Training camp is finally here.
After a long summer, the New York Rangers will finally hit the ice with new head coach Alain Vigneault. The media and fans alike are anxious to see what kind of effect the former Vancouver Canucks bench boss will have on the Rangers, who under the John Tortorella regime were forced to play a grinding, defensive system.
Vigneault is expected to change things up and introduce a more forward-thinking, attractive brand of hockey New Yorkers have been calling for.
Seeing how some of the veterans, who were conditioned to play in a drastically different system for nearly five years, adapt is definitely something to look out for when the Rangers’ training camp commences on Wednesday, Sept. 11.
But there’s much more to look out for as well. The Rangers are swimming in a sea of uncertainty right now, and it has much more to do with than just the introduction of a new coach.
Today we’ll have a look at from where those uncertainties have stemmed and explore what effects they could have on the team’s performance in 2013-14.
The Rangers and restricted free agent Derek Stepan have had all summer to come to terms on a new contract for the 24-year-old but, less than 48 hours before the start of training camp, it’s being reported that a deal is still not imminent and Stepan is not expected to report to the first day of camp.
Larry Brooks of the New York Post has reported that Stepan is looking for a contract in the five-year, $5 million per year neighborhood, but the Rangers’ tight cap situation—courtesy of the league’s insistence on lowering the salary cap in the new collective bargaining agreement—has left the Rangers with between $2 and $3 million to work with.
Considering that Stepan—whose entry-level deal just expired—has no bargaining leverage (i.e. salary arbitration), general manager Glen Sather has carried on doing what he always does in these situations: engage in a staring contest.
And as history has proven, in the cases of Brandon Dubinsky and Michael Del Zotto, Sather has no intentions of blinking any time soon.
Problem is, Stepan is the Rangers’ top centerman, and thus he is very important to the Rangers. With a new coach in place, it’s important that the team’s No. 1 pivot is in camp on day one. But, barring something miraculous at this point, that won’t happen.
So what happens now? Vigneault and the Rangers know the show must go on and they’ll be forced to prepare as if Stepan won’t be around, even though he will be, eventually.
But what kind of effect will this soap opera have on the relationship between Stepan and the Rangers—Vigneault, Sather and teammates alike? Can the team, who are expected to be without Carl Hagelin and Ryan Callahan for what is likely the first 10 games of the season, afford to also be without arguably their best forward?
No, they can’t, but they may just have to soldier on.
For the first time in some years now, the Rangers have a handful of prospects who appear to be ready to break on through to the other side, if you will. Jesper Fasth, Oscar Lindberg, J.T. Miller, Danny Kristo and Dylan McIlrath all made great strides in 2012-13 and, justifiably, have their sights set on the Big Apple.
Except the Rangers have logjams throughout nearly their entire roster. Sather and upper management made a point to sign depth players to plug bottom-line holes over the offseason, and as a result, there aren't many job openings.
Of course, if one of the five mentioned youngsters blow the minds of the coaching staff room will be made. But are any of them capable of such a feat?
Lindberg, who registered 42 points in 55 games playing for Skellefteå AIK of the Swedish Elitserien and collected the Stefan Liv Memorial Trophy as the MVP of the SEL Playoffs in 2012-13, is probably the most NHL ready of the five, but the Rangers already have Stepan, Derick Brassard, Brad Richards, Dominic Moore and Brian Boyle penciled in down the middle.
But with Stepan probably holding out, Lindberg will get a serious look and if he impresses, we could see him on the opening night roster.
Miller, you would assume, has a decent shot at making the team as well. He appeared in more than half of the Rangers’ games in 2013 (26), but registered just four points. The question surrounding Miller’s immediate future is whether or not Vigneault would rather give third-line minutes to the youngster or a more experienced player like Benoit Pouliot or Taylor Pyatt.
Fasth and Kristo are long shots at this point, I’d say. Both could use some additional exposure to the North American pro game in the AHL before they make the jump to the big time.
As for McIlrath, the Rangers are way too deep on defense. There’s never been a rush to develop McIlrath and there shouldn't be now. The blue line is in good shape and McIlrath needs to be playing top minutes. He’ll get them in Hartford.
The Rangers decided to not buy out Brad Richards with their second and final compliance buyout back in July. The 33-year-old has seven years remaining on a nine-year, $60-million contract.
As a result, the Rangers are now without any cap breathing room and put themselves at risk of falling victim to cap-recapture penalties in the years to come.
But, in the short term, Richards remains the Rangers X-factor. He was signed in the summer of 2011 with the expectations that he would assume the role of first-line centerman. But as we saw last season, he was overthrown by Stepan.
At the trade deadline last season the Rangers realized Richards wasn’t cutting it as a second-line center, so they acquired Derick Brassard to pick up the slack. He did and Richards eventually found himself on the third line before being relegated to the press box for the Rangers’ final two postseason games.
So where does that leave Richards now?
We really don’t know because there’s an entirely new coaching staff in place, but the ball is in Richards’ court. He’s got the talent to be an important player for the Rangers, and we know Vigneault can get the most out of talented players. But Richards has to execute this season.
There are no more excuses.
If he does excel, the Rangers are in great shape. Alongside Stepan and Brassard, Richards would be a part of one of the league’s most solid centerman groups.
But if he doesn’t, then what? There would be another hole in the lineup. Could a player like Lindberg step in? Would Brian Boyle have to slide back into the middle? What happens if Stepan holds out and misses a significant amount of time and Richards can’t fill the void?
Richards is so important to the club heading into the season. He can help the Rangers become contenders again or he can contribute to their potential demise, as he is not the team’s only question mark. It will be interesting to see what Vigneault thinks of Richards and where he slots him in the lineup, especially if the Stepan debacle becomes prolonged.