With an active July, the New York Rangers are preparing to enter the 2011 season as a heavyweight. And, like other franchises dubbed as villains in their respective sports, that's just how they like it!
This summer's free agency has been hot enough to melt steel, sinner ice. A lot of the heat has emanated from the Atlantic Division, with the Flyers and Rangers both producing a blaze of glory in the past few weeks in order to assure blades of glory in 2011-12.
The New York Rangers could just as well be dubbed the "en-Ragers." Despite their inability to make it past the first round of the playoffs since Jaromir Jagr wore the Big Apple blue, the team has still had a penchant for bringing out fury from their opponents. Caused by events such as Sean Avery's antics with Martin Brodeur and illustrated during Matt Cooke's reckless elbow to Ryan McDonagh, the team is very capable of getting under anybody's skin.
In Manhattan, the local team will always be viewed as the heroes of a public that is more than willing to place them on their shields when necessary.
Everywhere else, sports cities have a clear perception of New York (including the Rangers), influenced by their location, wealth, and roster: the bad guys.
Fans with ire for the Madison Square "goblins" will plead that the playoffs are better without their rival, but everybody knows that any sport is better when the villain plays with excellence.
How compelling were the NBA Finals, fans booing the proclaimed "King James" with every touch of the basketball?
Who doesn't miss the glory days of Al Davis and the Raiders, dubbed the NFL's "criminal element" by coach Chuck Noll in their heyday, when an actual mystique existed?
When the villain is great, it creates an emotional response, and the beauty of sports lies in that gamut of emotions.
Make no mistake about it:
The Rangers have used free agency to load up. They know that they are disliked. And they like it.
In 2011-12, they will have every bit the talent to meet the requirements of a town that takes pride in being the bullies. Any self-respecting "Yoika'" will tell you that beating down those small-market voices and responding with a well-timed "we spent the money, kicked your ass, and you can deal with it!" is very satisfying.
Cap or no cap, the Apple is meant to be both Big and Bad, and that Big, Bad Apple must love the thought of being the enemies this upcoming season.
Even in the past few seasons, the team has been capable of winning almost any game. With coach John Tortarella managing the squad and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist manning the pipes, a roster devoid of scoring talent still won 44 games last season to secure a playoff berth.
Fans in other locations may be surprised with New York's accomplishments in the post-lockout NHL, having qualified for the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons. They were within a single point and shootout of qualifying in seven straight campaigns.
2010 saw incredible play from the Rangers defense. If anything cost the team last season, it was not the heart of Dan Girardi, who blocked 180 shots. Marc Staal continued to play well as the assistant captain. Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonaugh ensured two solid defensive lines were on the ice to account for the NHL's best talent.
To illustrate the potential of the New York defense and last line of defense, goalie Henrik Lundqvist, Alex Ovechkin went scoreless in four meetings against the Rangers last season. And, no, that does not just account for goal scoring.
Making their performance more impressive was an inconsistent offense that put a lot of the pressure back on the aforementioned players' shoulders.
Ryan Callahan (currently in negotiations with the team) lost significant time due to injury, and Brandon Dubinsky's 54 points did not meet most fans' expectations. In addition, Marian Gaborik's production was half of his output in 2009, despite only missing 20 games. Even with injury, the sudden drop in production was a shock.
With scoring potential in the lineup, the bullies offense needed two things: grit and a touch of something special at center.
True hockey fans know that the presence of great players on the ice is two-fold: the talent can be illustrated at any time and other plays have more room to operate.
The net result is a marked increase in scoring opportunities.
Addition Mike Rupp, a forward who previously played with the rival Penguins, will be able to deter opponents with his physical prowess.
Brad Richards, on the other hand, is a deterrent for an entirely different reason. At his best, he is a scoring machine.
Labelled the "Brad Richards sweepstakes," Rangers fans realize that their team has elevated from playoff entry to Stanley Cup contender. For the first time in years, the team has a top flight center, and his skills should create more opportunities for Marian Gaborik to have an explosive season.
In 2011-12, the offensive anemia will end in Manhattan, and talent that struggled this past season should rebound with an amazing campaign. It is not unrealistic to expect both Gaborik and Richards to finish in the top 10 of NHL scorers, especially given the synergy that they would be able to create together.
Less defensive ice time.
More energized defenders.
And an all-world goalie.
They were already an above average squad before having the finest offseason of any team in the NHL. Instead of rags to riches, the story of the 2011 Rangers could be "regular to riches." They're not just a normal team anymore, joining a three-horse race for the Atlantic Division that includes the archrival Pens and Flyers.
If they fall short, it won't be for being liked!
While haters will denounce hockey's "Evil Empire" for a lack of winning playoff experience, the infusion of such a journey is imparted on the team with Rupp and Richards, the R-rated additions who will make the NHL's "bad boys" a good team.
Skeptics will also compare the acquisitions with New York's inability to succeed in the past, despite an active checkbook. When the dust settles, I expect that honor to go to the Flyers, who signed Max Talbot and Jaromir Jagr. Picking up an outdated star and an average third-liner with a moment of glory, Philadelphia may find the ex-Penguins to be more like their former mascot—flightless birds—than expected.
Meanwhile, the Rangers' new players have the feel of a perfect fit, though the greediest fans surely wished for one last snag with Steven Stamkos.
If they meet expectations, the 2011-12 NHL season will be an exciting journey that is intensified by the rise of the Big, Bad Apple.