2010-11 NHL Season Preview: New York Rangers

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2010-11 NHL Season Preview: New York Rangers
Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Goalie Henrik Lundqvist, when at his best, makes the Rangers a contender despite any scoring questions.

Key Additions: LW Ruslan Fedotenko, LW Alex Frolov, D Steve Eminger, C Tim Kennedy, C Todd White, G Martin Biron, LW Derek Boogaard, RW Mats Zuccarello Aasen.

Key Subtractions: C Olli Jokinen, D Bobby Sanguinetti, LW Aaron Voros, LW Donald Brashear, RW Jody Shelley, RW Patrick Rissmiller, RW P.A. Parenteau, G Alex Auld, D Corey Potter, C Corey Locke.

While the 2004-05 NHL lockout provided the New York Rangers with a springboard back into prominence, the 2009-10 NHL season sent them crashing back to the outskirts of the league. The Rangers, who had developed a trend over the past few seasons of playing better in the first 20 and last 20 games rather than the middle 40, were dumped unceremoniously on the final day of the 2009-10 season by the Philadelphia Flyers.

Despite New York’s stellar late season run, the Flyers bested a burnout team by exposing their weaknesses, culminating in a shootout. What followed was an incredibly different turn of events, as Philadelphia soared to the Stanley Cup Finals while the Rangers spent the offseason tinkering with the lineup in what minor ways they could.

Strapped to the salary cap thanks to enormous contracts for players like Chris Drury, Michal Rozsival, and Wade Redden, Rangers GM Glen Sather thought more conservatively (save for Derek Boogaard) in his efforts to once again create a playoff competitor. He also managed to alleviate some of the cap pain by demoting Wade Redden to the Hartford Wolfpack.  With all the moving and shaking on Broadway, the fourth consecutive season with such activity, the Rangers enter the year with the same burning questions on the brain.

Firstly, who will score goals in New York? Marian Gaborik’s 42-goal campaign last year was nothing short of heroic, given that he managed to stay healthy for the year as well. Synonymous with the term quick release, Gaborik’s biggest on-ice weakness (excluding a fragile reputation), is the lack of consistent line-mates to keep up with him.

The Rangers solved one part of that equation with the addition of under-priced winger Alexander Frolov. Frolov was lost in the Los Angeles shuffle last year, posting only 19 goals with less time dedicated to the power play. Frolov should see both of those things increase if he plays anywhere near where he did in 2006-07, where he had 35 goals and 71 points.

Finding a center for these two, as well as strong depth up the middle for the entire team, has been something of a challenge for New York. But now, with a new influx of veterans and youth, the Rangers are hopeful to erase that stigma.

Erik Christensen, Brandon Dubinsky, and Vaclav Prospal all received the most time on the top line with Gaborik last year, yet only Christensen may consistently play the position this year. Prospal is a natural left wing, and Dubinsky is swinging towards the wing to play on a line with Ryan Callahan and the currently injured Chris Drury.

Speaking of Callahan, he scored 19 goals last year, down from 22 the year previous. Callahan is one of the league’s best penalty killers and is an incredible threat on the breakaway. His speed and youth are common among the team. However, as other upstarts like Artem Anisimov and rookie Derek Stepan look to prove, they can be top line players as well.

The Rangers will also enter the season with two important intangibles as well, Sean Avery and Ruslan Fedotenko. Avery, the league’s most notorious pest, plays more subdued now than he has in the past, yet he’s still got what it takes to agitate even the best (see: Kovalchuk, Ilya), and Fedotenko has always been something of a project for head coach John Tortorella. Fedotenko exploded during the preseason to earn a one-year contract.

New York’s defense is shaping up to be one of the best in the NHL, and with good reason. The homegrown movement is finally paying off thanks to intelligent drafting and natural progression. With Wade Redden off the books, the Rangers have even more opportunity to improve that system.

At the top, New York’s summer long contract escapade with Marc Staal made fans slightly nervous, likely because Staal is the most valuable defensemen on the team. He’s the player assigned to match-up against the likes of Crosby and Ovechkin and can deliver quite the back check when put to the test. While Staal hasn’t ever fully shown his offensive prowess, the threat still lingers.

New York’s newest gem is power play quarterback Michael Del Zotto. In his rookie year, Del Zotto scored with great ease and looked like the second coming of Brian Leetch or, perhaps more appropriately, Sergei Zubov. But Del Zotto’s defensive lapses and rookie mistakes left him to flounder with a minus-20 rating by the season’s end. With more time, he’ll be incredibly dynamic and able to keep New York’s maligned power play significant.

The Rangers other defensive talents, Dan Girardi, Matt Gilroy, and Michal Rozsival, should help keep things interesting while the Blueshirts test out different combinations down the stretch. Gilroy consistently found himself in Coach Tortorella’s doghouse, while Rozsival and Girardi were railroaded at times by the fans. That said, strong seasons all around could prove to erase any bitterness going forward.

The Rangers greatest possession and strength lies in net. Henrik Lundqvist is a former three time Vezina Trophy nominee and 2006 Olympic Gold Medalist, but those accomplishments were already well known. For Lundqvist, the mark of excellence will have to be burnout prevention.

He won 30+ games for the fifth consecutive season, an incredible mark of consistency that hasn’t been seen since the early days of Martin Brodeur. But Lundqvist will likely start less games since the Rangers intentionally acquired veteran Martin Biron to backstop his share of games this year. If you’re expecting King Henrik to start 70 times this year, you’re sorely mistaken.

Rookie Watch

If you’ve watched even two minutes of New York’s preseason games, you’ll recognize the name Derek Stepan. The 20-year-old from the University of Wisconsin is showing that he’s not only the real deal, but may be ready for the big time. Such hype has even gone far enough as to speculate on whether or not Stepan is worth centering Frolov and Gaborik. He is.

Outlook
Assuming the best, New York was only one point from missing the playoffs last year. That one point and more are easily made up with scoring acquisitions and rookie progression. If MVPs like Gaborik and Lundqvist keep up their pace, the Rangers aren’t far from Cup contention. Fourth in the Atlantic, Sixth in the Eastern Conference.

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