New York Rangers: The 7 Most Important Players Heading into 2013

Andrew Capitelli@@acapitelliContributor IOctober 19, 2012

New York Rangers: The 7 Most Important Players Heading into 2013

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    With the successes of last season—which included an Atlantic Division title and an Eastern Conference Final appearance—and the offseason addition of Rick Nash, New York Rangers fans had all the reasons to believe that 2012-13 could be the year Lord Stanley returned to the Big Apple.

    Too bad the NHL and NHLPA had other plans.

    But when an agreement is finally reached it'll be back to work for the Boys in the Blue. If they want to get back to where they were last season—and beyond—they'll have to handle the rigors of the (potential) 82-game regular season and the duration of the playoffs better than all 29 other clubs.

    Even though hockey is the ultimate team sport, and to win in the NHL a team must learn to stick together while maintaining a high level of consistency, each squad has to have horses to lean on to put a team over the top.

    The Rangers are no exception. 

    Throughout John Tortorella's coaching career, he has consistently leaned on his top players. While that approach won him a Stanley Cup in Tampa Bay, it also paid dividends in New York last season, as he rode the top defensive pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh all the way to Game 6 of the conference final.

    But to get over the hump, it's going to take more than just two warriors on the blue line. So here are the seven most important players for the New York Rangers if they're going to immortalize 2013.

7. Brad Richards

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    Brad Richards' playoff experience and accolades make him a vital player for the Rangers.

    Although he may not be considered an "elite" playmaker anymore, he can still get the puck on the stick of his teammates in high-scoring areas. With the new high-powered offense, Richards will be counted on even more in 2013 to set his wingers up.

    Richards is also as clutch as they come. He single-handedly rescued the team from a second-round exit at the hands of the Washington Capitals last season. Intangibles like that are what can win playoff series.

    Leadership is another very important asset for Richards.

    Upon joining the team in the summer of 2011, John Tortorella named Richards assistant captain before he even stepped on the ice for the Rangers. Tortorella, who was Richards' coach for the better part of seven seasons in Tampa Bay, knew firsthand what Richards would bring to the table as a leader in New York.

6. Ryan McDonagh

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    Ryan McDonagh's coming-out party was probably the most pleasant surprise of 2011-12. With Marc Staal missing all games up until Jan. 2, the blue line needed some shoring up. McDonagh had the ambition and skill set to step right in.

    His remarkable skating ability and hockey smarts allowed him to be a formidable partner to veteran Dan Girardi; a pairing that was matched up against opposing club's top players all season long. 

    His remarkable composure and ability to get up-ice also helped him finish 11th in Norris Trophy voting last season. Impressive for a 22-year-old with only 40 games of NHL experience before 2011-12.

    Impeccable top-pairing defensive work is going to be expected from McDonagh once again in 2013. More goals for the Rangers won't mean a thing if last season's third-ranked defense begins to slip.

5. Marian Gaborik

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    It's the age-old question for whatever organization employs Marian Gaborik: Can we count on him to be healthy this season?

    Luckily, the Rangers have had a good run of luck with Gaborik up until last season's playoffs, when he played the final two rounds with an injured shoulder. Up until then, the only significant time he missed was in 2010-11 when he missed 20 games with a concussion. 

    But just because the club acquired Rick Nash doesn't mean that Gaborik has permission to slip away into mediocrity. The reason for the Nash acquisition was so that the team could utilize a two-pronged attack; an asset the organization believes will help them get over the hump. 

    The Rangers need Gaborik to stay healthy and build off his 41-goal performance from last season. If he is injured or knocked off his game, it will be difficult for the rest of the team to assume his production totals from last season while also trying to add more offense of their own. 

    Plain and simple, the team does not have an abundance of high-level goal scorers, which makes Gaborik's breathtaking speed, goal-scoring instincts and wicked wrister all the more valuable.

4. Ryan Callahan

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    Dustin Brown, Zdeno Chara, Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, Nik Lidstrom.

    These are the names of the players who have captained the previous five Stanley Cup winning clubs. What do they all have in common? They're warriors who gave everything to lead their clubs to hockey's ultimate prize.

    Luckily for the Rangers, their captain is also a warrior willing to give his all each and every night. You'd have to be to step in front of one of these.

    Callahan's biggest question, with regards to captaining an NHL club, is in the skill department. Aside from Dustin Brown, the other four aforementioned players are some of the most skilled the league has seen over the last decade.

    But if Callahan could build off his 29-goal, 54-point performance from last season, his lack of pure hockey skill shouldn't be a problem. 

    One thing Callahan is not short on is leadership ability.

    His two-way, hard-nosed play and lead-by-example leadership style has demonstrated exactly how the New York Rangers coaching staff expects their club to perform. That's why he's captain, and if the Rangers want to make 2013 their year, Callahan will have to be operating at peak performance. 

3. Marc Staal

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    After last season's successes of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, it seems many Rangers fans have forgotten about Marc Staal.

    It doesn't help that, after missing the first half of the season, it took him until the playoffs to truly find his rhythm and establish his game. But by the time the conference final had arrived, he once again proved he is the team's top defenseman. 

    That's what he is and that's why he's so important. 

    He's much quicker than Girardi and meaner than McDonagh. Standing at a hulking 6'4", 215 pounds, he's become a top shut-down defender who has had plenty of experience playing against the premier players of the league over his five years as a pro.

    Encompassing an excellent first pass and a willingness to get up-ice when necessary, Staal is a model defenseman for this hockey club. He's served as assistant captain for the past two years and will be looked upon to lead the defensive corps for years to come. 

    This year he'll have all the time he needs to prepare for training camp, which gives him the opportunity to be the Marc Staal of old from day one. If the Rangers are going to take it all, they'll need their top defenseman.

2. Rick Nash

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    The Rangers' offensively anemic playoff run prompted the acquisition of Rick Nash this past summer. After months of negotiations, Glen Sather finally got a deal he was comfortable making. 

    Despite a few personnel changes for the team's third and fourth lines, the roster remains very similar to what it was last season. That being said, the team will look to Nash to fill last year's only weakness.

    He's basically the team's X-factor.

    Fans and management pretty much know what they're going to get from the team's other top players, but how Nash fits into the team and how well he performs is yet to be determined. 

    Will he gel with Brad Richards or Derek Stepan? Can he handle the defensive responsibilities John Tortorella hands all his players, Nash included?

    These are questions Nash will have to answer on his own.

    What Nash does possess is the Holy Trinity of hockey talent—size, speed and skill. He's scored 30 goals in seven of his nine seasons in the NHL. A Maurice Richard Trophy can also be found in his trophy case, as well as a gold medal. He captained the Columbus Blue Jackets the past four seasons and has appeared in five NHL All-Star games.

    Fans in New York don't really care what a player has done in the past, though. It's all about what have you done for me lately in this town.

    So, Nash could have all the awards the NHL has to give and all the skills that could grace a human being, but if he's not scoring goals for the Rangers this season, then he's not doing what he was brought here to do.

    And it goes without saying that that would be a real bummer for everyone in New York.  

1. Henrik Lundqvist

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    This is Henrik Lundqvist's team. They go where he wants to take them. 

    Last year's Vezina Trophy winner has been the most consistent goalie in the league since he came over from the SEL in 2005-06. He was the first goaltender in NHL history to register 30 wins in each of his first three seasons. Four years on, he still hasn't failed to hit that mark. 

    Over the years, Rangers fans have seen Lundqvist win games for the team that they had no business even being in. When he's on his game he's simply the best in the biz. And don't take my word for it, take Steven Stamkos'.

    Aside from his immense talent, the King's best asset might be his hunger. This man wants to win. You can see it in his eyes when he gives an interview and it's evident in the way he carries himself on the ice. Although he has an Olympic gold medal to go with his Vezina, Lundqvist makes it very clear that he needs to win that cup. 

    What's better is he loves New York and he couldn't imagine winning it all anywhere else. 

    The fact that the team hasn't yet won isn't for the lack of trying on Lundqvist's part.Despite not winning the Hart Trophy as the leagues MVP last season, Lundqvist is without a doubt this team's most valuable player.

    And although he has probably taken the team as far as he can on his own, he'll need the team in front of him to perform better come playoff time if he's to reach his ultimate goal.

    Nevertheless, Lundqvist will always be this team's most important player as long as he continues to play the way he has since he joined the Rangers.