Yes, indeed, despite the promise of impending labor Armageddon and a prolonged work-stoppage, your friends at Puck Daddy are previewing the 2012-13 NHL season (whenever the heck it starts). Why? Because this is the most important election in the history of all-time ever, and you need to know the candidates — like the New York Rangers.
After Game No. 44 last season, the New York Rangers had 62 points. Their signing of Brad Richards had solidified their offense. They were getting stellar defensive play. The Winter Classic and "24/7" experiences hadn't derailed them. They were looking quite good.
And then James Dolan, the Rangers' reclusive owner, strolled into a press conference and declared that the team was "pretty close" to winning the Stanley Cup — speaking to the media for the first time since the 2005-06 season.
Hey, no pressure.
The Rangers finished atop the Eastern Conference with 109 points, and survived a brutal series against the upstart Ottawa Senators. The Washington Capitals also took the Rangers to seven games, as their defense trumped that of Dale Hunter. But their gas ran out against the New Jersey Devils, who ousted the Rangers in six games with an OT win in Jersey, before eventually falling to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final.
What did the Rangers need to edge closer to the Cup that Dolan believes will be theirs eventually?
Enter Rick Nash.
Nash opted out of Columbus, but controlled his destination via a no-movement clause. The Rangers were always at the top of his list, and it was just a matter of determining the players going the other way.
The final tally for the 28-year-old winger: Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and a first-round draft pick. That's two forwards from the Rangers' top six; and in Dubinsky, a player that did all the little things right in Coach John Tortorella's system.
[ Nicholas J. Cotsonika: Collusion question goes to the heart of NHL lockout]
Among the other Rangers who left last year's roster: Brandon Prust, their pugnacious penalty killing ace, signed with Montreal; Ruslan Fedotenko, veteran forward, went to the Flyers; center John Mitchell signed with Colorado; and Jeff Woywitka signed in St. Louis.
Oh, and Sean Avery retired. Or something.
Headed to the Rangers: Arron Asham, puncher of Beagles, signed a 2-year deal; Michael Haley, another tough forward from the Islanders, also signed a 2-year deal; Taylor Pyatt, formerly of the Coyotes, inked a 2-year deal; and veteran Jeff Halpern left the Capitals for the Rangers on a 1-year deal.
At forward … Richards saw his points per game average drop below 1.00 for the first time in three years (0.80), but his impact on the Rangers was significant — as a two-way forward and on special teams, where he led them with 24 points.
The assumption is that he'll play with Nash, who potted over 30 goals in seven of his nine seasons in Columbus despite never playing with a center the caliber of Richards. Thus, the expectations are clear: Getting back to the 40-goal plateau for the first time since 2009.
The other offensive star for the Rangers is Marian Gaborik, who is currently — wait for it — injured. Gabby had a team best 41 goals and 76 points in 82 games last season. He'll anchor the team's second line when he returns with Ryan Callahan, the Rangers' captain who commands attention on both ends of the rink and scored 13 power-play goals last season.
The emergence of three young players helped make Dubinsky and Anisimov expendable. Carl Hagelin's rookie year was stellar — 38 points in 64 games, and showing blazing speed. Derek Stepan struggled at times in his sophomore campaign, but still tallied 51 points. Then there was Chris Kreider, the NCAA star who joined the Rangers for the playoffs and tallied five goals in 18 games. He was an untouchable in the Nash trade talks, and now everyone understood why.
Down the lineup, Brian Boyle couldn't reproduce his 21-goal effort but his size and grit were essential for the Rangers. Mike Rupp, Halpern and Pyatt will offer veteran savvy and some offense. Asham, meanwhile, is more than just a pair of fists flying, especially on the forecheck.
On defense … Dan Girardi should have been a bigger factor in the Norris Trophy race, anchoring the Rangers' defense with 185 blocked shots and adding 29 points. His pairing with Ryan McDonagh (32 points) was one of the best in the League.
Marc Staal's road back from his concussion cut his season to 46 games and messed with his effectiveness, but he's a standout defensive defenseman. He also allows Michael Del Zotto to be Michael Del Zotto, for better or worse. MDZ had 41 points last season and played to a plus-20, but was a liability in the postseason, in particular.
Stu Bickel was shuffled around the lineup and, at times, didn't see the ice in the playoffs. Anton Stralman ha 18 points in 51 games. Steve Eminger and Sean Collins are also in the mix. But the real question for the Rangers — could Michael Sauer, who was limited to 19 games last season due to a concussion, return to ever game status?
In goal … Lundqvist won his first Vezina Trophy thanks to a dominating season: 1.97 GAA and a .930 save percentage. But once again, his numbers faded late in a playoff series, as the Devils solved him for 10 goals in three straight losses. He's arguably the best goalie in the NHL and provides the backbone for Tortorella's system. Also, dreamy.
Marty Biron will back him up again this season.
The New York Rangers victory song. Written in 1940. (Seriously).
Tortorella is one of the most successful coaches in the National Hockey League for a reason. He demands results from players, and receives them. His style of hockey is effective on both ends of the ice with the right personal — the added pop of Richards and now Nash underscores this.
But most of all, he's a lightning rod for the media whose act — while it wore thin for some in the playoffs — can change the narrative of a game or a series in one expletive.
GM Glen Sather has survived many "FIRE SATHER" campaigns during his 12 years as Rangers president. His mistakes from early in his tenure are a distant memory now that the team is a balanced combination of high-priced-but-in-their-prime veterans, homegrown talent and young burgeoning stars. Dolan can make a boast about being close to winning the Cup because Sather built such a contender. He's come a long way from the Scott Gomez/Chris Drury critique.
Sure, saying "Lundqvist" is like choosing a quarterback for "key to an NFL team," but it's King Henrik was in the Hart Trophy conversation for a reason last season. If the Rangers lose Gaborik, they have Nash. If they lose Girardi, they have Staal. If they lose Lundqvist … well, best not to lose Lundqvist.
Kreider's postseason performance has placed him as the odds-on favorite to win the Calder this season. His skills set is absurd, his upside tremendous and he's going to skate with some potent offensive weapons.
With the Rangers, it's all about expectations. Chris Drury is considered by some to have been a bust for never living up to his salary, despite having been a very good player for the Rangers. So where are the expectations for Nash, with the Rangers having given up a popular player in Dubinsky in a blockbuster deal and with his significant cap hit? Factor in a New York media that's substantially more pressure-cooker than Columbus, and there's always the chance Nash doesn't hit the mark with the Rangers.
"What would hockey be like without referees and linesman?
"Chaos. Dangerous. As inept as that Packers/Seahawks game in the NFL a few days ago.
"National Hockey League referees and linesmen are models of integrity. Consistency. Men who stand up and make sure our game doesn't descend into corruption.
"Yeah, tell that to Rangers Coach John Tortorella.
"He's the one who, after the Winter Classic, had the audacity to question whether hard-working game officials would deliberately call for a penalty shot at the end of regulation in an attempt to extend a nationally televised game into overtime.
"I'm not sure if NBC got together with the refs to turn this into an overtime game …"
"Here's what we're sure of, Mr. Tortorella: You're a jerk face. A mean jerk face.
"Paid for by Friends of Dennis LaRue."
The Rangers should win the East and play for the Stanley Cup. There isn't a team that's deeper, save for them needing one more workhorse on the blue line. Tortorella will coach a team with at least three established offensive stars, a burgeoning one in Kreider and a roster of blue-collar players that play his system well. Lundqvist has yet to backstop a team out of the conference; perhaps not having him play 14 games in the first two rounds would serve him well this postseason.
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