Every Tuesday for the next ten weeks Ryan Porth gets you set for a fresh NHL season with in depth looks at the Top 10 teams that will compete for Lord Stanley’s Cup in the 2012-13 season.
John Tortorella’s New York Rangers surprised many by finishing the 2011-12 regular season atop the Eastern Conference with 109 points. Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist backstopped the Blueshirts to the conference final, where they exited in six games to their rivals, the New Jersey Devils. Although it was a disappointing finish, the Rangers took plenty of of positives away from a stellar season on Broadway.
With star winger Rick Nash on board, Tortorella’s lineup will have a slightly new look up front as forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov are now in Columbus. However, the addition of Nash coupled with the array of blue-chip youngsters has the Rangers set up once again to be a favourite to win the ever-difficult Atlantic Division.
Here are three reasons why the Rangers are and aren’t ready to stop their Cup drought at 19 years.
Nash and Richards will attempt to gain something Richards and Marian Gaborik (now out with injury) did not have in their first year together: chemistry. “After a couple of games, I just didn’t like it at all,” Tortorella said in January of the Richards-Gaborik combination. “It didn’t seem to work; there really was no chemistry.”
That Nash will skate alongside an elite playmaking centre is a scary thought for the rest of the Eastern Conference. Pundits like to criticize Nash because he’s appeared in more all-star games (five) than playoff games (four), but one thing the former Blue Jackets captain never had in his nine seasons with the Central Division’s cellar-dweller was a top-flight No. 1 centre – and Nash still put up seven 30-goal seasons.
It didn’t pan out for Richards and Gaborik a year ago. If it works between Nash and Richards, watch out. They have potential to immediately become one of the league’s top offensive duos.
The Rangers have a handful of youngsters – Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto – who gained valuable playoff experience last spring. All of them will be a year older and more polished heading into the 2012-13 campaign.
This season’s most important youngster on Broadway will be Kreider, who joined the team mid-postseason and scored five goals. Kreider, a 2009 first-round pick, has yet to play a regular-season game but has all the tools to immediately become an effective second-line producer. With Gaborik sidelined from the onset, Tortorella and company will be hoping the Boston College product steps up.
The five aforementioned youngsters make up a solid supporting core to the Rangers’ stars. Also, the fact that they are all still inexpensive talents should equate to GM Glen Sather having some extra cap room at the deadline to add a rental if needed.
Lundqvist had his best campaign yet in 2011-12, posting a career-best 39 wins, 1.97 GAA and .930 save percentage. Like Jonathan Quick, Lundqvist’s numbers in 2012-13 will likely revert back to his career averages – but that doesn’t mean the 2012 Vezina Trophy winner, the backbone of the Rangers’ success, won’t be a difference-maker this season.
This past March, Lundqvist turned 30 years old. Not to say he can’t continue playing at the same level for at least five more years, but he won’t remain in his prime forever. If the postseason has proven anything, it’s that teams usually need top-notch goaltending to win 16 playoff games. Lundqvist is the type of goaltender who can carry a team and steal games when they matter most.
King Henrik is currently in his window of opportunity to finally capitalize on that elite level of play and get his name etched on the Cup.
When Gaborik is healthy and consistent, few goal scorers are better. However, off-season shoulder surgery has already shelved Gaborik until December. On top of that, if his year-to-year trends continue, the Slovakian sniper will have a tough time sniffing his 41-goal output from last season.
The last four seasons in which he has played 65-plus games, Gaborik has scored at least 38 times. Each of those standout seasons have been followed up by unhealthy, inconsistent seasons in which he has averaged fewer than 22 goals.
The acquisition of Nash obviously fills the goal-scoring void that Gaborik would have left for the first month or two. That said, Gaborik was a vital piece to the Rangers’ puzzle in 2011-12; the team posted a 27-4-4 record when Gaborik found the back of the net.
If Gaborik can’t stay healthy and/or can’t get going offensively, it will only hurt a Rangers lineup that isn’t necessarily rich with high-end talent.
Despite their potential, the Rangers are still a young team in certain key spots. They will likely start the year with Kreider, Stepan and Hagelin in the top-six up front, while Del Zotto and McDonagh will skate important minutes on the blue line – following a grueling 20-game playoff run, no less.
With a lack of overall depth throughout the lineup, will these youngsters succumb to some of the pressure that will be on them? Can they collectively step up in the absence of Gaborik? Will they be able to hold the fort if defencemen Dan Girardi or Marc Staal go down? Will Kreider – a preseason Calder Trophy frontrunner – hit the proverbial “rookie wall” in his first full NHL season? Can Del Zotto bounce back after an up-and-down postseason?
While having all of this potential can be a good thing, if growing pains occur, it could be a key weakness as the season goes on.
In 2011-12, the Rangers were a committed bunch and essentially played playoff-style hockey for six months. This discipline earned them the top seed in the East at season’s end – great – but how much is too much? Can they afford to expend that kind of energy in the regular season and expect to have enough gas in the tank to get through the postseason?
Once last spring’s playoffs arrived, it didn’t seem like the Rangers could reach another gear since they had played at such a high level from November through March. It almost cost them against eighth-seeded Ottawa and seventh-seeded Washington, both of whom pushed Lundqvist & Co. to a Game 7.
The Rangers aren’t going to change who they are (and they shouldn’t), so they will once again out-hit and out-defend opponents en route to a playoff berth. But one has to wonder if they can go the extra mile in April, May and June after a more physically demanding season than most teams.
Prediction: Nash scores 40 goals, Kreider wins the Calder, and Lundqvist leads the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup since 1994.
How far will the New York Rangers make it in 2012-13?