By Ed McGrogan, senior editor of TENNIS Magazine and TENNIS.com
It’s around this time of the regular season, when roughly one-third of the games have passed, that we as fans and critics strive to take stock of a team. At this point, you usually have a good sense of a squad’s abilities, shortcomings, and the trite-but-real concept of “identity.”
Can we identify any of those characteristics, though, of the 2014-15 New York Rangers? Aside from Rick Nash, who after two seasons finally looks like the player the Blueshirts thought they were getting in the 2012 off-season, nearly every player has been a model of inconsistency. Perhaps that shouldn’t come as a great surprise, considering the Rangers’ run to the Stanley Cup Final—impressive as it was—was a mixture of uninspiring performances (pretty much every game after a win over the Flyers; games 2-4 against the Penguins; game 5 against the Canadiens) and stirring triumphs (Game 7 against the Flyers, games 5-7 of the second round, games 1, 4, and 6 of the third round). Ironically, the Rangers showed the most consistency in a series in which they were almost swept.
There is a team that reminds me of this year’s Rangers, however, and you don’t have to jog too far down memory lane to remember it. That would be the 2012-13 edition of the blue, white, and red, a team that likewise struggled in the early going after a lengthy playoff run.
Twenty-six games into the 48-game, lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, the Rangers were 13-11-2 for 28 points—exactly the number of points this years’ squad has accumulated in the same interval. Certainly, with the truncated and uncertain schedule, the Rangers of two years ago had something entirely different to deal with than this year’s team. And despite its run to the Eastern Conference Final, John Tortorella’s shot-blocking, grinding phalanx had a long off-season to recuperate, in sharp contrast to the team Alain Vigneault currently leads—which had, I would guess, the shortest off-season in Rangers history.
The conclusion I draw from this? As in all professional sports, the mental hurdles are the most difficult to overcome. I wouldn’t say that both teams were/are satisfied with their deep playoff runs, but it must be tougher to generate whatever is necessary to repeat such an effort so quickly after one just passed.
Both the 2012-13 and 2014-15 Rangers teams also suffered a significant loss of depth from the editions that preceded them. After bowing out to the New Jersey Devils in the final four, the Rangers lost the following players to either free agency in trades: Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Prust, John Mitchell, and Ruslan Fedotenko. After losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final, the Rangers lost the following players to either free agency or trades: Anton Stralman, Benoit Pouliot, Bryan Boyle, and Derek Dorsett. Brad Richards was also bought out of his contract.
In both cases, massive turnover took place, and in this team game it’s only natural to expect a slip in production. The 2012-13 Rangers eventually showed signs of improvement, going 13-7-2 after those first 26 games, including 10-2-2 in their final 14. Can we expect something similar from this year’s team? I think it’s likely. Familiarity breeds more effective power play and penalty killing units—two elements of hockey that demand cohesion—and as new lines begin to gel, the depth the Rangers lost should begin to regenerate, which will also benefit their top-end skill.
The other reason I compare these two teams is expectations. On the heels of a breakout season, the Nash trade made the Rangers a trendy pick to win it all in 2012-13. While not everyone believes this year’s team is a bona fide Stanley Cup contender, there’s undoubtedly an expectation to build off of the franchise’s first trip to the Final since 1994. This is a team built to win now, particularly with the acquisition of Dan Boyle and the all-in trade of Ryan Callahan plus first-round picks for Martin St. Louis.
One writer who didn’t necessarily buy the hype two years ago was Rick Carpiniello, who often warned that the 2012-13 team was very different from its predecessor. They went on to sweat past the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs before being outclassed by the Boston Bruins in five games.
Rick has said something similar about this years’ Rangers—that they are not the team of the previous season, but that they are a better team, provided the roster plays to its potential. Whatever you think of that assertion, I think we can all hope that it comes to pass, or I can envision an ending similar to what we witnessed two years ago.
Photos by Getty Images.