Every Thursday for leading up to the start of the 2013-14 NHL season, Ryan Porth examines one club that is a true contender to hoist the Stanley Cup come June. The New York Rangers are one of 10 Teams that Can Win It All.
Once Rick Nash arrived in the Big Apple, sky-high expectations were placed on the New York Rangers. They laboured through the first couple months before an April surge catapulted them to their seventh playoff appearance in eight seasons. Henrik Lundqvist and company knocked off Washington in a seven-game series before getting ousted in five second-round contests by Boston.
Despite advancing to the conference semifinals for a second consecutive season, the Rangers dismissed John Tortorella as their head coach and hired Alain Vigneault to replace him. That move was the biggest one GM Glen Sather made in the offseason, as minor trades and shuffling of depth pieces followed Vigneault’s hiring. It was a quiet summer for Sather after pulling off separate blockbuster deals involving Nash and Marian Gaborik.
Can the Blueshirts find Cup glory for the first time since 1994? Here are three reasons why they can and can’t:
1. Upgrade behind the bench
This Rangers squad was well-built for success under Tortorella, but Vigneault will absolutely have a positive influence.
The new bench boss won’t be committed to a shot-blocking, defence-first system, which should mean Lundqvist won’t be forced to be perfect night in and night out. Vigneault’s arrival should also help Brad Richards bounce back from an underwhelming campaign, which is important if the Rangers wish to go deep in the postseason. It’s possible Vigneault improves a Rangers power-play unit that is constantly stuck in the mud.
Vigneault replacing Tortorella should be a breath of fresh air on and off the ice. The Rangers’ style of play won’t be as demanding, while the postgame press conferences should be much less bombastic – which is a good thing in New York. You also have to assume the players will enjoy playing for Vigneault more than his predecessor.
“Any time there’s a new coach, it’s exciting to see how it changes the team, the room and, obviously, how we play,” Lundqvist recently told the New York Post.
2. Henrik is king
Is any player more important to his team than Lundqvist is to the Blueshirts? It’s difficult to make a case against that claim.
It goes without saying King Henrik is one of the NHL’s top goaltenders and puts the Rangers on his back every single night. As long as he’s in his prime, the Rangers will be a tough out in the playoffs. He wasn’t as dominant last season (it’s hard to say that after his GAA and save percentage only dropped from 1.97 and .930 to 2.05 and .926) but still finished as the Vezina Trophy runner-up a year after winning the award.
And although Rangers fans may be worried about Lundqvist’s future as he enters the final year of his deal, it can only help the team this season if he plays with just a little extra motivation to be the league’s best netminder with a new contract looming.
3. Marc Staal is healthy
Staal has missed 63 regular-season games over the last two seasons, but that has not kept the Rangers from boasting a top-five defence corps over that time. Obviously some of the credit goes to Lundqvist, but a lot of it goes to the rest of the blue line for stepping up in Staal’s absence.
Just think how good the Rangers’ back end could be with a healthy Staal, who this season will officially be returning from the horrific eye injury he suffered last March. The top-three would be among the league’s best – Staal, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh – and guys like Michael Del Zotto, John Moore or Anton Stralman wouldn’t be given a bigger role than they need.
Another consideration is Vigneault’s system won’t be as defensive-minded as Tortorella’s was, so Staal gives the Rangers blue-line depth they may need – but that’s only if he can still perform at a high level with permanent damage to his vision.
1. Where will the goals come from?
Last season the expectation was for Nash and Gaborik to be a dynamic one-two punch. It just didn’t work out. Gaborik fell out of favour with Tortorella and was shipped to Columbus. And when you look at the pair of deals pulled off by the Rangers and Blue Jackets, it was the Rangers that came out on the short end.
Because they lost valuable depth that made them so good two seasons ago – most notably Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov – the Rangers’ thin, inexperienced depth chart makes you wonder where they’re going to get enough offence to contend for the Cup.
Outside of Nash, who can they count on to find the back of the net? Not Brad Richards, who is no longer a No. 1 centre. Not Ryan Callahan or Carl Hagelin (for the time being), who will likely miss the start of the season after off-season surgeries. Derek Stepan, the team’s leading point-getter in 2012-13, isn’t necessarily a goal-scorer.
If former first-round picks Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller don’t step up, the Rangers could starve for offence when the games matter most.
2. Richards’ regression could continue
When the Rangers signed Richards to a nine-year, $60-million contract in 2011, the then 31-year-old was a No. 1 centre. In two years time, however, Richards has regressed to the point where he was a healthy scratch in last spring’s postseason.
In his two seasons prior to free agency, Richards averaged north of a point per game (1.1 PPG to be exact). That production has dropped off since arriving on Broadway, falling to 0.78 PPG despite being thought of as a “perfect fit” with his old pal, Tortorella.
True, Vigneault’s presence should help Richards. But you also have to remember he is 33 and was under consideration for an amnesty buyout this past offseason. Unless he thrives in a more offensive system in 2013-14, Richards can no longer be considered a top-line centre – and his $6.67-million cap hit handcuffs the Rangers’ ability to bring in additional talent.
3. They’re a step behind Boston, Pittsburgh
In the new playoff format, the Rangers will likely need to go through the Steel City if they want to reach the third round. The Penguins are simply better than the Blueshirts, although that gap closed a bit in the offseason. Tuukka Rask and the Bruins showed last spring just how much better they are than the Rangers, and that fact hasn’t changed.
If you split the East into tiers, this Rangers team is in a group with Detroit, Ottawa and potentially Philadelphia and Montreal. They have numerous questions to answer if they want to emerge from the NHL’s best conference and division.
Prediction: Vigneault’s first impression in New York is a good one, Nash flirts with a third-career 40-goal season, and Lundqvist contends for the Vezina – again. That being said, the Rangers come up short when pitting them against Metro Division rival Pittsburgh. The lack of goal-scoring depth will once again inhibit their ability to get past the second round.