The New York Rangers under coach John Tortorella have formed an identity. Doing the little things to perfection: blocking shots, forechecking hard, throwing bodies and being pests to play against. It sounds cliche, but creating an identity very significant because almost ever since their Stanley Cup run in 1994, the Blueshirts have been a team that has chased free agents, free spending their ways and leaving it for the coach to fit the mis-matched puzzle pieces together.
The hiring of Tortorella in 2009 by general manager Glen Sather was a crucial one because for nine years the Rangers' coach had almost become a puppet to the GM. Tortorella is very opinionated and demanding and doesn't have the personality to just succomb to what his boss says. He realized this team needed to become "tougher" to play against, and begin to build from within, instead of relying on free-signing to patch together holes.
Even though the Rangers only saw a six-point increase from Tortorella's first full season to this past one, the Rangers are making strides. Losing in five games to the Washington Capitals was tough to swallow but nothing to be ashamed of. They were in most of the games, and they were without new-captain Ryan Callahan, who plays in every situation, to injury. Even more important: Their young players experienced the playoff atmosphere.
The Rangers under Tortorella live and die by their youth. He's been stated as saying so. Allowing rookies to slowly get exposure, putting youngsters in spots to excel, yet challenging them as they prove their ready is a coaching style he's employed successfully so far.
The Rangers' list of young, homegrown players is astounding. Ryan Callahan. Brandon Dubinsky. Marc Staal. Dan Girardi. Artem Anisimov. Derek Stepan. Michael Sauer. Mats Zuccarello. Michael Del Zotto. Plus, players like Ryan McDonagh, Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust who were not drafted by the Rangers, but young and experiencing their first good NHL fortunes with them. There will even be more youngsters to come this season.
Key Additions: Add a premiere center and power-play quarterback, Brad Richards, to the mix of youth and the Blueshirts added the highest-impact (and best) free agent on the market this offseason. Richards' contract, nine years, $60 million seems like a disaster waiting to happen in the future, but the difference now and the past is that the Rangers have built a foundation so Richards is not looking to jell with mismatched pieces. The team also signed big-bodied enforcer Mike Rupp to a three-year, $4.5 million deal. He'll most likely have a spot on the fourth line, but is a good faceoff man and is not a one-dimensional fighter. Rangers also "stole" the Calgary Flames' 2009 23rd overall pick, defenseman Tim Erixon, this offseason for two draft picks and a prospect. The Flames couldn't sign Erixon (who was coming over from the Swedish Elite League) and the Rangers swooped in. Now the Rangers have have a 21-year-old, two-way defenseman who is a frontrunner to occupy a spot on the third defensive pairing. He's also been impressive in Traverse City prospects tournament and has drawn rave reviews from many talent evaluators.
Key Subtractions: Maybe the best news for the Rangers is that they did not lose anybody significant this offseason, and they locked up their core, free-agent pieces.. Vinny Prospal left for Columbus. Matt Gilroy for Tampa Bay. And Chris Drury ultimately to retirement. New York has depth now, so these losses don't really mean too much. New York was able to re-sign Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Boyle, Prust and Anisimov this offseason.
Outlook: The future is very bright for the Rangers, and they should continue to make considerable strides this year. Last season they finished 8th in the Eastern Conference. This season, their young players will continue to develop, Gaborik should be better with a true No. 1 center in Richards and Richards' addition brings top-end playmaking ability and a surehanded power-play presence. All of these factors will give the Rangers a chance to crack the the middle of the East's standings this season ... that is so long as everything comes together and they stay healthy, which was not the case this past season (but minors depth allowed to to stay competitive). Sixth place is a reasonable prediction.