2011-12 Season Preview: The Renaissance
(editor’s note: Alex is a freelance writer and director of operations for Skintology, a medical spa in Chelsea. He also runs a tobacco filtration startup called Smoke Skreen).
The common term among die hard hockey fans for the month of August is “hockey hell,” which to me seems a bit harsh. While it is certainly excruciating to sit, wait, prognosticate and debate (as Jackie Chiles would say) as there are almost no newsworthy events in the hockey world aside from Sean Avery throwing sick parties, I’d liken it more to purgatory with the sense of anticipation mixed with boredom. Hell to me is more analogous to the round of the playoffs immediately following your favorite team’s exit (case in point: I skipped the first week of the semis this year and the first round of last year). All this to say that as August reaches its midpoint, it’s time to start looking forward to the year ahead, one which appears to be filled with more promise than any year since Renney was behind the bench and Malik getting the treatment from the Garden faithful in 2007. Instead of a traditional player-by-player season preview, I’d like to compare this year’s team to others of years past to see what we can reasonably expect from our 2011-12 New York Rangers.
Let’s rewind to summer of 2007. The team had improved upon its breakthrough 2005-06 season by sweeping the Thrashers and coming painfully close to a conference finals berth. I will never forget July 1, 2007, being in the middle of Rome and, realizing that free agency had kicked off a couple hours previous, abandoning my family to stop into the nearest coffee shop with internet access. What was initially supposed to be a quick one-minute sidebar turned into a half hour of scanning every single Rangers site I could think of to get their reactions to the signing, with many of the locals confused by my initial scream and general state of delirium. Expectations were high, reaching their crescendo with Larry Brooks’ bold prediction of “a parade down the Canyon of Heroes, this one 40 years ahead of schedule.” For most of the season the Rangers were teetering on the edge of missing the playoffs until really hitting their stride at the end of the year. They were led by Jagr and Gomez who scored 71 and 70 points respectively, followed by Drury with 58 and three players with 40. Only three players hit 20 goals but they rode stellar defense and great season from Henrik Lundqvist to reach 97 points and a fifth-place finish in the east. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to get past Crosby, Malkin and the NHL officials in Round 2, and after an extremely satisfying elimination of the Devils they got bounced by the eventual East champion Pens.
‘08-09 was a strange season, with players like Zherdev and Naslund leading the charge in their only year on Broadway, half a season without Sean Avery (the only time since Feb ‘07 he wasn’t around) and the transition from Renney to Tortorella. The team was in a state of flux and, despite the fact that they only missed the playoffs on the last day of the season, ‘09-10 was something of a rebuilding year. The thing is when you have Henrik Lundqvist in net, your rebuilding years will still yield a 9th-10th place finish at worst. Last season was the final year of the rebuild, and one in which the Rangers boasted five 20 goals scorers. They were actually firmly entrenched in the 4-5 spot for much of the season until they skidded into the 7-9 position where they stayed for the rest of the season. They gave Washington a scare, almost winning Game 1 and blowing a huge lead in Game 4, but ultimately Washington was simply the better team (albeit one which couldn’t win another game).
Let’s now look at this year’s team in comparison to last years. Right off the bat, they’re returning every important player from last season, and are ADDING an all-star center who would have easily led the team in scoring last season. Not only is this huge from the perspective of his goals/assists, but it will also allow more production from centers down the line as they face weaker defensive assignments. Richards should also help improve a power play that was lethargic and downright embarrassing at times last season. Not only does this have the benefit of offering additional scoring, but it will also dissuade teams from taking liberties with our guys while the only real deterrent in doing so last season would have been if they found it ungentlemanly (and I don’t think that’s really a concern for the Flyers). Additionally, the Rangers are still a very young team, meaning that each player should theoretically be able to expand on their output of last year. Now obviously that doesn’t happen across the board, but it will be the case the majority of the time. This means fewer hiccups from the D, which takes the most time to learn, and increased scoring from the guys up front. It is also important to note that last year’s team was beset by a ridiculous amount of injuries, far more than I recall ever seeing in a single Rangers season. Gaborik missed 20 games, Callahan missed 20, Dubi and Staal missed stretches of a couple weeks, etc. All in all it’s amazing that they were even able to make the playoffs last year with a senior defenseman of age 27, no real No. 1 center and terrible health.
So, looking forward to next year, I think we can expect them to improve on their 93-point finish of last year and their 97-point finish of ‘07-08, the last time we went into a year as a contender for the conference crown. In goal, Lundqvist remains a consensus top-five netminder, and I would argue that stretches in the last couple months of the season were among the strongest of his career. As the longest tenured Ranger, he is still only 29 years old and in the prime of his career. The defense will be much improved over last seasons and that of ‘07-08. That was the year of Rozsival, Girardi, Tyutin, Mara, Malik and Staal (I’d like to pretend Christian Backman never happened). This year’s defense will not have anyone who’s on par offensively with Rozi (remember, this is the year he was leading all defensemen in scoring before a midseason injury) but they appear to be much stronger defensively. Marc Staal has evolved into a top-flight shut down defender, Girardi is a shot-blocking horse and Sauer-McDonagh looks to be a great combination for years to come. That top-4 is easily the strongest I recall having post lockout, and being that they’re all so young they can be expected to continue on their upward trajectory.
Offensively, they stack up quite favorably to both incarnations. Let’s look at the top five scorers from both seasons and what I project to be the top five this season:
Richards and Gaborik should be a formidable top tandem, and the addition of Richards to the power play improves stats across the board, as does having a real top line. This allows Dubi and Cally to excel facing weaker defense pairings and checking lines. Stepan has all the tools and should improve on a solid rookie season. Down the lineup, Anisimov should chip in somewhere around 45-50 points. Prust-Boyle-Fedotenko will provide a top notch checking line that can chip in some goals once in a while and, along with Avery and Rupp, will provide a physical presence and stir things up. Zuccarello and Wolski are two wild cards; they could provide a great contribution or they could slide in and out of the lineup. I think Z will be the more productive of the two as he gets accustomed to the North American game and the longer season.
One more team to add to the mix to stir things up:
Here’s a team which did not have any offensive players on par with Gaborik or Richards, which rode an excellent defense (admittedly better than that of NYR) and an elite performance in net to a division title and the cup. This is the team, remember, against whom the Rangers came back from 3-0 down to basically save their season.
Of course, all these projections, prognostications and predictions are fun to make but the element of uncertainty is why they play the game. Maybe Gaborik or Richards will take a bad hit to the head and miss a large portion of the season. Maybe they won’t click like the doomed Jagr/Gomez pairing, or maybe Lundqvist will have an uneven season. You never know. But the point is that the Rangers have all the elements to have a successful season and give us hope that they can compete with anyone in the league. How many people would have chosen Boston to win the cup before the playoffs? As I recall, they were maybe sixth or seventh in terms of Vegas odds. The key is to get a good mix of guys, get in, and then anything can happen; you just have to be playing your best hockey at the end of the year. Are they the favorites? No. But they’re in play and have a legitimate shot at making some noise. I’m going to go ahead and predict a second-place finish in the Atlantic Division, fourth in the east at 102 points, and a loss in the Eastern Conference Finals. They’re close, but not quite there yet.
I’ll leave you guys with one final thought for all the naysayers and pessimists out there who will say that I’m a hopeless optimist, that the Rangers have no shot, that Lundqvist is a sham, etc. I’ve heard all these arguments, often from otherwise rational individuals, and it always boggles my mind how people who are so committed to the team can be so down on it. It’s similar to what Louis CK famously said about the modern generation being unaware of how great things are (you can check out the clip here http://bit.ly/bIBI3h and I would also highly recommend his critically acclaimed FX show “Louie”). If you look at being a fan of sports purely from a logical and mathematical standpoint, it’s a sucker bet. There are 30 teams and each year only one’s fans come away with a championship; maybe 2 or 3 more are really satisfied with their teams’ performance. It’s an enterprise where your mathematical odds of seeing a title are 3.3% every year; that’s roughly the same as putting all your money on 21 in roulette (2.6%). What this tells me is that there obviously must be some intangible lurking variable which is adding value to the experience; otherwise, the constant disappointment would dissuade the sort of super-fandom I see from people like my brother who is currently following the Garden renovation online and named his dog “Henry.” Those intangibles in my mind are following a franchise with a rich heritage and having a team that is fun to watch and full of players that you can root for and that you watched grow. The maturation of players like Cally, Dubi, Staal, Girardi, etc has been such a satisfying and new experience, and there’s also the influx of guys like Stepan, McDonagh and Sauer. Even if you think that this year’s team is no better than a seventh-place finisher, or that I’ve vastly overrated players and contributions, you’ll be lucky enough to be watching a team that’s one of the better ones in the league and one that is doing things the right way. My favorite teacher used to always say during tests not to cheat because “if you’re gonna fail, at least fail with dignity.” These Rangers have given us a lot of great moments as they come of age and this is the year the push for the cup needs to start, but even if it doesn’t go as planned, it’s only a week of hell and a couple months of purgatory before we get to try it again.