2011-2012 NHL Preview: New York Rangers Begin All over Again
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It is still left to be seen whether Brad Richards is the second coming of Mark Messier, but you do there is a sense of "getting the band back together" around the Rangers lately.
With one signing the Blueshirts have increased their chances of becoming an elite NHL force. They scored the most coveted man on the short list of UFA's this summer when Brad Richards joined their roster. Coach Tortorella must have actually cracked a smile that day.
Richards and Tortorella won a cup together in Tampa Bay a few years ago, where Richards was captain and the centerpiece of a young, hard-working and talented Lightning squad.
Now, Richards joins a Rangers team that has been on the playoff bubble for the last three seasons, and just hasn't had enough gas to get over the proverbial hump at the end of the season. Sniper Marian Gaborik went flat last year, after tearing it up the season before. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, as steady as he is, just couldn't take the weight of the team on his shoulders. And then there were the injuries to key players.
There are some burning questions coming into this season, but there is a feel good atmosphere around the Rangers nowadays, while they trip through Europe to start the season. However, there is cause for concern.
Firstly, defense is a problem.
With defense anchor Marc Staal on the IR with post-concussion symptoms, the successful pairings needed to be adjusted. The preseason revealed that prospects Bickell and Bell just aren't ready to hatch yet. As a result, GM Glen Sather is going to the cast off well to speak with UFA d-man and former Ranger, Paul Mara. As of this printing, no deal has been reached, and if one is, Mara is unlikely to join the team on their Euro trip.
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That would only be a temporary fix. Staal, who suffered his injury after being hit by his brother Eric last season, is a big part of the Rangers' plan, and there will be serious cause for concern if his symptoms continues further into the season.
Secondly, there is the issue of chemistry.
The way Sather and Torts have drawn it up, Richards will rekindle the fire in Gaborik. But, what happens if that never clicks? The start of this season is going to see the break-up of the highly successful Dubinsky—Anisimov—Callahan line, with Dubinsky playing left wing alongside Richards and Gaborik.
Brad Richards is the type of player who will make anyone around him better. Just look at Louie Erikson in Dallas. He will find a winger that works, but if Gaborik is the odd man out, what will the Rangers do with his contract? This writer is not suggesting that they trade Gaborik, but Torts will need to do some creative line shuffling to find a spot for Maid Marian.
Also with the forward squad, was Brian Boyle's breakout party last season an aberration, or the emergence of a very steady NHL forward? Time will tell on that subject. However, the Rangers need Boyle to repeat his season, and build on it, to provide secondary scoring.
The same goes for Anisimov, Dubinsky, and new captain Ryan Callahan. These young Rangers need to prove that they are indeed the core of the team.
The Rangers have upgraded at every forward position, even with the addition of Mike Rupp, and the exit of Sean Avery. Maybe this has been the plan all along, one would like to think so.
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However, the Rangers will have a great deal of competition in their own division, and in the Eastern Conference. It will be an uphill battle without having any major speed bumps, such as the injuries that plagued them last season. Still, they have proved that they have the depth to weather even the worst of the injuries.
And finally, there is the King.
Lundqvist seems more focused than ever before entering this season. He seems to be more determined than ever to prove that not only is he an elite goalie in the NHL, but the world. He seems to be entering this season more energized, like a man on a mission. But as the season wears on, will he remain durable and focused on the ultimate prize?
With the Winter Classic coming up, and the distraction that comes with it, the Rangers have the greatest stage to perform on. Tortorella will not let the HBO cameras and the flash bulbs following Mats Zuccarello become a point of focus. He will keep this young team on the right path.
But with all the changes, and the whirlwind of the road to Lord Stanley's spring fling, will these Rangers be enough to gain elite status in this league?
Only time will tell.
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