We’re heading into the homestretch here, and the New York Rangers have come a long way from their abysmal 3-7 start to the 2013-14 season.
On the eve of the NHL trade deadline, the Blueshirts were second in the Metropolitan Division, and despite that fact, general manager Glen Sather shipped captain Ryan Callahan off to Tampa Bay after a contract dispute in return for the Lightning’s captain, Martin St. Louis.
A bold move, but the acquisition made the Rangers a better team overall without question.
St. Louis joins an offensive circle that includes Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Mats Zuccarello, Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider. It’s an impressive group, and you'd have to think it’s amongst the most talented in the league.
That being said, it lacks size and grit, which are both important come playoff time.
The Rangers also boast a solid defense group that features three premier shutdown defenseman—Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal—spread over two pairings. New York as a whole was eighth in the league in goals against (165) as of Tuesday evening.
But the Rangers’ greatest edge remains between the pipes. Henrik Lundqvist is arguably the best goaltender in the world, and when he’s on his game, he’s nearly unbeatable. In addition, head coach Alain Vigneault has secured a more-than-sufficient backup in Cam Talbot, who has an 11-5-2 record in 18 appearances this season.
On paper, the Rangers look like a winner, but there are five teams in the Eastern Conference ahead of them in the standings and five others less than five points behind them.
Fans and management fully expect the squad to qualify for the playoffs, but the hunger to win in New York is great, as was proven by Sather’s deadline move. NYC isn’t looking for just another early-round bow-out; it's looking for a champion.
But is this a team that can be mentioned in the same breath as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins? Can they even been grouped with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning?
Again, on paper, they’re right in the mix there. Pittsburgh would be the only team I would say is more skilled, considering they feature arguably the best two centermen in the league. But the Rangers, I would venture to say, are more talented than Boston, Tampa Bay and Montreal. Toronto is a wild card.
But what some of those clubs have that the Rangers may not is cohesion and a winning culture. Boston wasn’t the most talented team when they won the Cup in 2010-11, but they were the hardest team to play against and worked well as a group. As a result, they’ve fostered said winning culture and a confident attitude. In my opinion, they are still the Beasts of the East.
Returning to Pittsburgh, the Rangers draw closer to the 2008-09 champs on defense than they do on offense. In terms of pure defensive ability, Pittsburgh may not have a better stopper than McDonagh, Girardi or Staal. Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi are solid on the back end, but at 33 and 35, respectively their best years are behind them. Matt Niskanen is having an impressive campaign, but he’d be no more than a third pairing guy in New York. Rookie sensation Olli Maata is the dark horse of the group, but in high-pressure situations, I’m not sure I’d put my money on a 19-year-old.
If the Penguins can return both Paul Martin and Kris Letang from injury before the playoffs, then they could boast the deepest defense in the East, with the Rangers being their only true competition. It’s basically a toss-up, but I personally prefer New York’s group.
The Rangers hold the obvious edge in net, but Pittsburgh, like Boston, still possesses that winning culture. It may be to a lesser extent than that of the Bruins, but head coach Dan Bylsma’s winning message seems to get through to his group more often than not.
All things considered, the Penguins are still a substantially better team than the Rangers.
Are the Rangers an "elite" hockey team?
If New York can get its stars firing on all cylinders, they should be the third-best team in the conference. Toronto has proven to be an inconsistent side, much like the Rangers, and they lack top-quality centers; Tampa Bay lost its second-best offensive weapon and overall player to the Rangers, and their defense is still questionable; Montreal is still one of the smaller teams in the league, and they too have battled offensive inconsistency.
With the defensive setup—including Lundqvist—and the pure offensive talent the Rangers possess, it would be concerning if they didn’t defeat or advance further than Toronto, Tampa Bay and Montreal, despite the fact that they are all currently ahead of the Blueshirts in the standings.
Other than that, I wouldn’t expect the Rangers to defeat Pittsburgh in a seven-game series if they advanced past the first round. They would be a real tough out for any team come the postseason, but the Rangers haven’t proven that their compete level and overall team cohesion is at the level it needs to be for them to be considered an elite team in the Eastern Conference.