On Thursday, hockey training camps finally opened. The Rangers returned to their practice facility in Greenburgh for the official start of camp. Players had been doing skating prior. With workouts finally underway along with scrimmages, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault has turned his attention to winning the Stanley Cup in his third season. His new motto is Failure is Not an Option.
“With the salary cap, there’s spots available, ice times available and roles available. And we’re hoping some of the guys are gonna come in and find a way to contribute a little more than they have in the past.” Vigneault told a group of reporters at his opening press conference Thursday.
“And if you look at the youth we have with this group and rightfully so, I think we should expect more from certain guys and without naming names, it’s normal to expect more from Kreisy, Hayesy, Brass, Steps, etc. … I believe that training camp is gonna unfold and players are gonna make those decisions for us.”
Obviously, Vigneault is referring to Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan. In order for the team to be successful, Kreider and Hayes must continue to improve. Ditto for J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast, who were key contributors last Spring. From a Rangers perspective, it’ll be intriguing to see what strides the younger players can make. With the departures of Martin St. Louis (retirement) and Carl Hagelin (traded to Ducks), it puts more emphasis on the kids stepping up. Here are a few questions entering the season:
1.Is this the year Kreider breaks out? In Year 2, the physically gifted 24-year old former ’09 first round pick improved to a career best 21 goals, 25 assists, 46 points and 88 penalty minutes with a plus-24 rating in 80 games. Playing mostly with former Team USA World Junior Championship linemate Stepan, Kreider continued to develop becoming one of the game’s better young power forwards. In the postseason, he scored seven times with two helpers. A rare player who combines size, strength, speed and skill, the potential is there to score 30 goals and hit the 60-point mark.
2.Should Hayes stay at center or wing? In his rookie season, the 23-year old former Boston College standout impressed the coaching staff who used him almost exclusively to center the third line. Hayes showed rapid improvement in the second half with 28 of his 45 points (17-28-45) coming from February thru April (35 games). His first playoffs was inconsistent finishing with two goals and five assists. If Vigneault tries him on the wing to replace St. Louis’ scoring, that probably leaves Miller to center the third line. Having Hayes stay in the middle makes them a deeper team.
3.What is Miller’s role? Last year, Vigneault bounced the former 2011 first round pick around using him everywhere. Following a stint in Hartford, Miller finally stuck going from a supporting role to playing on the second line with Stepan and Kreider. The All-American trio had good chemistry with Miller fitting in as a complementary two-way forward with edge. When he wasn’t on the wing, he also took faceoffs (93-and-112). Much depends on what Vigneault does with Hayes.
4.How much should be expected of Emerson Etem? In the trade of Hagelin to Anaheim, the key player they got back was the 23-year old Etem. A former Ducks 2010 first round pick, he still hasn’t become the player most expected totaling 15 goals and 31 points in 112 games. Last postseason, he scored three times in a dozen games. Etem brings size going 6-1, 206 pounds. Can he replace the speedy Hagelin who was counted on for secondary scoring and a key penalty killer? Let’s see how he does in preseason.
5.What kind of roles will Jarrett Stoll and Viktor Stalberg have? Both Stoll and Stalberg are vets who come over from the West coast. Of course, one has baggage with the 33-year old Stoll having been caught with cocaine possession at a Las Vegas resort. The charge was reduced to a misdemeanor. A former King who was part of two Stanley Cup winners, he’s a right-handed center who can win draws. Not unlike Dominic Moore, Stoll is a solid depth player who gets his nose dirty. Are he and Moore both on the fourth line? What about the 29-year old Stalberg who once was part of the 2013 Blackhawks Cup? Injuries limited him to 25 games with Nashville last year. If the idea is to have him play on the third line, I’m not sure it’s realistic. I believe he’s better served as a fourth line energy guy replacing Tanner Glass. I prefer Fast on the third line following a solid postseason.
6.Will Mats Zuccarello be the same player? When he went down in Game 5 of the first round, it wasn’t even certain the 28-year old Zuccarello would return. Little did we know how seriously hurt he was. It was later revealed that Zucc suffered a brain contusion and skull fracture. At one point, he even lost his ability to speak before being retaught from a speech therapist. Very scary. Fortunately, Zuccarello is back without any restrictions. A very skilled player with tremendous heart, will he still play the same hard nosed style that made him one of the team’s most valuable forwards? In Year 1 of a four-year contract that pays him $4.5 million per season, the Rangers hope so.
7.How will Keith Yandle perform in a contract year? When former Rangers architect Glen Sather rolled the dice on Yandle at the trade deadline, he gave up top prospect Anthony Duclair and threw away more draft picks all in an attempt to win now. Ironically, Yandle finished with the exact same output (2-9-11) in the playoffs as he did in the final 21 regular season games as a Blueshirt. He was their best defenseman against the Lightning tallying seven of his 11 points in the Eastern Conference Final. The risk is he just turned 29 and is in the final year of a contract that pays him $5.75 million. The Coyotes pick up half the tab. With the Rangers locked in long-term with Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Ryan McDonagh, there’s a very good chance they’re gonna lose Yandle next summer.
8.How much if any will the Rangers miss Cam Talbot? When Henrik Lundqvist went down last January, the club had a great reliever in Talbot. All the popular backup did was win helping lead the team to the league’s best record. He won 21 games and posted five shutouts with a 2.21 goals-against-average and .926 save percentage. That kind of performance boosted his value allowing the Blueshirts to trade him to the Oilers at the 2015 Draft. Replacing him won’t be easy. Former Hawks backup Antti Raanta has been given the task. Despite posting a 1.89 GAA and .936 save percentage with seven wins, he lost the job to Scott Darling. Now, he comes in on a one-year deal with Magnus Hellberg likely the Hartford starter until Mackenzie Skapski is ready. That could translate to more starts for Lundqvist which means he must stay healthy.
9.How much will they miss St. Louis and Hagelin? It depends largely on Hayes, Miller and Fast with help coming from Etem and Stalberg. Even with his struggles at the end, St. Louis had 52 points (21-31-52). His leadership was unquestioned. What he accomplished in 2014 shouldn’t be forgotten. But Slats gave up an awful lot. As for Hagelin, they will miss his speed and forechecking ability. He is a solid possession player who creates shorthanded chances. The 17-18-35 in all 82 aren’t easily replaced. Maybe a Miller settles into that role. I’d love to see Fast become that player but am not sure of his offensive upside.
10.Can a Rick Nash led team win the Stanley Cup? Make no mistake about it. The 31-year old Nash had his best overall season scoring 40-or-more goals for the third time in his career with a career high 42 to go with 27 assists for a team-leading 69 points in 79 contests. He also posted a career best plus-29 rating becoming a two-way threat with a team-leading four shorthanded goals. The Big Easy followed that up with a solid postseason tallying five goals and nine helpers for 14 points ranking second behind Brassard (16). That included a playoff career high four points (1-3-4) in the Rangers’ Game 6 win at Tampa. However, like many teammates he was a no show in a disappointing Game 7. Unquestionably, Nash is the Rangers’ best offensive player. In three postseasons, he’s totaled nine goals and 20 assists for 29 points in 56 games. Last Spring was an improvement. Can he build upon it and lead this team to a Cup in a improved East?
11.How much do Girardi and Staal have left? Both are key veteran leaders on the blueline who make up half the top four. Each are in long-term deals which pay them a combined 11.2 million on the cap. Both have showed signs of slowing down. Neither is a great skater or big offensive contributor which Vigneault covets. Both help the team in other ways by doing the gritty defensive stuff that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. Danny G and Staal always give 100 percent and each played hurt last postseason yet are still heavily critiqued. Both are warriors who need to win now. The window is closing. Ditto on Dan Boyle, who could retire after the season.
12.Will the power play ever live up to expectations? The power play has been a sore spot for Garden Faithful since Neil Smith traded away Sergei Zubov. Perhaps with a full year of Yandle and Boyle, it’ll finally translate to a more consistent level.
14.If push comes to shove, will Vigneault adjust his strategy to win in the postseason? He’s come close twice losing in the Stanley Cup Final with the Canucks and Rangers. Last year still stings. The Rangers were shutout on home ice in Games 5 and 7 costing them a chance at playing for Lord Stanley. That’s unacceptable. AV was outcoached by nauseating Bolts coach Jon Cooper. About as loathsome a coach in sports. That one still hurts.