both assists—in consecutive games against Toronto and Buffalo.
In 52 games with the Connecticut Whale of the AHL, Erixon scored three goals and added 30 assists for 33 points. While the young Swede finished the season tied with Brendan Bell for the team lead in defensemen scoring, he did it in 13 fewer games.
The Rangers' top two pairings are set, with McDonagh, Girardi, Staal and Del Zotto locked in to those roles, barring a trade. While Del Zotto, a restricted free agent, has yet to sign, Newsday's Steve Zipay reports that both sides seem confident that a multi-year deal will be done soon.
Stu Bickel has re-signed, Eminger and Woywitka are gone, and Erixon's closest competition out of camp may have been Dylan McIlrath, who is now sidelined indefinitely as he recovers from surgery to repair a dislocated kneecap. Anton Stralman, a restricted free agent, has filed for arbitration. Assuming he returns, Stralman, Bickel and Erixon will battle it out for the two third-pairing slots.
Based on his continued development and his offensive ability, a spot in the top six is Erixon's to lose.
New teammates Arron Asham and Taylor Pyatt, who were then on opposing sides of the puck
The Rangers made some significant changes to their bottom six forwards. Gone are popular pugilist Brandon Prust (signed by the Canadiens to a four-year, $10 million deal) and veteran winger Ruslan Fedotenko (Flyers, one year at $1.75 million).
Taking their place will be former Coyote Taylor Pyatt (two years, $3.1 million), well-traveled winger Arron Asham (two years, $2 million), and veteran faceoff specialist Jeff Halpern (one year, $700,000).
Gritty winger Brandon Prust posted career highs in 2010-11, with 13 goals and 16 assists for 29 points, to go along with 160 penalty minutes. He finished third in the NHL with five short-handed goals.
Offensively, Prust's performance dropped by nearly half last season; he netted only five goals and 12 assists for 17 points. On the other side of the puck, his defensive efforts helped the Rangers to a fifth-ranked penalty kill (86.2 percent).
Prusts's standout year from the season before was a clear example of him playing over his head. It's unlikely that he'll replicate those numbers, but Montreal is overpaying him, at $2.5 million a season for the next four years, with hopes that he can. Prust is a valuable player who excels at a key role, but he'll be hard-pressed to live up to his new contract.
Fedotenko, going into his 12th NHL season, has been steadily slowing down over the last three. He scored 39 points with the Penguins in 2008-09, only two points off of his career high. From there, though, his point totals have steadily declined.
Last season was Fedotenko's lowest-scoring NHL campaign, with only nine goals and 11 assist for 20 points. While only 33, injuries are starting to take their toll on the winger; he's played fewer than 70 games in three of his past five seasons. Fedotenko's veteran presence and playoff performance will be welcomed in Philadelphia, but the Flyers would be wise not to count on his scoring output.
Coming to New York to fill in on the bottom-six forwards are Taylor Pyatt, Jeff Halpern and Arron Asham.
Pyatt, 31, will step into the role vacated by Fedotenko. Pyatt had his strongest performances from 2005-07 with the Vancouver Canucks, where he posted back-to-back 37-point campaigns. The 6'4", 230-pound winger has averaged 23 points a season over the past four, but showed flashes of his offensive upside in last year's playoffs, when he was third on the team in scoring, with four goals in 16 games.
Another note that will certainly please John Tortorella: Pyatt led all Coyotes forwards in shot blocking during the postseason, showing that's he's not afraid to give up the body. Statistically, his numbers are comparable to Fedotenko's, but his potential and his size make this a good swap for the Rangers.
Asham, 34, joins his fifth Atlantic Division team, having already played for the Islanders, Devils, Flyers and Penguins. His best season, statistically, came with the Isles in 2002-03, when he scored 15 goals and 19 assists for 34 points. He's averaged just over 20 points a season over his last eight.
While he doesn't drop the gloves as much as Prust—he had eight fighting majors last season as opposed to Prust's league-leading 20, he's still a willing combatant and plays a tough game on the ice. He won't replace Prust's penalty-killing, but he will bring the same kind of physical play and does have the ability to put in an occasional goal.
Halpern, 36, comes to the Rangers with one specific task—win faceoffs.
He finished fifth overall in the league in faceoff percentage, at 58.3 percent. The Rangers, 18th overall in draws last year, will benefit from Halpern's skills on the ice as well as his ability to help coach some other their younger centers. Derek Stepan (44.5 percent) and Artem Anisimov (46.7 percent) should be able to learn from the 12-year veteran.
Halpern's presence as fourth-line center should also free up Brian Boyle a bit, hopefully allowing him to return to his 2010-11 levels, when he netted 21 goals.
The Atlantic Division has weakened significantly this offseason.
Free agency claimed both Devils captain Zach Parise and Flyers defenseman Matt Carle. The Flyers will also have to look forward to another season without All-Star defenseman Chris Pronger, still not healthy enough to resume playing.
The Penguins traded away talent in Jordan Staal for a better role fit with Brandon Sutter. Their depth may have increased, but they took a cut in talent.
Also, if Sidney Crosby is injured for any length of time, the Pens no longer have Staal to fall back on. They also traded top-four blueliner Zbynek Michalek to the Coyotes. In net, the Pens will benefit from the presence of newly signed veteran Tomas Vokoun, but not enough to make a significant difference in the standings.
While the Islanders may have improved, they have a long way to go to catch up with their division rivals.
With these changes, the Rangers should win the Atlantic Division.
Across the conference, the Bruins will have to overcome the loss of goaltender Tim Thomas, while also accounting for his $5 million cap hit.
Among playoff teams, only the Senators have improved their roster, and while they should easily win their division, they have a longer way to go to reach the conference lead. The non-playoff teams—Carolina and Tampa—have done the most to improve their clubs, but they, too, have quite a way to go to be at the top of the conference.
With all these changes, the Rangers have the inside track on the Eastern Conference championship.