For the New York Rangers, the off-season wasn’t as long as it was for 28 of the other 29 NHL teams. Unfortunately for the Blueshirts, the banner that will hang from the Madison Square Garden rafters for last season will say “2014 Eastern Conference Champions,” and not “Stanley Cup Champions”. The Rangers hope to be the first team since the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins to win the Stanley Cup the year after losing in the final round. Short of a catastrophe, the Rangers won’t have to worry about missing the playoffs, but getting back to where they left off will be quite the challenge.
Even though the Rangers will be opening the season in St. Louis, they won’t have to endure a monster October road trip to start the season like they have the past three seasons (due to the Madison Square Garden reservations). The squad that will take the ice Thursday night looks mostly the same from the blueline back, but the composition of the forward group is different.
-Gone are Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot. With Center Derek Stepan being out about a month to start the season, New York finds themselves thin down the middle (and that wasn’t a deep position for them to begin with). Martin St. Louis is going to be in Broadway Blue for his first full season, and he’ll be relied on heavily to be a consistent source of offense. Rick Nash also needs to step up and tally more than 39 points (26 goals / 13 assists) this season. Derick Brassard has graduated from third line center to second line center, and he should be able to handle the increased workload. While all of the pre-season chatter has been about the performance of youngster Anthony Duclair (rightfully so), I’m interested to see how Chris Kreider progresses in his second full NHL season. His 37 points last year were good (17 goals / 20 assists), but hitting the fifty point plateau would be a nice bump for the Rangers secondary scoring. Mats Zuccarello’s 59 points from 2013-14 will also be needed again. Dominic Moore, Lee Stempniak, Tanner Glass and Jesper Fast will be counted on in bottom-six roles.
-Five of the six defensemen return from last season, with only Anton Stralman moving on to Tampa Bay. GM Glen Sather’s biggest signing of free agency was long-time San Jose Shark Dan Boyle. The Rangers have one of the top five groups of defensemen in the league (order them how you’d like: St. Louis, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles being the others), and the addition of Boyle makes a team strength stronger. Ryan McDonagh’s game has grown each season, and being a finalist for the Norris trophy is in his future. Matt Hunwick rounds out the bunch as the team’s seventh defenseman.
-It’ll be the same guy manning the crease for the 10th straight season. It’s no secret that the Rangers go as Henrik Lundqvist goes. His numbers last year were good (33-24-5 / .920 save percentage / 2.36 GAA / five shutouts), but slightly below his usual standard. Hopefully, there won’t be a mystery injury (that plagued him for all of last October) this season. Cam Talbot will be the back-up again (12-6-1 / .941 save percentage / 1.64 GAA / three shutouts), and he should start about 20 games if all goes to plan.
-The Rangers power play wasn’t a strong point of the team last year (18.2%), but it wasn’t a weak point either. They finished the regular season ranked 15th in the league, which is a big step in the right direction considering the way their power play had performed in previous seasons. Dan Boyle should be an upgrade over Brad Richards as the PP quarterback. It will be interesting to see how their Penalty Kill performs this season. New York ranked third in the league last season with a man-disadvantage (85.3%), but key members of the PK unit (Brian Boyle & Benoit Pouliot) are now on other teams.
-The Rangers Stanley Cup run came as a surprise to many last year, but they won’t sneak up on anyone this year. With the amount of roster turnover they had, it remains to be seen how long it’ll take to find chemistry among the top six forwards. If they struggle out of the gate again, the return of Derek Stepan in November will provide a boost. The Rangers are definitely a contender, but anything short of a Conference Finals appearance will be considered a disappointing season.
How I Think They’ll Finish in the Metropolitan Division
- 1) Pittsburgh Penguins (like the New England Patriots in the NFL’s AFC East, it’s tough to pick anyone else until they’ve been dethroned)
- 2) New York Rangers
- 3) Columbus Blue Jackets (a young team on the rise, and Scott Hartnell will fit in nicely with this bunch)
- 4) Washington Capitals (Barry Trotz is a big upgrade behind the bench, and he has legitimate offensive weapons for the first time in his NHL coaching career. The blueline additions of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen help, too)
- 5) New York Islanders (two big additions to the blueline, a steady presence in net, and a healthy John Tavares for the whole season will have them in the playoff mix down the stretch)
- 6) New Jersey Devils (they’ll be right there among the playoff contenders all year. It will be interesting to see how Cory Schneider handles his first seasons as the uncontested #1 goalie.)
- 7) Philadelphia Flyers (they didn’t get worse, but other teams got better, and their blueline is mediocre at best)
- 8) Carolina Hurricanes (“Train wreck” probably isn’t too strong of a word to describe this team)