NHL Preview: 2011-12 New York Rangers
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This was certainly a whirlwind summer of organizational highs and lows.
These include: the signing of All-star free agent Brad Richards and naming of Ryan Callahan as the team's new captain, the sudden passing of enforcer Derek Boogaard, the drama surrounding Sean Avery and the hype of the Winter Classic and NHL 24/7 and opening the season overseas.
But finally it's time to drop the puck on the 86th season of New York Ranger hockey.
April 23rd is now just a distant memory, as that was the night the Capitals ended the Rangers Stanley Cup hopes almost as quickly as they began—with a 3-1 loss at the Verizon Center.
Since then the Rangers have addressed the issues that held them back last season, adding a true No. 1 center in Brad Richards, more size up front in Mike Rupp and an even younger and deeper defense with the additions of Tim Erixon, Jeff Woywitka and Brendan Bell.
They are poised to take their best run yet at their fifth Stanley Cup.
The acquisition of Brad Richards ($60M, nine years) immediately changed the look of the Rangers top six, ending the revolving door of centers to play with Marian Gaborik.
If Richards (and Gaborik) can stay healthy the Rangers will have one of the top lines in hockey leading their offense. Although the left wing spot is still very much up for grabs, Brandon Dubinsky (the opening night LW), Wojtek Wolski, Brian Boyle and Ruslan Fedotenko could (and likely will) see time on the top line at some point over the next few weeks as John Tortorella looks for the perfect combination.
Gaborik could return to his 86-point form of two seasons ago if he clicks with Richards, and ultimately the Rangers success will rely on that tandem.
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Signing restricted free agents Ryan Callahan ($12.8M, three years), Dubinsky ($16.8M, four years), Boyle ($5.1M, three years) and Artem Anisimov ($3.75M, two years) was huge this summer, as it not only avoided the ugly arbitration process for all involved, but solidified the Rangers core for the next few seasons.
It also showed the organization's new-found commitment to developing and retaining their prospects.
Despite Dubinsky starting the year on the top line, he will likely rejoin Callahan and Anisimov at some point on the second line, as the trio showed great chemistry, hustle and most importantly results.
All three finished in the Rangers Top five in scoring last season, with Dubinsky's 54 points leading the way.
The third and fourth lines are very much interchangeable, and knowing Tortorella's coaching tendencies, will be shuffled on a game to game basis, but there's plenty of talent there, and most of the players in the mix played together at some point last season.
The line of Boyle, Fedotenko and Brandon Prust played key minutes through the playoff run last season and showed an excellent balance of size, skill and grit. They should get an opportunity to play in most situations if placed together.
The other four forwards in the mix are Rupp, Derek Stepan, Erik Christensen and Mats Zuccarello.
Zuccarello, the diminutive Norwegian winger, showed flashes of the offensive skill while playing for Modo (SEL) and Hartford/Connecticut (AHL) before bringing his talents to Broadway halfway through last season. He'll likely be on the third line based on his size and skill.
Stepan had a nice rookie season, skipping the American league and coming out of the University of Wisconsin, he proved he could find the net, scoring 21 goals and finishing fourth on the team in points.
Rupp comes to the Rangers after two seasons in Pittsburgh and will be asked to bring a physical presence every night on the forecheck and in front of the net, as well as carry out the heavyweight enforcer duties when needed.
Christensen barely made this year's team, and if the relationship between Avery and Tortorella hadn't been so toxic, he would likely be in Hartford right now.
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Based on the lines Tortorella has been experimenting with in preseason, and will use opening night, the most likely bottom-six pairings will be Fedotenko-Stepan-Zuccarello and the "PBR" line of Prust-Boyle-Rupp. That gets considerable skill and scoring ability on the ice together for the third line, and the fourth line brings a ton of size, work ethic and grit and will produce a fair share of goals, as well as disrupting the flow of the other team.
With Marc Staal still experiencing the after effects of a concussion delivered by his brother Eric back in February, the Rangers top blueliner will start the year on injury reserve. This will put the workload on the shoulders of Dan Girardi, Staal's primary defensive partner, who will be joined by Ryan McDonaugh on the top pairing to start the year.
McDonaugh had just nine points in 40 games in his rookie season, and is also out of Wisconsin. But he also benefited greatly from a stint in Hartford to start the year, and did not look out of place on the ice at all last year.
Back from exile this year is Michael Del Zotto, who after a phenomenal rookie year regressed to the point that he was sent down to Hartford after just nine points and a minus-five rating in 47 games and many nights in the press box.
After posting 37 points his rookie year, Del Zotto's offense dried up. His irresponsibility in his own end and with the puck played him out of the lineup. He was sent to Hartford to work on his defense, and the former first round pick is in a make-or-break year.
The Rangers hope that he gets back to the game that made him their first round pick in 2008.
His partner will be Michael Sauer, who after several seasons in Hartford and some injury trouble, put together a very solid rookie season in 2010-11. He had 15 points in 76 games, was a team high plus-20 and played a steady, stay-at-home game on the back end.
The message to Sauer would be keep doing what you're doing, as reliable defensemen seem to have been forgotten in recent years as teams fill their rosters with puck movers who are a complete liability in the D zone.
The third pair will be a combination of Steve Eminger, Erixon, Bell and Woywitka, with Bell and Eminger the pairing in practice yesterday. Eminger was solid as the seventh defenseman last year and played his way up a couple spots in camp.
Bell looked to be slated for Connecticut, but has seized the opportunity with Staal out and will look to stay after spending last season in Switzerland.
Erixon was a big acquisition just prior to the draft last June, as the Rangers dealt two second round picks and Ethan Werek to Calgary for his rights, after he informed the Flames brass he would not be signing with them.
The son of former Ranger forward Jan Erixon, Tim has played for Skelleftea (SEL) against grown men the past three seasons and was called up for the European trip with Staal out. The Rangers planned to take the same route with him as they did McDonough last season, and may still once the team returns to North America.
His stay in Hartford won't be too long, should he adjust to the North American game as hoped, and he'll likely solidify the third pairing.
Back again are Henrik Lundqvist and Martin Biron. Biron is fully healed from a collarbone injury that limited him to just 17 games last year. Lundqvist will carry most of the load coming off a 36- win season, although a healthy Biron will get his share of starts and help him stay fresh throughout the campaign.
Lundqvist is ranked in the Top Five goalies in the league and as with most seasons, the Rangers will lean on him for success.
The Rangers hope that the moves this summer will improve what was an awful power play last season, their 16.9 percent on the man-advantage was 18th in the league, and in a game dominated by special teams, that number is far too low.
The latest unit of Dubinsky-Callahan-Gaborik with Richards and Del Zotto on the point has the firepower to be successful, but time will tell if they click.
The Rangers had a solid penalty kill last season, tying for ninth at 83.7 percent.
The return of Callahan is huge, and the Rangers have several forwards who can play the PK role including Dubinsky, Prust and Boyle. With Staal out, the top PK unit takes a hit, but with Girardi's shot-blocking and Sauer and Eminger still available they should be fine.
The Rangers certainly aren't "the toughest team in the Federal League" but should be able to hold their own in the toughness department.
Rupp and Prust are a nice one-two punch, although the Rangers probably don't want Prust and his newly-increased role racking up the majors like he did last year (18 fighting majors in 2010-11).
Sauer, Dubinsky, Callahan and Boyle will step up when needed to drop the gloves, and Kris Newbury and Andre Deveaux are in the minors should the Rangers want a little more grit. They will go without a big time heavyweight fighter for the first time since 2005-06, following the death of Derek Boogaard, and will also be without a pest now that Avery has been sent down.
This breaks a long trend dating back to the likes of Ryan Hollweg and Ville Neimenen.
The Rangers are undoubtedly a playoff team, but will have their work cut out for them.
With the Devils back on track, the Penguins looking strong with or without Sidney Crosby, the Islanders on the rise and a completely revamped Flyers squad, the Atlantic Division will be an 82 game dogfight. The Rangers have the talent and depth to make it happen.
I feel the Rangers are strong enough to take the division, and will at the least qualify for the playoffs no lower than the fifth seed.
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