Renovation. Transportation. Visitation. Commercialization. … Ball of Confusion.
That’s what the Rangers’ season is destined to be. (Apologies to the Temptations).
The 2011-12 season is going to be a challenge, for sure, for a Rangers team looking to jump out of that perennial 7-8-9 seed dogfight in the East, a fight that had them eliminated in a shootout after their final game in 2010, and had them qualify hours after their final game, watching on TV as Tampa Bay beat Carolina last spring.
This year promises to be different on the ice. It sure as heck is going to be different off it. The Rangers will:
A) open their season with two games in Europe as the NHL continues to push its global product;
B) play their first seven games on the road, including a Western Canada trek, as Madison Square Garden undergoes its massive renovation;
C) play in the NHL’s Super Bowl, the Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia Jan. 2;
D) and, therefore, be subjected to HBO’s invasive all-access cameras and microphones for the first half of the season, which ought to be a laughtrack once bombastic coach John Tortorella gets annoyed.
Distractions? Only if the Rangers let them be. Excuses? The Rangers promise they won’t look for them, but if the they start slowly or poorly, these would certainly be legit reasons.
It won’t be easy. On the other hand, if the Rangers can handle all of these stepping stones and speed bumps, they can all be team-binding, can all be character builders and revealers.
In 2008-09, the Rangers started the season in Europe, fell apart at midseason, fired coach Tom Renney, hired Tortorella, squeezed into the playoffs and blew a 3-1 lead in a first-round loss to Washington.
Each of the past three Stanley Cup champions — Pittsburgh (‘09), Chicago (‘10) and Boston (‘11) opened their seasons in Europe.
And, you may recall, the 1993-94 Rangers went to England for a two-game preseason series … and that team did OK.
Likewise, the Winter Classic has been a springboard for success, if not immediate, then soon.
Pittsburgh played in the ‘08 Classic and won the Cup the following season; Chicago and Detroit played in the ‘09 Classic, and the Red Wings went to the final that year, the Blackhawks won the Cup the following year. Philadelphia and Boston played in the ‘10 Classic and the Flyers went to the final that year while Boston won the Cup the next year. In ‘11, Pittsburgh and Washington played in the Classic and went nowhere, but maybe this year is the payoff for one of those teams.
At the very least, the whole itinerary ought to be a learning experience for a Rangers team that is still very young, has a new leadership group — first-year captain Ryan Callahan, first-year alternate Brad Richards, second-year alternate Marc Staal, and guys who became leaders without letters last year: Brandon Dubinsky, Brandon Prust, Brian Boyle, Dan Girardi among them.
“This is what we want to do,” Tortorella said. “We have a captain that’s come through our system.”
“Absolutely,” he said. “Absolutely. In a cap world, and where we’re at right now, I think it’s huge as far as how (the players) feel about it … how we’re going to go about our business, not just for one year, but as you go along. That’s why I’m excited.”
But expectations come with that excitement. This team should be better than last year, but so should many teams in the East, including some who didn’t make the playoffs last year, and one right across the Hudson River.
“I just want us to grow in all areas,” Tortorella said. “I think we’re in a different level of the process. We’ve kept our kids. Glen (Sather) has done a great job keeping our nucleus and our core. I think they’ve grown. I think they need to continue to grow. We’ve added Mike Rupp, we’ve added Brad Richards, veteran guys. I think we’ve upped our talent level.
“I think we’re in the next step of the process of being the best we can be.”
Next: Part IV, Leastern and Bestern Conference predictions.