For the first time in a long time, the New York Rangers come in to a season being one of the top contenders for the Stanley Cup. The Blueshirts Conference Finals appearance was their strongest finish since the 1997 season. While the Rangers have been a playoff contender since the 2004-05 lockout, this is the first time in a while that they are being talked about as a top team heading in to a season. The Rangers didn’t make many changes, but the ones they did were key.
-Brandon Prust: Prust was a popular guy in the locker room, a good 3rd line player, solid penalty killer, and wasn’t afraid to drop the gloves. Montreal was willing to pay a little extra to get him, and he should bring the same contributions north of the border.
-Artem Anisimov: Anisimov is a solid center, but he’s inconsistent. He’ll notch 30-40 points a season, but they come in bursts.
-Brandon Dubinsky: Dubinsky is definitely worthy of being a part of most team’s top two lines, but he no longer had a place on the Rangers. He certainly won’t replace Nash in the offensive categories, but Columbus fans will love the edge he plays with.
-Ruslan Fedotenko: He was a fine contributor for the salary he was making, but his age started to show last season.
-Rick Nash: It was clear the Rangers needed offense, and signing a perennial 30-40 goal scorer is the way to address that. Nash is in uncharted waters for his NHL career. He went from being a team’s only offensive option in a college football market to being one of the top scoring options (Gaborik being the other) in New York City.
-Arron Asham: He’ll be replacing Brandon Prust’s role on the team. He’s a slight downgrade from Prust, but he knows how to handle the Atlantic Division well (the Rangers are his 5th stop in the division).
-Taylor Pyatt: He gives the Rangers size and quality depth on the secondary lines. He’s basically replacing Fedotenko’s role on the team, but is a size upgrade.
-Jeff Halpern: Halpern is a faceoff specialist and a seasoned veteran. He’ll provide guidance to a roster that shades on the younger side.
The Rangers will continue to be a tough team in their own end. The Rangers blueline has been one of their strengths over the past few seasons, and 2013 won’t be any different. The Rangers top pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh was one of toughest to go against last season. Another season of experience should make McDonagh even better. Having Marc Staal healthy from the beginning of the season is a huge plus. Michael Del Zotto’s fresh 2 year contract was well deserved – 10 Goals and 41 points last season made his awful sophomore season seem distant in the rearview mirror. The only question mark is who the 3rd pairing will be on a night to night basis. It can be any pairing amongst Anton Stralman, Stu Bickel, Steve Eminger, or Matt Gilroy (currently playing in the AHL). We still don’t know what Michael Sauer’s future holds due to a concussion in a December 2011 game against Toronto.
The main strength of the Rangers for the past seven seasons has been between the pipes with Henrik Lundqvist (39-18-5 / 1.97 GAA, .930 Save %). The Swede earned his first Vezina trophy last June after being nominated three prior times. As long as Henrik is healthy, he gives the Rangers a chance to go deep in to the playoffs every year. With a condensed schedule, having a back-up goalie like Martin Biron (12-6-2 / 2.46 GAA, / 904 Save %) allows the Rangers to play him once a week to keep Hank fresh for a long playoff run.
The Rangers needed more offense, and the acquisition of Rick Nash is supposed to fix that. Trying to figure out what the line combos will be right now is tough (John Tortorella changes lines more than Taylor Swift changes boyfriends), but you can rest assure the Top 6 will likely consist of Nash, Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, and Carl Hagelin. The Rangers have a well-balanced group of size (Brian Boyle, Pyatt, Mike Rupp), toughness (Rupp, Asham), speed (Chris Kreider, Hagelin, Stepan), playmakers (Richards, Stepan), and finishers (Nash, Gaborik). Ryan Callahan isn’t a speedy guy, but the team captain brings leadership and everything else to the table.
The big question for this year is how the condensed season will affect the Rangers. You can make the argument that less recovery time between games in a condensed schedule will hurt the Rangers due to their physical/shot-blocking style of play. I’ll counter that and say the shortened season will benefit the Rangers. Instead of heading in to the playoffs with 82 games of wear and tear, they’ll head in with only 48. I think this could be a very memorable year for the Rangers if they don’t see Pittsburgh in the playoffs. The Penguins are the one team I don’t think the Blueshirts match up well against in a seven game series. If they avoid heading to the Steel City in the playoffs, they could be hoisting something else with the initials “S.C.” in late June.