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Rangers' rebuild put to the test

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As one of just eight teams still standing after the first round of playoffs the last two seasons, the New York Rangers decided that would be as close to the Stanley Cup as they'd get with that group.

Instead of hoping for better results next time, management decided to take a pretty good team and try to make it better.

The Rangers said so long to Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Sean Avery, Fedor Tyutin, Christian Backman, Marek Malik, Jason Strudwick, Ryan Hollweg and possibly Brendan Shanahan. And they're saying hello to Wade Redden, Markus Naslund, Dmitri Kalinin, Nikolai Zherdev, Patrick Rissmiller, Dan Fritsche and Aaron Voros.

New York general manager Glen Sather knows a thing or two about talent, so fans of the Blueshirts are just going to have to trust him on this one. It will definitely be a different vibe in Midtown, but it certainly appears the potential is there to go different and go younger without giving up much in terms of success along the lines of Detroit or Dallas.

While coach Tom Renney instilled an effective five-man system that was pretty iron-tight defensively, there is no question the Rangers struggled to score goals. Whether that was Renney's insistence on defense first or the fact that New York's high-profile scorers started to go downhill can be debated.

The merits of not pursuing Jagr also can be argued. His production took a sharp decline the last three seasons, from 54 goals and 123 points in 2005-06 to 30 goals and 96 points in 2006-07, and finally to 25 goals and 71 points last year. He appeared in all 82 games all three years. Jagr was, however, a force during the playoffs against the Devils and Penguins by contributing 15 points in 10 games. So you're left to wonder if he could still turn it on when he wants. Either way, the Rangers are done guessing, and no other GM wanted to take the gamble either.

Shanahan is in camp but remains unsigned. His status is uncertain. He wants to continue to play, and he wants it to be with the Rangers. It almost appears the team is doing him a favor by allowing him to remain visible. It's very possible, however, the team will have lost two Hall of Famers by opening night, which comes Oct. 4 in Prague.

Last season: 42-27-13, 97 points, third place Atlantic Division, fifth place Eastern Conference. Their seven-year playoff drought a distant memory, the Rangers advanced to the postseason for the third straight year and rolled to an impressive five-game victory in the first round over New Jersey. New York ran into a determined Pittsburgh team in the conference semifinals and dropped a five-game series after losing the first three games.

Imports: D Wade Redden (2007-08 team: Ottawa Senators), LW Markus Naslund (Vancouver Canucks), RW Nikolai Zherdev (Columbus Blue Jackets), C Dan Fritsche (Columbus Blue Jackets), D Dmitri Kalinin (Buffalo Sabres), LW Patrick Rissmiller (San Jose Sharks), LW Aaron Voros (Minnesota Wild), RW Andreas Jamtin (Sweden), D Brian Fahey (minors).

Exports: RW Jaromir Jagr (Russia), LW Sean Avery (Dallas Stars), D Fedor Tyutin (Columbus Blue Jackets), D Christian Backman (Columbus Blue Jackets), LW Martin Straka (Europe), D Jason Strudwick (Edmonton Oilers), D Marek Malik (available free agent), RW Alex Bourret (Phoenix Coyotes), LW Ryan Hollweg (Toronto Maple Leafs).

Three keys to the season: First, there has never been a better time for an extended stay together than this late preseason and early regular season for New York. Opening the season overseas is something of an inconvenience for most NHL teams, but not for New York considering how important chemistry and bonding is for this new group. The Rangers are looking to fold in at least four new forwards – Naslund, Zherdev, Rissmiller and Fritsche. The hope is that Naslund has something left and that Zherdev can fulfill suppressed potential. If so, they could form a first line centered by Scott Gomez. The real key to the offense is the added scoring expected from youngsters Nigel Dawes, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Petr Prucha. The lines might not appear as dynamic as in the recent past, but there might be better balance, speed and determination with this group.

Second, the defense is going to have a decidedly different look, too, with the ultimate goal to move the puck out quicker and more efficiently. Expect the Ottawa castoff Redden to get paired with up-and-coming Michal Rozsival, the 30-year-old Czech who is on everyone's radar now. It doesn't seem to matter that Marc Staal is only 21 years old. Like all the other Staals, he's mature beyond his years and ready to take on as much responsibility as needed. He figures to make up half a second pair with either Dan Girardi or Kalinin if the ex-Sabre shows he deserves top-four minutes. Paul Mara rounds out the regulars on a blue line that should skate well, pass well, but will have to answer to whether there's enough physical presence to be effective.

Third – and he's as important to the overall scheme as anyone – but goalie Henrik Lundqvist will have to be the man for the Rangers. Lundqvist has been a Vezina finalist all three seasons he's been in the league. He led the NHL with 10 shutouts last season. The fact is, he could probably even be better. Lundqvist is improving on this, but he still goes down too often and is a bit vulnerable on shots off the ice. Lundqvist is immensely popular on Broadway, and he has a sincere connection with the fans. Goalies don't wear leadership designations on their jersey tops, but make no mistake, Lundqvist is a leader on this team, and he may have to fill even more of that void with the departure of some strong personalities.

On the hot seat: Renney has done a nice job with this team, putting in a system that was tough to beat last season even though he rarely gets enough credit for that. He also managed a number of big egos in a challenging setting, often forced to read early in his tenure that his job was on the line. This is not to suggest it's on the line again, but you have to remember this is New York and there's no time for failure. Renney has a big task to keep the Rangers rolling forward as they change on the fly. A step back could result in more change.

Poised to blossom: Callahan will be a huge fan favorite at Madison Square Garden, if he isn't there already. People want to see goals and points, and he can supply those, but take a look at the "hits" column on the score sheet and in virtually every game it's Callahan who leads the team by a wide margin. With the departure of Avery, the Rangers are going to need someone to step up and be that agitating player who doesn't hurt you when he's on the ice. Callahan might be the perfect fit.

Analysis and prediction: Like the Pacific and Northwest, the Rangers are in an extremely competitive and balanced Atlantic Division. There just isn't much difference between at least four of the teams – Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey and the Rangers. Just seven points separated those four teams in the final standings last season. The Rangers are hard to gauge this early, and it's a complete guess how chemistry will develop. Putting faith in Sather and Renney, our guess is the Rangers will be good enough to get into the postseason but fall short of being among the elite.