Three years ago, the Rangers had zero legit first-line forwards. Two years ago they had one (Marian Gaborik). Last year they had two (Gaborik and Brad Richards). This year they have three, with the addition of power forward Rick Nash. The lockout gave Gaborik time to heal from shoulder surgery, and the Rangers should suddenly have some serious punch up front.
Plus they have any number of young veterans and upstarts who could play important roles on those top two lines (Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, Carl Hagelin and rookie Chris Kreider), and a bunch of guys who can grind out games and play in big spots, such as Brian Boyle. They have replaced Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov with Nash and Kreider (upgrades), they have replaced Ruslan Fedotenko with Taylor Pyatt (a bigger version) and replaced fourth-line center John Mitchell with Jeff Halpern (upgrade).
One question is how will they replace Brandon Prust, who gave them heart-and-soul minutes, led the league in fights (timely, for the most part) and killed penalties. His replacement, Arron Asham, will be feisty enough, but can’t play Prust’s minutes. Asham will wind up on a line with Halpern and Mike Rupp, whose fists are probably going to be busier this year.
Who knew that Marc Staal’s concussion last year would make a first-pair star out of Ryan McDonagh? The big youngster took Staal’s spot on Dan Girardi’s left, and Girardi became an all-star, too. Now Staal, who returned last January, is back and he looked good as ever in the playoffs.
Michael Del Zotto had a big bounce-back from his sophomore slump year, which was also crucial due to the concussion that cost Michael Sauer most of that season, and probably all of this one. And the Rangers have some depth in second-year rugged D-man Stu Bickel, surprisingly good Anton Stralman, dependable extra Steve Eminger, and now returning Ranger Matt Gilroy, who earned a contract this week.
There’s not much else to say about Henrik Lundqvist, who carried the team to the best record in the East and the conference finals, played his best in big games (think Winter Classic and two playoff Game 7s) and won the Vezina Trophy.
Martin Biron makes it arguably the best tandem in the league, but in a 48-game season his chances to contribute won’t be nearly as frequent. Lundqvist played 62 games last year, so he could probably play 40 or so this year, though the compacted schedule (99 days) means he might need some breathers.
It has been so long since the Rangers had a decent power play, and it makes you wonder how many games they might have won last year with a good one. They don’t have a prototypical point man in the organization, so a lot of that will fall to Brad Richards and Michael Del Zotto again, and with the firepower up front, maybe they can figure it out. Maybe.
The penalty kill was terrific, (86.2 percent, fifth in the NHL, and eight short-handed goals). Prust, Dubinsky and Fedotenko did a lot of that work. Givens on this year’s PK will be Callahan and Boyle. But this year’s PK could be more aggressive with speed. The coaches hope Hagelin can play more down-a-man minutes, and who knows if Kreider and/or Nash will? Pyatt and Halpern should help there, too. Of course, the best penalty killer is the goalie, so we know where the Rangers stand there.
His post-game press conferences aside, John Tortorella might be the best coach the Rangers have had since, well, when? Emile Francis? Demanding as he is, players go through walls for him, and he has established an identity for his team, while developing and teaching a young core of players, all with his foot on the pedal.
Second in the Atlantic, fourth seed in the East.
AP photos, above.