The first two years under coach Alain Vigneault ended in bitter disappointment for the Rangers. With the start of the ’15-16 season two days away when they’ll visit the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks and watch them raise the banner, it’ll be a reminder of what the Blueshirts are striving for.
For a team who reached the Stanley Cup Final and Conference Finals the past two seasons, the goal remains the same. The bitter taste from the third period of Game 7 against the Lightning on home ice still stings. But it’s in the past for mostly the same cast that’s been on the cusp of delivering the franchise’s fifth championship. The challenge becomes tougher with teams inside the Metropolitan Division improving while they stood pat.
FORWARDS: New general manager Jeff Gorton lost Martin St. Louis to retirement and traded Carl Hagelin due to cap considerations in the off-season. Both were key contributors on and off the ice. Vigneault is looking for younger players to emerge. The likeliest candidates are Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller. Both developed well last season. Hayes centered the third line while Miller moved around before finishing on the second line with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider. When the season begins, Vigneault will try Hayes on the wing and have Miller play on a third line with rookie center Oscar Lindberg and veteran Viktor Stalberg.
The 29-year old Stalberg was a free agent move. A former Cup winner with the Hawks, he had a good camp and is healthy. He had early chemistry with Lindberg, who is finally ready to be a regular. The 23-year old Swede impressed enough to be given the third line center. If he can hold his own and be consistent on face-offs, that could be a big key.
Gorton also brought in former Kings center Jarret Stoll. A proven vet who won two Cups in Hollywood, he gives the Rangers a right-handed checking pivot capable of winning draws and killing penalties. An alternative to Dominic Moore, who Vigneault has shifted to wing. Moore of course has proven his versatility. A once team weakness could become a strength in the face-off circle.
The Blueshirts’ top two centers remain Stepan and Derick Brassard. Stepan enters the first year of a new contract that pays him an average of $6.5 million per season. Only 25, he’s become a team leader who the coaching staff can count on in any key situation. Forming a deadly shorthanded duo with top scorer Rick Nash, Stepan is a superb penalty killer with great hockey instincts. A pass first center who makes players around him better, this could be the season he not only reaches 60 points but hits 70.
Brassard anchors the top line centering Nash and Mats Zuccarello. Fresh off a career best 60 points (19-41-60), the 28-year old remains a big performer pacing the club with 16 points last postseason. His creative play making meshes well with Nash, who scored a career high 42 goals. Now 31, he’s a more complete player. But will Vigneault lessen the burden on him? In the postseason, Nash remains an enigma who doesn’t finish enough scoring five times last Spring. He did have 14 points which was an improvement.
Zuccarello is perhaps the biggest story. After taking a puck to the helmet and sustaining a brain contusion and skull fracture that forced him to miss the final two rounds, he’s back fully healthy. It’s a miracle the 28-year old Norwegian can even play. He’s looked good so far. But how will he perform over a full 82-game schedule? Will it be the same lovable Zucc MSG adores?
While much of the focus is on Hayes and Miller to step up, the biggest key could be Kreider. The 24-year old is on the verge of stardom. A big, fast and imposing power forward, he’s capable of 30 goals, 60 points and 100 penalty minutes. If he can build on the preseason where he looked even faster and more dangerous, the sky’s the limit. For the Blueshirts to be successful, they need more consistency from Kreider.
One of last Spring’s surprises was Jesper Fast. Fast like his name, he plays a smart two-way game and always hustles. Expect him to be used a penalty kill role helping replace Hagelin. It’ll be fitting if another gritty Swede helps fill in for his fellow countryman who now has a bigger role with Anaheim.
Depth wise, the Rangers will start with 14 forwards with the coaching staff opting to keep both Emerson Etem (acquired from Ducks) and Tanner Glass. When they moved Hagelin, Etem came back in the deal that allowed them to move up and select Ryan Gropp. A former first round pick, he’s yet to establish himself and was criticized by Gorton following a disappointing camp. He’ll have to earn ice-time under Vigneault.
As for Glass, he apparently did enough to stay. A great team guy who will stand up for teammates, he’s an AV favorite. As a 14th forward, there’s no harm in keeping him. It’s not like he’ll play daily and all postseason like last year. Glass does carry a cap hit of $1.45 million which brings the Rangers very close to the cap max. They have virtually no room.
DEFENSEMEN: The defense remains intact. It’ll be the same group from last Spring. Captain Ryan McDonagh anchors the blue line and is relied on for big minutes drawing key assignments with partner Dan Girardi. McDonagh is a superb skater who can make good reads and help transition which Vigneault prefers. Girardi is the nuts and bolts guy who doesn’t get enough credit for a taxing style. He’s the glue of the team. The Rangers Iron Man may see his minutes decrease out of necessity. They need him fresh for the postseason.
When it comes down to it, former GM Glen Sather’s acquisition of Keith Yandle was huge because it upgraded the defense. It took him some time but once he adjusted to Vigneault’s up tempo system, Yandle fit in well. A pass oriented D who is a huge asset on the power play, he’s unselfish to a fault. But when he shoots, it’s usually on target. In a walk year with unrestricted status in 2016, expect a big year out of Yandle who should eclipse the 50-point mark. If he’s used right, that could mean less minutes for Marc Staal, who is an old 28.
Staal is cut out of the same cloth as Girardi. He won’t blow anyone away but is solid positionally and uses a long stick to break up plays. It feels like forever since Staal debuted in ’07-08 eliminating the Devils with a late goal. He’s been through a lot overcoming injuries to remain a top four defenseman who draws secondary assignments and is a big penalty killer. His skating isn’t what it was which is a concern. But he’s a smart player and team leader. Like Girardi, they must keep Staal fresh.
Dan Boyle and Kevin Klein hardly distinguished themselves in preseason. Hopefully when it starts up for real, they’ll raise their level. Boyle struggled last year battling injury. But he had his moments in the postseason offensively which is why he was brought in. The 39-year old is best utilized in the offensive zone so they can take advantage of his skills. Defensively, he is mistake prone but battles hard. As for Klein, he had a career year offensively and was a standout in his first full season under Vigneault. However, he wasn’t the same player when he returned in the playoffs. How he performs early is worth watching.
If either Boyle or Klein struggle, a new face could finally get the opportunity to shine. Former 2010 first round pick Dylan McIlrath made the team with a strong camp. Showing improved skating and better judgment, the 23-year old behemoth can provide the club with a physical element they have lacked. It’ll be intriguing to see how Vigneault handles McIlrath in his rookie season. If he doesn’t play enough, they can designate him for conditioning and recall vet Raphael Diaz.
GOALIES: For the Blueshirts, the song remains the same. Henrik Lundqvist enters his 11th year. The bitter taste of Game 7 is a motivator for the affable 33-year old Swede. King Henrik will have to be at his peak without popular backup Cam Talbot (traded to Oilers). If preseason is any indication, Lundqvist could be in for a big season. I believe he’ll finally win 40 games and take his second Vezina.
Former Hawk Antti Raanta is the backup. He did receive his Stanley Cup ring. But it’s sad that he wasn’t included on the Cup. However, Raanta has taken a positive approach to his return to Chicago. He’s proven capable in the NHL. But no one should expect him to be as good as Talbot. As long as Lundqvist stays healthy, he won’t have to be.
COACH: In his first two seasons, Vigneault has had a lot of success guiding the team to its first Stanley Cup Final since ’94 and winning the President’s Trophy. Getting shutout at home in Games 5 and 7 in the Eastern Conference Final had to hurt. This is a coach who’s been close so many times. If he wants to win the big one and parade down the Canyon of Heroes, AV will have to make key adjustments on the fly when necessary. That’s the only criticism.
ANALYSIS: There’s enough experience and leadership for this team to succeed. How well they’ll do depends largely on the young guns. It doesn’t matter where they finish as long as they make the postseason. They’ll get strong competition in the division from the Caps, Pens, Isles and Blue Jackets. I don’t see them winning the Metro and think they’ll be hard pressed to match last year.
PREDICTION: 2nd place Metro Division 102 points