The New York Rangers currently are the No. 2 seed in the East and should be considered a real threat. Surprised?
If you have been following this team all season long, it shouldn't be so surprising. The Rangers are a team that were once labeled with a moniker that represented bloated contracts and overpaid veterans. They were known to "buy" talent and trade young picks and talent for overpaid superstars.
This is no longer the case. The Broadway Blueshirts have revitalized their roster and how they do business. They are committed to developing young talent and giving them opportunities to succeed. The youth movement has started to really become a huge part of the team's success. Former rookies like Ryan Callahan, Artem Anisimov, Dan Girardi, the injured Marc Staal and Brandon Dubinsky are now considered veterans.
Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Del Zotto and Michael Sauer, on the other hand, represent the start of a second wave of talent. These three players are very vital parts of the machine that is the New York Rangers.
For too long the Rangers have been written off. For too long the Rangers haven't been taken seriously. This wasn't only the reception from their critics, but from their own fans!
During their numerous win streaks this season, fans and critics wondered when the old Rangers would return—the old Rangers who played mediocre hockey and played to sub-par finishes in the standings.
After the Rangers rebounded from back-to-back losses and started another win streak, fans again wondered when this team would plateau and reach their peak.
The fans were so unfamiliar with the feeling of watching a talented hockey team, that they felt Armageddon was just around the corner. Obviously fans can overrate their teams, as I have been accused of this in the past, but the standings and stat sheets validate the Rangers' dominance and superiority of most of the teams they have faced.
Up to this point the Rangers have a record of 21-8-4 and 46 points. They trail the Boston Bruins, arguably the best team in the league, by one point for the best record in the East. Throughout this regular season, the Rangers have dominated divisional play thus far. The Rangers have defeated the Philadelphia Flyers twice, the Pittsburgh Penguins once, and both the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders once.
This is obviously a huge reason why they are leading their division. They may be tied in points with the Flyers, but the Rangers have definitely had the Flyers' number this season. Star players like Claude Giroux have been kept off the scoreboard against the Rangers, and Ilya Bryzgalov hasn’t looked sharp.
It is one thing to be effective in divisional play, but there are a few reasons why the Rangers can be considered a threat in the Eastern Conference.
The Rangers arguably have the best goaltending tandem in the league. Henrik Lundqvist is widely considered to be the league's best goalie in most circles, albeit Tim Thomas is another favorite, but a big reason the Rangers have a solid tandem is because of Marty Biron.
Marty Biron is the ideal backup goalie. He is a veteran player who has tons of experience in the regular season and playoffs. This experience allows bench boss John Tortorella to trust Biron whenever Lundqvist needs a night off.
Biron also knows what his role is and he is content with 25-30 starts a season. He poses no threat to Lundqvist's job, and the two goalies are the best of friends.
In eight games this season, Biron is 7-1-0 with 1.84 goals against average. This dominance as a backup has allowed Lundqvist to remain fresh in the games he has played. The less Lundqvist plays in the regular season, the better off he will be in the playoffs.
The Rangers currently are without starting defensemen Marc Staal, Michael Sauer and Steve Eminger. However, they have allowed the second least amount of goals this season.
This is in part to the fact that Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto have really stepped up both aspects of their games. Girardi and McDonagh are playing 25 minutes or more every single night and Del Zotto is logging 20 minutes or more.
Del Zotto is also currently tied for third in the league with a plus-minus rating of plus-22.
The fact that the Rangers are where they are now, despite plugging their defense with rookies and waiver pickups, is a really good sign of things to come when Sauer, Staal and Eminger return.
They, by no means, have the best defense in the league, but it has done exceptionally well given the circumstances.
The Rangers offense is led by league-leading goal scorer Marian Gaborik. His game appears to be on a totally different level this season. He has 21 goals and 32 points in 33 games this season. These numbers are a far cry from what he posted last year.
In addition to Gaborik, Brad Richards has really adapted well to life as a New York Ranger. He has 12 goals and 14 assists of his own as the Rangers' second line center. His linemate and team captain Ryan Callahan has also had a great start with 13 goals and 11 assists of his own.
The real surprises this season have come in sophomore sensation Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov. As two-thirds of the G.A.S. line, the two have combined for 15 goals and 32 assists for 47 points. Each player is slowly but surely coming into their own in the Rangers lineup.
Even the defenders on the Rangers are putting points on the board. Michael Del Zotto has 19 points, McDonagh has 14 and Girardi has 13. When you look at the balance of the Rangers scoring, they are certainly a team that will be hard to shut down.
Ability to Win on The Road
The Rangers currently have the second best road record in the league with a record of 11-5-2. They only trail the Flyers in this category. Playoff hockey is one of the toughest challenges in all pro sports. Teams on the road have to deal with tens of thousands of screaming fans. This distraction sometimes can knock the best of teams off its game.
The fact that the Rangers are winning games on the road early is a good sign. If they can secure home ice in the playoffs, they should really have a huge advantage when you consider they also thrive at playing on the road.
New York Times bestseller and tenured New Yorker columnist Malcolm Gladwell has a theory that can sum up the success of the youth movement.
There is a concept he refers to as the 10,000 Hour Rule. Gladwell explains that someone is truly an expert once they have spent 10,000 hours in their field working and honing their craft. This concept ties in with his famous quote on practice that reads, "Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good."
If you look at the the Rangers' youth movement, you see that the Rangers drafted players, developed them in the minors, college or Canadian Juniors before making it to the big show. Now that they are here, they have logged 10,000 hours from when they first laced up their skates.
By further developing the youth movement and taking chances with kids, the Rangers can remain a relevant team for many years to come. This philosophy really is a drastic change from the Rangers of old.
The NHL season is almost at the halfway point. Is it too early to predict how the next 48 games will pan out? Yes, however it is not too early to start looking into the future. The trade deadline will approach shortly after the All-Star game, and teams will look to bolt down the hatches and mend the broken joints.
However, there is a reason to be optimistic as a Rangers fan. This team has played well not only because they have talent, but because they have overcome injury and adversity to be in the position they are in.
John Tortorella has done an excellent job motivating and managing his team up to this point, and has kept them honest with themselves. This quote best sums up why the best days of the New York Rangers are clearly ahead of them. After the win last night against the Flyers, Tortorella had this to say, courtesy of Andrew Gross of Ranger Rants:
It’s Dec. 23, it really means nothing. I think we have found different ways to win. The hockey team has kept its focus through Europe and all the things going on with our club and I’m really happy about that. But it’s Dec. 23, we’re not even halfway through the year so it really means nothing.
With the team playing well, focused and in check by Tortorella, it is an exciting time to be a Rangers fan.
Tom Urtz is an NHL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.