The look all changed when Brad Richards signed for $60 million over nine, years. Throw a legit No. 1 center onto any roster and it trickles down mightily. Now the Rangers have an elite playmaking center to play with Marian Gaborik, who had a terrible second season (22 goals, a 20-goal drop from the year before) as a Ranger and they have, in Richards, a proven power-play point man, theoretically fixing what were two glaring weaknesses last year. But Gaborik, who has played two seasons without another legit No. 1 linemate, must rebound, and this pairing must work.
At the start, that will be Brandon Dubinsky, who is perfect for the role, will play left wing on that line.
But Dubinsky played on such a cohesive, effective line with new captain Ryan Callahan on the right and Artem Anisimov in the middle, and coach John Tortorella hesitated to break that up. That was the Rangers’ de facto first line last year, and it will reap benefits of facing lesser checking by opponents if Richards-Gaborik-whomever click.
Tortorella thought about using Brian Boyle on Richards-Gaborik’s left after Boyle’s breakout season, in which he became a team leader. Again, though, Tortorella leaned on Boyle and Brandon Prust, often with Ruslan Fedotenko, to be an effective third line, check opponents’ top lines, play critical late minutes, and kill penalties.
Sophomore center Derek Stepan probably has too much upside to play fourth-line minutes, but at the start he probably plays with newly-signed Mike Rupp, a tough, huge and versatile forward, and Mats Zuccarello, who struggled at times in his rookie year but had a good camp. Wojtek Wolski didn’t do enough with his preseason shot at the top-line left wing spot, so where he plays is another question. Inconsistent Erik Christensen, if he remains, will be the 13th forward, despite his puck skills.
The fly in the ointment of a returning, young, and very good top four is Marc Staal’s headache issues, believed to be post-concussion symptoms. He didn’t make the trip to Europe and there is no timetable for Staal to play, and no way to guess if/when/or for how long he plays once he’s better. That would be a major hit for the Rangers and could force them to make a trade.
His partner, Dan Girardi, got better and better right to the end of the last playoff game last year, and the second pair of Mike Sauer and Ryan McDonagh, both rookies last season, has cornerstone written all over it, though Sauer had knee and shoulder injuries in camp and the preseason.
The third pair is where the questions arise. Michael Del Zotto still has all that potential, after a sophomore slump season. Steve Eminger, who was the seventh D-man last year, was signed to serve that role again. With Matt Gilroy and Bryan McCabe gone, there’s an opening on the third pair. Who gets it? Again, a trade is possible.
No questions here. Henrik Lundqvist proved — again —down the stretch last year that he is one of the top goalies in the NHL, when he had to start every game after Martin Biron suffered a broken collarbone. Biron is the ideal backup: Good teammate, funny guy, who can go in and throw in a big performance after not playing for a while. Lundqvist needs rest, and Biron provides that without costing the Rangers.
Next: Part III looks at the obstacles, distractions and challenges of the Rangers’ schedule.