Michael Del Zotto
After a disappointing 2013 season, fans and experts alike expect the New York Rangers to rebound in 2013-14. And with the exit of head coach John Tortorella, they’ll have a great opportunity to do so.
But it’ll take more than just a fresh face behind the bench for the Rangers to improve next season. Nearly half the team had—arguably—an off year, and if the group as a whole is going to be better, a host of particular players need to have substantially better campaigns.
All things considered, the Rangers were lucky to accomplish what they did in 2013. If it wasn't for the sublime overall performance of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, the Blueshirts wouldn't have even made the playoffs.
New York cannot rely on Lundqvist to be the best player every night if they’re going to improve in 2013-14. Hopefully the new bench boss will be able to instill a system that enables many of last year’s struggling players to rebound. But ultimately it will be up to the players to recognize that they need to step up.
So today, we’ll take a look at the four Rangers who need to improve most next season if the team is going to make strides. Read on to see who they are and what exactly they need to improve on.
There’s been so much Brad Richards bashing on this site, so I highly doubt anyone is surprised that he’d be on this list. As for the bashing, I am, admittedly, one of those who've verbally abused the 33-year-old. I even claimed very early in the season that he should be bought out during the offseason.
I’m sure many would agree with me, but in the end, we don’t get to make that decision. So, if Richards is indeed on the opening night roster come October, he’s going to have to bring it.
2013 was the worst season of Richards’ career. He registered 11 goals and 23 assists for 34 points in 46 games, which averages out to .74 points-per-game; his worst outing in the category since breaking into the league in 2000-01.
But it was more than just numbers. Richards was invisible on the ice, constantly giving the puck away and miserable defensively. His efforts in the faceoff circle were woeful as well.
As a result of all of this, Richards found himself demoted to the fourth line halfway through the first round of the playoffs before eventually being a healthy scratch for the final two games of the second round.
Now, if Richards’ cap hit wasn't as high as it is—$6.66 million—his performance wouldn’t be such an issue. But in the salary-cap era, teams need their top earners to be top performers. Few organizations can carry dead weight, and the Rangers aren’t one of them.
If Richards is around in 2013-14, he has to improve significantly in nearly all areas. But first, he has to get some confidence. Maybe a new coach can help with that, but once Richards begins to feel better about himself, he can work on being more comfortable with the puck, getting his legs back and improving in the faceoff circle.
Michael Del Zotto chases Brad Marchand.
Michael Del Zotto is another player who may or may not be on the roster next season, but just like Richards, if he is, he’ll need to rebound.
After a solid start to 2013, Del Zotto found himself in a rut that was reminiscent of the one he was in during the 2010-11 season. That season was just his second as a pro, and at the time, Tortorella felt Del Zotto would be better off working through his struggles in Hartford.
There were stretches in 2013 when Tortorella probably could have sent Del Zotto back to Hartford—he was that bad—but he simply didn't have that luxury as he was already short on left-handed defensemen.
Del Zotto’s biggest problems came from his defensive-zone play, and when you’re a defenseman, that’s a problem. He often found himself beat one-on-one because he was too flat-footed and his work in the corners was pitiful.
He could never decide whether he wanted to fully commit to a player controlling the puck in the corner or defend the pass, and as a result, his limbo status left him helpless.
He was also—particularly late in the season—a non-factor on offense. When Del Zotto broke into the league, he was hailed as an excellent puck-moving defenseman who could run the power play, but in 2013, he looked as if he was afraid to get hit when he had the puck, and as for the power play, it was one of the worst in the league.
A new coach could definitely help Del Zotto, especially if it’s one who uses him as a puck-moving defenseman. I think some of Del Zotto’s poor play last season was because Tortorella was using him wrong. An offensive system could help DZ get some of his swagger back, and once that happens, he’ll be a better player.
But if you ask me—and it’s hard for me to say it because I've had such high hopes for Del Zotto—the 22-year-old should be shopped. If Staal can recover, Del Zotto becomes the odd man out on the left side, and there are other needs that should be addressed.
Rick Nash’s inaugural regular season with the Rangers was a success. The superstar power forward scored 21 goals and added 21 assists for 42 points in 44 games. His nearly point-per-game performance was only bested by his linemate for most of the year, Derek Stepan.
But, in just his second playoff appearance, Nash laid an egg, and almost quite literally. He had zero goals in the seven-game series with the Washington Capitals and it wasn't until the second game of the second round that he scored his only goal of the playoffs, which, for the Rangers, lasted just 12 games.
Since the 2004-05 lockout, the Rangers have made the playoffs every year but one, and on the back of their 2011-12 conference finals appearance, the Rangers were and still are expected to challenge for the Stanley Cup.
Nash was brought in to help them do that. Their biggest problem in the 2011-12 playoffs was their lack of scoring, so general manager Glen Sather moved some key pieces in order to obtain goal-scoring depth.
And it was great that Nash performed so well during the regular season, but the Rangers fancy themselves contenders now, and a player as important as Nash is going to have to perform in the playoffs.
What’s most worrisome about Nash’s playoff struggles is that he appeared completely out of place at times. There are players who've played in this league who were notorious regular-season stars and perennial playoff chokers, and after 12 playoff games in 2013, I’d have to say Nash is headed in the direction of the latter.
But of course, it’s one appearance, and there could be a host of reasons why Nash looked out of place playing in the playoffs. But from what I saw, he seemed to seriously struggle with both the speed and physicality of the playoff brand of hockey.
He’s got more experience now, though, and he’s going to have to prepare himself better in hopes that the Rangers reach the postseason again in 2013-14. His intensity level must be higher and he can’t shy away from contact, because if he comes up empty-handed in the playoffs again, he’s going to have a host of demons to fight off.
If there’s one player on the Rangers who may not benefit from the coaching change, it’s Brian Boyle.
Tortorella’s right-hand man was perfect for his dump-and-chase, grind-'til-you-die style. But I personally wouldn't guarantee the new boss plays that way. And for a player like Boyle, whose status as an NHL player is certainly not guaranteed on a year-to-year basis, his failure to rebound in 2013-14 may not only hurt the team, but also his career.
I've said it before—and I’m sure I will again—but Boyle’s 21-goal performance in 2010-11 was the worst thing that ever happened to him. Since then, the expectations for him have been high. Unfortunately, he’s failed to come anywhere near meeting them.
In 2011-12, he dropped to 11 goals, and in the abbreviated 2013 season, Boyle only registered two tallies. In 2013, Boyle also was credited as a minus-13, which is also a career low.
Everyone knows the Rangers’ weakness: scoring goals. And one of the reasons they’re always short on them is because they rarely get a sufficient amount of offense from the bottom two lines.
Depth scoring is key to success in the NHL, and Boyle, being a veteran now and a guy who has proven in the past he can score—although I’m not suggesting he could put up 21 again—needs to not just score more, but hit the net more.
I don’t know where such a stat would be available, but if there was a way to find out which players missed the net most in the league, I would bet Boyle is near the top.
Boyle is a player who plays his heart out, and on most nights, he’ll find himself in scoring areas with a chance to bury one. So, for me, Boyle needs to work on his finishing. He’s a very determined player and with some offensive guidance, maybe he can be much more effective player once again.