The New York Rangers begin the regular season Oct. 7 against the Los Angeles Kings in Stockholm, Sweden. Because of the current renovation work to Madison Square Garden, the team will play their first seven games on the road, with two of them in Stockholm (the second one against the Anaheim Ducks). It's not an easy way to begin the season, but for a team coming off a 44-33-5 campaign in which they finished eighth in the Eastern Conference (and lost in the first round), it's vital that they remain a strong road team -- just as they were last season -- and more importantly, start the season right.
The Blueshirts have all the pieces in place to be a legitimate contender for this season -- and seasons to come. With a very good (and demanding) coach in John Tortorella, a young core of promising forwards, a youthful defense (with upside) and a stud goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, in his prime, the Rangers have the personnel to be playoff contenders this season. Add in the identity they've formed predicated on outworking opponents, sacrificing yourself to block shots and take the body and never taking a shift off -- and this becomes a team others don't enjoy playing against.
It becomes an even more skilled team this season with the acquisition of No. 1 center Brad Richards from the Dallas Stars. Richards is one of the best all-around centers in the league and is a playmaker whom the team has lacked over the past few seasons. Richards had 28 goals and 49 assists last season -- and in his 11 seasons has had eight with 40 or more helpers, due mainly because of some injuries. Richards was brought in to lead the first line, and, most importantly, help Marian Gaborik find his game. The right winger's production dropped to 22 goals and 26 seasons last year (38 points below two years ago) and Tortorella felt part of it was due to Gaborik holding onto the puck too much. The Blueshirts also lacked a potent power-play quarterback, and Richards fits that bill as well; he had seven goals and 22 assists this past season and has 74 and 230 for his career.
The team also added versatile big-man Mike Rupp. Rupp is a skilled banger who is likely to play center but has played on the left wing as well. He had 13 goals and 19 points a year ago -- which doesn't sound like a lot, however he is not an enforcer who's a liability on the ice. He'll help Brandon Prust in that regard.
There will also be one new defenseman in the lineup as Marc Staal is still out with post-concussion symptoms. Michael Del Zotto is back and will be counted on to return to his rookie form. He's a great puck handler and has good passing ability but his problems come when his confidence waivers and he tries to be too fancy. Twenty-year-old Tim Erixon has been summoned from AHL and will likely slot in the last pairing. He's advanced for his age, but Tortorella wanted him to get more seasoning at the North American level. It just shows the dire straits this defense grouping is in. There's a good chance the team signs or trades for a veteran defenseman soon. But if they don't, big-bodied Stu Bickel or journeyman Brendan Bell could also be plugged in and out of the lineup.
Rangers will go places if ... (in no particular order)
1) Their goal-scoring output improves. They scored 233 goals last season, which ranked 14th in the league, but had to scratch and claw for way too many goals because of the lack of skilled scorers. The Rangers also ranked 18th in the league in power-play percentage. Young players such as Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov and Mats Zuccarello should continue to progress, but it will all hinge on the first line, particularly the Richards-Gaborik duo. They'll have to figure out a left-wing partner (it looks to be Brandon Dubinsky on Friday), but after some experimenting, I don't think it will be too difficult. You need an elite line in the NHL to be a force, and New York has the makings of one.
2) The young defense doesn't play inexperienced. Especially without Staal, at least initially, second-year players such as Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer plus the 21-year-old Del Zotto will be heavily counted on. Daniel Girardi and Staal were one of the better shutdown pairs in the NHL, but McDonagh will fill that role for now. Steve Eminger was steady last year, and especially without a sure back-pairing right now, the team will need him to remain surehanded. Twenty-year-old rookie Tim Erixon has rejoined the team as well. Look at the ice-time totals to see how much Tortorella trusts these guys.
3) Henrik Lundqvist remains elite. Every playoff-bound team needs a stalwart goalie and the Rangers have theirs. The 29-year-old was 36-27-5 last year with a 2.28 GAA, and .923 SV%, and led the league with 11 shutouts. With the state of the defense, Henrik will need to remain a brick wall in net because there are times he'll have to steal a few games. It's really as simple as that.
Rangers will flounder if ... (in no particular order)
1) Injuries rear their ugly head. The Blueshirts have plenty of depth in the minor leagues, that's not a problem. The problem will be utilizing young-inexperienced players with heavy minutes, when Tortorella has shown he isn't totally in favor of that. Missing key pieces for too long -- like Callahan at the end of the season and in the playoffs (and someone new this year ...) -- will be too costly.
2) Staal is sidelined for a long period of time. This plays into the injuries concern, but because he's arguably one of the top two (with Lundqvist) players the Ranger can ill-afford to lose, he has to be highlighted. Staal will be out at least a month as he's suffering from post-concussion headaches, but I'd bet on more. New York's defensive core is very inexperienced; without Staal the solid duo of Sauer-McDonagh are separated and Del Zotto, who's still trying to regain his footing, must play more. Opponents will take it to the Rangers and exploit the unproven half -- which looks to include 20-year-old Tim Erixon -- of the defense. Staal (and Girardi) cause opposing coaches to play the match-up game with them in order to avoid using their top lines when their on the ice ... while they've been the go-to guys for Tortorella to shut down the offense. McDonagh's play with Girardi becomes crucial.
3) Distractions get in the way. New York will open the season with seven straight road games -- two in Europe -- and be a part of HBO's 24/7 series leading up to the Jan. 2 Winter Classic. How they deal with the long string of games away from MSG seems more likely to impact them than the cameras that will be around for nearly the next three months, but it's worth mentioning.
Breakout player: Artem Anisimov. The young Russian's game has slowly improved in each of his first two seasons. He has gained the coach's trust on defense, but he's got a slick shot, set-up ability and the size that you want in a center as well. He's also not going to fill the No. 1 center role with Richards in town, thus he will not always face the other team's most dangerous line, either. Comfort and experience will equal production. A 50-60 point season cannot be out of the question. Hard-working winger Brandon Dubinsky (especially if he sticks on the first line) and Derek Stepan are two more players primed for great seasons.
Prediction: Despite the questions on the back end and Staal's lingering post-concussion issues, I'm optimistic about what's going on in New York. I don't like making precise predictions, but I'm pegging the Rangers to finish in the top-half of the Eastern Conference.
Likely opening day lineup:
Brandon Dubinsky - Brad Richards - Marian Gaborik
Ruslan Fedotenko - Artem Anisimov - Ryan Callahan
Wojtek Wolski - Derek Stepan - Mats Zuccarello
Brian Boyle - Mike Rupp - Brandon Prust
Ryan McDonagh - Dan Girardi
Michael Del Zotto - Michael Sauer
Tim Erixon - Steve Eminger