With only six days until training camp opens, many Rangers fans are eagerly awaiting the start of the 2008-2009 NHL season.
Similar to the situation last year, there will be many new faces on the team, while some old familiar ones have moved on for one reason or another.
While some argue that this team will not contend for a playoff spot next April, I tend to disagree. This season will be a matter of how the new members of the team will mesh with the existing core of players remaining from the previous couple of seasons. If all goes well, I will not be surprised to see playoff hockey in New York for the fourth consecutive season. However, I will not be surprised if the opposite comes true.
As for the issues the team is facing now, there are a few spots on the roster to be had after the departures of Jagr, Straka, and Shanahan (or maybe not). With the rumors of Sundin becoming a Ranger finally cooling down (thank God), there are holes to be filled, most notably among the top-six forward group.
With the signing of Naslund and the acquisition of Zherdev in the offseason, two wing spots in the top-six are all but cemented for them. With Gomez and Drury likely candidates to be the top two centers, two wing spots are left Tto be played for.
Toward the final part of the season and the playoffs, Nigel Dawes was the second line left winger on a line with Shanahan and Gomez. As it is unlikely that Shanahan will return, some shuffling of the lines is bound to happen. In my mind, one left wing and one right wing spot are open on the top six.
Although I see Dawes as a favorite to win the left wing spot, whether or not he gets it will hinge on many factors. For one, guys like Sjostrom, Fritsche, and Callahan will be fighting very hard for spots on a team deep with second/third line talent. If one of these guys makes a convincing case and plays outstanding hockey during training camp, Tom Renney will find himself having to make a couple of pretty difficult decisions.
On top of this, believe it or not, I see Artem Anisimov, of all players, deciding how the rest of the top six will fill out. Tom Renney has gone on record stating that the only thing separating the 20-year-old Russian from the show is his weight. At 6'4" and a reported 200 pounds, Renney would like to see Ani fill out his frame a little bit more so he will be able to endure the grind and more physically demanding NHL game.
However, almost none of us expected Staal to go from training camp walk-on to the team's No. 2, or arguably No. 1 defenseman as a 20-year-old down the stretch last season. If Anisimov has a good training camp and Traverse City tournament I can see him being a New York Ranger playing the games in Prague against the Lightning.
If Anisimov makes the team, you may ask, what about Dubinsky? Great question. We all saw his surge last season centering two very experienced and skilled players in Straka and Jagr on the first line. Some have even said they see future captain material in him. One poster on HF even went as far as to compare Dubinsky's style of play to shades of Messier. That, my friends, is a scary thought.
While I do by no means endorse Dubinsky as the next Messiah, I believe that he has a lot of potential as a top-six forward, and that he will be a key player to the organization for years to come.
However, with the log jam the Rangers have at center, I believe that playing Dubinksy on the third line with checking forwards would hinder his development. My suggestion? If Anisimov makes the team, put him on the left wing of a line with Drury and Zherdev. Dubi's big body and prowess along the boards would free up space for Zherdev to do his magic and score and set up a lot of goals. This would also immensely help out his development as he would be playing with two very skilled players while Anisimov gets his feet wet on the third line.
With this scenario, this would only leave one more spot in the top six. My personal opinion is that it should be Petr Prucha's spot to lose. Playing on a line with Gomez and Naslund that would be filled with such speed and skill would pay out big time. Combine Naslund's experience and Gomez's playmaking abilities, and I truly believe that we will see the Prucha of '05-'06 show up to the Garden again, and not the shell of his '07-'08 self.
This, however, would demote Dawes to the third line, where his soft stick and finishing roles on the team would be greatly diminished. You never know what will happen in training camp and, obviously, I am not the coach of the team. Tom Renney and company know a lot more about the players in the organization than you and I would ever dream to know.
Without further ado, my projected forward lines for the opening games in Prague:
As for the defense, I believe that the six defensemen who make the team are all but set in stone. It is a matter of seeing which combinations work and which do not. This may take some time, but overall, this group of defensemen is a lot more skilled and mature than last year's.
What is up for debate, however, is who the seventh defenseman that the team carries will be. Thomas Pock, in my mind, is the most logical and cap-friendly option. But guys like Corey Potter, who I believe is overrated, and Brian Fahey will all draw consideration.
To be honest, I cannot say who will be the seventh defenseman on opening night, as it is too much of a crapshoot to say one guy for sure.
Some may say that Sanguinetti is ready for the big show. I respectfully disagree. While there is no denying his talent, his play in his own end leaves a lot to be desired. Working toward this, as well as running Hartford's power play from the point, will prove to be very valuable experience for him.
I have hopes that Bobby will be an absolute power play monster from the point for the Rangers, so there is no point is rushing him and throwing him into the fire of the NHL too early. I do, however, believe that he is all but a lock for the team next year if he shows encouraging signs of development in Hartford. I also would not put a brief NHL call-up out of the question this season in case of injury.
The defensive pairings on opening night (or what they should be, anyway):
As for the goalies...you really don't need to ask:
That's it from me for now. Let the countdown for training camp and the regular season begin!