September 20, 2009
NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy (See also Rangers Eulogy): Seventh in the Eastern Conference and fourth in the Atlantic Division (43-30-9, 95 points). Nearly stunned the Washington Capitals in the first round of the conference playoffs before falling in Game 7, in a series as famous for its underdog performances as it was for showing the world the ramifications for water-based retribution for fan taunting.
When John Tortorella fulfilled his destiny by taking over the Rangers from Tom Renney in February, it was the start of a franchise makeover. Gone would be the days of defensive hockey that kept the Blueshirts competitive but ultimately personality deprived; here would be the days of exciting offensive tempo and the sort of tense atmosphere that New York loves to see hanging over MSG. But Tortorella isn't a circus ringleader; he's more like a surly carnival barker.
GM Glen Sather helped the transformation by trading the elephantine contract of center Scott Gomez(notes) to Montreal, freeing up the dough to make one of the most controversial moves of the summer: a five-year commitment to injury-prone Marian Gaborik(notes) of the Minnesota Wild.
There is a Katz's Delicatessen sandwich-sized question mark about this Rangers team in nearly all of its facets, outside of goaltending. The personality and talent transplants make them more interesting than in the past; but will they work?
Latest Gadgets (Offseason Additions): We all know the plight of having Marian Gaborik on the roster. Healthy, he's without question an elite offensive talent; we're talking a career points per game average of 0.87 that puts him in the top 20 for active players, but one that's well over a point-per-game in the last four seasons. The notion of Gaborik un-tethered from a defensive system is why you sign him to a five-year, $37.5 million contract.
But healthy is a wish your fantasy team makes. Gaborik has missed significant time in two of the last three seasons, and fragility's already been a concern this preseason. He claims injuries aren't going to be an issue during his time with the Rangers. If he's right, then New York has its greatest offensive force on the team since Jagr left for Russia.
Christopher Higgins(notes), native of Smithtown, has flirted with 30 goals in the past and will fit well into this lineup. The Rangers were already quite good in the shootout; adding free-agent and skills competition ace Ales Kotalik(notes) can only improve that (and he's good for over 20 goals, too). For muscle, the Rangers overpaid for Donald Brashear(notes), but he's a good locker room guy that fans are slowly warming to after his cheap shot on Blair Betts(notes) last postseason.
The Rangers also brought in center Brian Boyle(notes) (LA), goalie Chad Johnson(notes) (Pittsburgh), right winger Enver Lisin(notes) and center Tyler Arnason(notes), whose departure from the Colorado Avalanche was greeted by fans with solemn reverence.
To The Recycle Bin (Offseason Subtractions): Scott Gomez will, rightly or wrongly, go down as one of the most disappointing free-agent signings in recent Rangers history. He wasn't able to find chemistry with a myriad of linemates and never found his stride under Renney. His seven-year, $51.5 million contract was finally shipped to Montreal, and it's probably the best for both parties to move on.
The rest of the Rangers' moves were, for the most part, fat-trimming veterans from last year's playoff team: Defenseman Paul Mara(notes) (Montreal), d-man Derek Morris(notes) (Boston), forward Markus Naslund(notes) (retirement). Bruiser Colton Orr(notes) went to Toronto, as all bruisers should. Blair Betts bolted for Philly. Nik Antropov(notes) left for Atlanta when his contract demands proved too much for Sather. Restricted free-agent Nikolai Zherdev(notes) left for the KHL when his complete lack of consistency and fulfillment of potential proved too much for Sather.
The Pitchman (Top Offensive Player): It's Gaborik, but since he'll inevitably get injured, let's see who will be the top dog when he's sitting in the press box, shall we?
That honor falls to Chris Drury(notes), pretty much by default. He had 22 goals and 34 assists last season, after going 25/33 in the first year of his free-agent deal with the Rangers (infamously signed at the same time Gomez inked his). He battled through an injury during an ineffective postseason, but when healthy is the team's most important pivot and a leader on the ice. Lined up with Higgins and Gaborik, it could be his best statistic season with the Rangers this year.
Introducing ... (Potential Breakout Player): Yes, it's a cheat to list two players. But rookie defensemen Matt Gilroy(notes) and Bobby Sanguinetti(notes) both should be in the conversation as breakout players on the New York blueline.
Gilroy is this year's Drew Doughty(notes), except older and without the lofty draft position: A rookie that can step right into the lineup with confident play and immediate impact, thanks to some outstanding years with Boston University. He was hotly pursued as a free agent; the fact that he chose the Rangers shows he's ready for a challenge.
Sanguinetti may not begin the year in New York, but he'll be there eventually this season. The New Jersey native had 42 points in the AHL last year, and is the sort of offensive defenseman the Rangers' blueline sorely needs. All due respect to Wade Redden(notes). Or lack thereof.
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): The rookies, and count former first-rounder Michael Del Zotto(notes) among them, could make an impact this season. That could be vital to the success of this unit, which goes four deep with veterans at the moment.
Wade Redden was about as good as one could hope for: Not an unmitigated disaster but rightfully maligned for defensive inconsistency. His primary partner was Dan Girardi, who ended up a minus-14 last season.
Michal Rozsival(notes) may never get back to that 40-point level he reached two years ago, but he's a decent offensive defenseman -- even if the only reason he isn't the fans' whipping boy is thanks to the presence of Redden. Marc Staal(notes) continues to mature into one of the NHL's top defensive defensemen, even as his reputation as the instrument of choice for aspiring Russian percussionists continues to grow.
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies): There were times against the Washington Capitals in which Henrik Lundqvist(notes) looked unbeatable, stacking his pads low and moving well to stymie one of the League's top offenses. There were other times when he seemed quite human, like when the Capitals snipers put pucks above ice-level. Such is Lundqvist, whose numbers in the regular season don't lie but who has brief fits of inconsistency.
Then again, who doesn't? Lundqvist is one of the NHL's elite net-minders, and that shouldn't change without the benefit of Renney's defensive system. Torts took over on Feb. 23; Lundqvist allowed two or fewer goals in 12 of his 19 games under the new coach.
Plus, he's New York's sexy ice man for 2009, ending a 75-year run for Stan Fischler.
The Inventor (The Coach): The Rangers' playoffs were Tortorella in a nutshell: A coaching scheme that kept the team in the series and nearly had them winning it, combined with circus moments involving Sean Avery(notes) and water bottles (separately, thank the hockey gods) and terse, standoffish postgame interviews that are Tortorella's calling card.
The Rangers hired the antithesis of Renney in about every way possible other than gender, and this team is going to be the first Rangers team that Tortorella really has been able to mold in his image. There will be blowups, controversial comments and moments of absolute outrage; you can hear the New York tabloids salivating now. But there will also be some great hockey played by players who wouldn't otherwise play it if Tortorella didn't have his loafer on their necks.
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Forwards: B (Sean Avery, for the record, played on his best games as a Ranger in Game 7 against the Capitals.)
Special Teams: C (In other words, an ‘A' for the kill and an ‘F' for what's called a "power play" but looks nothing like it.)
Management: C+ (Sather's made some mistakes, some corrections ... and more mistakes?)
"Unfortunately for the New York Rangers, the rest Atlantic Division got much better during the offseason with bigger defensemen, faster forwards, highly-talented draft picks and a very defensive-minded coach. Meanwhile, the Blueshirts signed injury prone and all-star forward Marian Gaborik; also signed the guy who took out Blair Betts in the playoffs last season (Donald Brashear); signed a player that while extremely talented offensively, is also very inconsistent (Ales Kotalik); acquired some player who grew up liking the New York Islanders and told Ranger fans at a fan forum to stop booing (Christopher Higgins).
"The positives -- they have two young defensemen (Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto) that are going to be really, really good and the team still has Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes. Hopefully, another positive this season will be a better power play because if it's not, Ranger fans may be doing more than yelling "shooooooot".
"Overall, what I expect from them this season is what Ranger fans have become used to in the last years -- play well enough to clinch a playoff spot in the last week of the season and get knocked out in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs."
"This year's edition of the Rangers will be faster, younger, and hungrier than previous editions. That being said, the Rangers will only go as far as Marian Gaborik's groin will take them."
"The 'new' New York Rangers will bring a refreshing discipline to the ice, thanks to coach John Tortorella's philosophy of forward-puck-moving strategies and a renewed respect for wearing Blue. Look for a faster team, a much younger squad that wants to be on the ice (excluding "Dubie"), a coach-respecting Sean Avery, a league-wide referee ban on giving Sean Avery some slack, and, most importantly, an improved power play - one that actually scores goals and wins games.
"So with all of these improvements, come March, expect great stress and a nail-biting four weeks while we battle for 7th or 8th place in the East!!!?"
"With Brandon Dubinsky holding out (and eventually signing) and Marian Gaborik already missing games and practices the optimism I had just a few weeks ago is disappearing fast. The Rangers should be able to make the playoffs but like everyone else is going to predict, a Gaborik-less Rangers could result in even less offense than last season and that's scary!"
"What to expect from this year's Rangers? Expect the season's success or failure to rest solidly on Marion Gaborik's groin and Henrik Lundqvist's ability to stay fresh and focused despite the Olympics. Expect Sean Avery to make the headlines more often for what he does off the ice than for what he does on it. Expect the Rangers to once again struggle to score goals, while giving up more than they did a year ago. Expect to hear ‘Fire Sather' chants in The World's Most Frustrated Arena at the first sign of a mid-season slump. Expect a couple of kids to make names for themselves, and a couple of vets to disappoint. And expect John Tortorella to curse at Larry Brooks at least once before Thanksgiving. Just don't expect them to be as boring to watch as last year's team."
"Ever since the lockout, this team has gotten younger and younger. With the departure of Gomez, Naslund, Betts,
Redden,Mara, Morris, Antropov, Zherdev, Orr, and Sjostrom, there are a lot of spots to fill. Most of those spots are likely going to younger (and possibly) more talented players.
"Not since the lockout has the team been predicted to finish so low. Coincidentally (and I'm sure none of these rankings have anything to do with this) it's an Olympic year. Hopefully, this time around, new coach John Tortorella will manage Lundqvist's playing time to prevent him from being used up more than Elisha Cuthbert by the end of the season, and Marian Gaborik' won't go punching any Devils.
"If all goes to plan, the Rangers have a shot of making the playoffs. But it will most likely be another early exit."
"You can flip a coin on this season's Ranger squad. Given that Glen Sather went into the offseason with the risk/reward mentality, the team he pieced together will either battle for one of the lower playoff spots or challenge for a lotto pick. Should Henrik Lundqvist get hurt -- either in a Blueshirt or while wearing the Tre Kronor -- I say lotto pick."
Don Draper Says ...
"I was in California. Everything's new, and it's clean. The people are filled with hope. New York City is in decay, but Madison Square Garden is the beginning of a new city on a hill. Unless Gaborik blows out his groin in October."
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team): It's cliché to say "health," but the Rangers with or without Gaborik for at least 65 games are the Rangers in or out of the playoffs. They simply don't have the offensive weaponry required to play Tortorella hockey for 82 games if he's not there. That isn't to say they can't play shutdown defense ala Renney, because they did just that in the playoffs. But eventually, teams that play that style need goals, too.
Can the defensemen solidify? Can the players like Brandon Dubinsky (finally signed and with 41 points last season), Ryan Callahan(notes) (22 goals), Chris Higgins and promising rookie Artem Anisimov(notes) improve the team offense under Torts? How much will Vaclav Prospal(notes), an instant-offense kind of guy, give them?
Warranty Expires (Prediction): The Rangers are a playoff bubble team, especially in the Atlantic Division. If may come down to New York and New Jersey for a playoff spot, in which case the Rangers are going to need across the board improvement from their offensive players to keep pace in the conference. If nothing else, they'll be entertaining; but we'd expect nothing less from Fonzie and the NHL's leading insult comic.