Sat Sep 20 02:49pm EDT
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: Fifth place in the Eastern Conference (42-27-13, 97 points), lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference semifinals. It's rather stunning to think about how underplayed the reconfiguration of the New York Rangers has been this off-season. The Blueshirts' flirtation with Mats Sundin and the Dolans' feud with the NHL received more attention than the bold maneuverings of GM Glen Sather.
Perhaps the free-agent splash of the previous off-season, or the inevitability of these players' departures, dulled this summer's news; but the departure of Jaromir Jagr -- the team's offensive focal point, and its leading scorer in the postseason last year -- and the fundamental motivation (and occasional distraction) of Sean Avery changes this team in a very, very significant way.
Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Rangers face the same basic questions they did last season: Whether Scott Gomez or Chris Drury can find offensive chemistry with a premier scoring winger; whether new faces on defense can continue to keep that group playing better on the ice than they look on paper; and whether Coach Tom Renney's system is the right one to lead the Rangers back to the Stanley Cup for the second time in 68 years.
Homecoming King (Top Player): Entering his fourth NHL season and with the comfort of a long-term contract, Henrik Lundqvist has established himself as an elite goaltender in the NHL. He posted career bests in GAA (2.23) and shutouts (10), and outplayed Martin Brodeur in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Offensively, Scott Gomez is one of the best open-ice skaters and stick-handlers in the NHL. His first season in New York was viewed by some as a disappointment, even with Gomez increasing his offensive numbers nearly across the board from the previous season. He was an ill fit with the Rangers' wingers, and especially with Jagr. If this team ever figures out what combination and what system fits his game, Gomez is an elite center.
And back home, he can see Russia from his house.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): Note the word "potential" in the parenthetical phrase that preceded this section. Nikolai Zherdev has it by the truckload. He's yet to crack 30 goals in the NHL; the trade of Christian Backman and Fedor Tyutin for his services should be called into question should he fails to reach that mark this season. But this goes back to an earlier point: One of Gomez's best seasons in the NHL was when he skated with a Russian winger named Mogilny. If these two players find a modicum of chemistry, the sky's the limit for Zherdev, who has never had a center the quality of either Drury or Gomez with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Best Expulsion (Addition by Subtraction): Marek Malik. Next.
OK, let's talk about Jagr. He was always a better player for the Rangers than those outside of New York would ever acknowledge. But the team's offense, such as it is, should be better without the Rangers having to play dial-a-date with Jagr's linemates in the hopes of finding the right fit with a unique talent. He was fantastic in the postseason, and could be missed in crunch time; but for the concept of "team," having No. 68 skating in the KHL is a good thing.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): Along with Zherdev, Markus Naslund gives the Rangers a veteran winger that dramatically changes the team's attack. The 35-year-old's offensive output has steadily (though not rapidly) declined over the last few seasons. Provided he can alter his game a bit for Renney's system, Naslund's good for 25-30 goals and 55-65 points. Anything beyond that would be incredible.
Patrick Rissmiller and Aaron Voros are feisty, aggressive players at the forward slot; Voros had 14 fights last season with the Minnesota Wild. On defense, the team added Buffalo Sabres' stalwart Dmitri Kalinin and Wade Redden from the Ottawa Senators. More on him later.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): The Rangers had 47 fights last season, with Colton Orr dropping the gloves 18 times. Avery and Ryan Hollweg, now with the Toronto Maple Leafs, take some fights with them. But the more Voros plays, the more it's likely he'll have scraps like this with Krys Barch:
The team will miss Avery in a huge way, because you can't replace a player who perfected the art of the pest and was such a spark to the team.
Teacher of the Year: Is this Renney's last stand? It's difficult to say. The Rangers have made the postseason in each of his three full years behind the bench, which has earned him an enormous amount of goodwill after the team missed the playoffs for seven long seasons. He's been able to manage egos well, and there's no denying his defensive system has made up for personnel deficiencies on the blueline and has given Lundqvist some impressive numbers. But at what point do New York Rangers fans and the Big Apple media tire of a team that only outscored the Devils and the New York Islanders last season in the conference?
The Custodians (Goalies): Lundqvist has been a Vezina Trophy bridesmaid for three consecutive seasons, twice to Brodeur. One can't help but be reminded of when Brodeur himself had a string of Vezina losses to Dominik Hasek before finally breaking through; will this be King Henrik's year to do so?
Backup Stephen Valiquette is listed at 6-foot-6, which actually makes him taller than six players on the Knicks. Yowzer.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): Sather has aggressively reconfigured this group, starting with the free-agent acquisition of Redden. He comes to the Rangers seeking to regain an offensive touch that’s eluded him for the last two years, and to give New York another puck-moving defenseman. Michal Rozsival was the team’s top-scoring D-man last season, and is a very versatile player whose ice time keeps increasing. But goodness, shoot the puck, will you please?
Marc Staal's rookie campaign was terrific, and Dan Girardi was an underrated player for the Rangers last season. Paul Mara didn't get the ice time he received two years ago with the team, and one wonders if that'll decrease even more with Kalinin in the mix. But depth is an issue for this team on defense.
Overall, this is yet another group of Rangers defensemen that makes you sigh at first glance and then stuns you with how effective they are on the ice ...
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): ... that said, Redden's in the crosshairs. Avery, as Avery is one to do, helped put him there by claiming the New York spotlight is too intense and that both he and Naslund wouldn't live up to expectations. But Ottawa fans were saying the same thing upon his departure. Redden has something to prove, and appears eager to prove it. But the wife? Not too shabby.
AV Club (Media): Sam Rosen has been calling Rangers since Mark Pavelich was the leading scorer. Joe Micheletti is no John Davidson. Either the Blues president or the guy who hosted "Hollywood Squares."
The Rangers are covered quite well by Daily News reporter/blogger John Dellapina, and when he's not getting histrionic about some molehill, Larry Brooks can offer some distinctive insight for the New York Post. Steve Zipay is also aces for Newsday.
For non-MSM blogs, Hockey Bird and The Rodent have been must-reads for years. Blueshirt Bulletin has broken news and broken down the Rangers better than the newspapers do. Also check out Rangerland, The Dark Ranger, and the ridiculously awesome Scotty Hockey.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): How about some secondary scoring? For all the noise about Gomez, Drury and the off-season pickups, the Rangers still likely pass or fail based on the contributions of players like Nigel Dawes, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Petr Prucha; in Dubinsky's case, we could be looking at another significant step forward for an exceptional young player. In Dawes's case, all he need to do is play against Marty Brodeur more often, and he'll score 100 goals in a season.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B
Prom Theme: "The Last Time" by the Rolling Stones. The last time the Rangers were in the postseason, two players who are no longer with the team provided the heartbeat. How does the team respond to an infusion of new faces? And if it doesn't answer the bell, will it be the last time for Renney, with John Tortorella out of a coaching job? (Let's face it: That name will be connected with this team until he signs somewhere else.)
Expected Graduation: I believe that the Atlantic Division will send four teams to the playoffs again next season, but the Rangers are the fourth of those teams. It's a complete leap of faith to say that the chemistry will work, the defense gels and this team takes a step forward minus Avery and Jagr. But believing it can't happen would underestimate this team's chances of winning the conference, which are slim but compelling if things break right.
Two names to remember: Brendan Shanahan and Mats Sundin. Because who knows how either of them could change this hockey club.