5 New York Rangers Who Must Step Up in a Big Way in 2012-13
In sports, a team needs players to raise the level of their game to become successful and win a championship.
But that can be done in several ways.
A young player can exceed the developmental curve and perform better than expected. Or a veteran can turn back the clock and play with a renewed vigor that's infectious to his teammates. Or a player in his prime can play above and beyond his already outstanding skill and carry a team.
Either way it's viewed, they're examples of athletes stepping up and becoming responsible for a team's successes and failures.
On the New York Rangers, there are several players who have to elevate their games to make 2012-13 even better than their 109-point effort of a year ago.
Michael Del Zotto
On a Rangers team that didn't receive a lot of production from its back line in 2011-12, Michael Del Zotto led all defensemen with 41 points—good for 19th in the NHL.
As New York's lone offensive defenseman, improving upon his point total from last season is a start heading into next season. Last season was a career year for the former 2008 first-round pick, but continued development offensively and defensively will be required.
Del Zotto needs to be a power-play general, someone to run the offense by distributing the puck and maintaining a flow with the man advantage. So far, that part of his game has yet to shine consistently and is a crucial element needed for next season.
The Rangers' top power-play unit could include Brad Richards, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan all at once. That's an abundance of talent, but talent alone will not score a team goals.
Hard work and effort are the necessary tools, and if Del Zotto applies that to his mindset on the power play, he'll take the team to higher places.
If New York can figure out its power-play issues, by default they're a loaded team. The onus is on Del Zotto to develop this part of his game, or another player will come along and take his spot.
He debuted during the NHL Winter Classic on January 2 after recovering from a concussion at the hands of his brother Eric, but fans didn't see a 100-percent healthy, fine-tuned Marc Staal until the playoffs.
For the Rangers to build upon their success of 2011-12, they need Staal to be at the top of his game all of next season.
Prior to his injury, Staal was considered one of the NHL's best shutdown defensemen. On the Rangers, it looks as if Ryan McDonagh is ready to take that role from him, but that doesn't discredit what Staal can do on a nightly basis. His stick work, patience and hockey smarts still make him one the Blueshirts' most reliable rear guards in any situation.
New York was a great defensive team last year with Staal on the shelf for half a season. However, coming into next season with questions about Michael Sauer's health, Anton Stralman's ability to duplicate last season's performance and Stu Bickel's ability to play important minutes, the Rangers need a healthy Staal more than ever.
As the Rangers' second-line center, Derek Stepan is an quality facilitator, but he will need to come to the forefront offensively in his third NHL season.
Stepan improved his point total (51) from his rookie season (46), but his goals dipped from 21 to 17. The Hastings, Minn., native also had bouts of inconsistent play in his sophomore season—something that will need to be corrected.
With Rick Nash getting acclimated to New York and Marian Gaborik out for the first part of the season rehabbing a shoulder injury, the Rangers will need Stepan to put up points behind Brad Richards on the depth chart. He's shown flashes of outstanding playmaking ability, along with soft hands and a quick release.
All of those attributes have to come out nightly for the Rangers to be dangerous next season.
It'll be his first season on Broadway, but with a team squarely pegged as a Stanley Cup favorite with his arrival, Rick Nash will be relied upon to provide offense on a nightly basis.
Nash's cast of supporting players has never been better. He won't be the lone offensive weapon, but the expectations will be higher than ever.
In New York, on a team that was middle of the pack offensively and woefully inept in the playoffs, Nash's role will be to score the goals Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and others couldn't at crucial times last season.
With seven, 30-goal seasons under his belt, Nash should be up to the challenge. If he isn't, New York doesn't come close to a Stanley Cup in 2012-13.
Henrik Lundqvist's inclusion on this list isn't because of prior disappointments that need atonement. It's because the Rangers will only go as far as he can take them.
Last season was Lundqvist's best in his seven-year career, and it still wasn't good enough to cover up his team's flaws, particularly the lack of offense. Some will say Lundqvist's postseason demons have been exorcised with his 2012 playoffs. Others will say he still has to carry the Blueshirts all the way to the Canyon of Heroes on his back.
More than anyone, Lundqvist isn't satisfied with last season despite his accomplishments (first career Vezina, first goalie in NHL history with seven straight 30-win seasons to start a career) and will work harder than ever to reach his first Stanley Cup Final.
He'll need to, because the Rangers' chances at a Cup are tied inextricably to Henrik Lundqvist's performances.