Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.
A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.
New York is our 10th-ranked team.
New York Rangers
2013-14 finish: 45-31-6, 96 points, 12th overall; lost in Stanley Cup Final to Kings
Leading scorer: Mats Zuccarello (59 points)
General manager: Glen Sather
Head coach: Alain Vigneault
Captain: Ryan McDonagh
Opening night starter: Henrik Lunqvist
Key acquisitions: Dan Boyle, Mike Kostka, Tanner Glass, Lee Stempniak. Matthew Lombardi, Nick Tarnasky, Chris Mueller
Key departures: Brad Richards, Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot
Off-season grade: C. It was a lost summer for the Rangers fans. There’s no other way to describe it when your biggest move is a buyout. Sather’s biggest move was extricating the team from Brad Richards’s millstone contract, swallowing hard on the last six seasons of a nine-year $60-million deal. Most of the cap relief that bought Slats had to be committed to locking up players already on the payroll, including Derick Brassard and Chris Kreider. The signing of Dan Boyle as an unrestricted free agent would have had a potentially huge impact—if it had happened five years ago. Journeymen like Stempniak and Glass and a player out of the wilderness like Lombardi don’t seem like causes for excitement—but then Vigneault got a lot of value out of the seemingly star-crossed Brassard and a career enigma like the departed Pouliot.
Greatest strength: The blue line. For six-deep strength on the blue line, the Rangers rank beside anyone in the East and are the only team in the conference you can mention in the same breath as Los Angeles and Chicago… OK, maybe the next breath, but still. Ryan McDonagh established new standards for himself in the run to the final. He and Marc Staal rank among the league’s top 20 defencemen if not the top 10. Dan Girardi is a hard-hitting, shot-blocking stalwart who has played his best hockey in the post-season. Kevin Klein came over before the trade deadline from Nashville for Michael Del Zotto. If the Rangers can stay healthy on the back end—a consideration given that Staal has missed more than 70 games over the last three seasons—then Boyle can be slide into spot duty on the power play, an area needing an upgrade (the Rangers ranked 15th in league standings with the man advantage last season).
Greatest weakness: Lack of a first-line centre. Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan are second-line centres in search of someone to play behind. Or, put another way, Rick Nash and Martin St Louis are franchise left and right wingers, respectively, in dire need of someone who can adequately service them. A scoring machine in the junior ranks who was star-crossed and stifled in Columbus, the 27-year-old Brassard did put together his best season in his first full term with the Rangers. A couple of times in the playoffs he was the Rangers’ best player on the ice, but you’d bet against him sustaining it—he has never scored 20 goals or 50 points in a season. The 24-year-old Stepan (now out with a broken leg) earned a trip to Sochi with the U.S. Olympic team and still seems to be a rising talent, but even the most ardent fan of the Blueshirts would project him to a 30-goal, 70-point this season or next. Maybe J.T. Miller will be that player down the line—call us back in three years.
Biggest story to watch: At 32, is Henrik Lundqvist in a career wane? If somebody had told you that the Rangers were going to make a run to the final, you’d have assumed Lundqvist would be at the top of his game. Likewise, if you were told that New York was going to lock up Lundqvist with a seven-year, $59.5-milion contract last December, you’d assume he was playing at the top of his game. Yet in the 2013-14 regular season, Lundqvist was no better than a middle-of-the pack netminder. His .920 save percentage ranked 15th in league, likewise his GAA of 2.36. Compare these desultory numbers to his stats from his 2011-12: His .930 save-percentage and 1.97 goals-against won him the Vezina Trophy. Lundqvist returned to form in the playoffs—his .927 and 2.14 were better than the marks set by the other goalies in the respective conference finals, Carey Price, Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick.
2014-15 prediction: The Rangers will figure out a way to squeeze into the seventh or eighth playoff slot in the Eastern Conference and make a top seed’s life miserable or even cut a heavyweight’s spring short.