It's funny how it doesn't take long for expectations to elevate and cost people their jobs. It wasn't so long ago that the New York Rangers would do just about anything to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs again.
The fiery John Tortorella wants the Rangers to play up-tempo.
After an embarrassing, franchise-long seven straight seasons, 1998 to 2004, without making the playoffs, New York had become a laughingstock – and everyone found it particularly funny except for the loyal and more deserving fans who fill that great arena in midtown Manhattan.
The organization stuck with general manager Glen Sather, giving him the benefit of doubt that he could correct some of his early decisions and bring a little of that old Edmonton Oilers dynasty touch to the Big Apple. Just about when everyone was running out of patience, Sather turned the coaching job over to Tom Renney, an assistant who had impressed with his work within the organization and with the Canadian national team in previous seasons.
Renney drew raves early on, guiding the Rangers back into the playoffs during his first full season behind the bench with a defensive system that accounted for all five skaters working in unison for one common goal. The Rangers bought in, had success and reached the playoffs for three straight seasons. Renney's reputation soared.
But Renney's message suddenly started to fall on deaf ears last season, and falling short of the postseason just wasn't acceptable. There was no time for a step backward. Sather couldn't think of any other way to resuscitate his struggling team than to make a midseason coaching change.
Renney was out and the fiery, emotional, outwardly competitive John Tortorella was in. Sather would have been hard-pressed to find a more opposite personality and hockey mind than Tortorella, who quickly demanded the Rangers play a more up-tempo, hard-skating game.
New York's roster wasn't up to the challenge. Too many players were having off seasons in terms of goal-scoring, and the change in systems and style was too much, too soon. The Rangers slipped into the playoffs, but they quickly blew a 3-1 lead against the Capitals and bowed out in the opening round.
Sather went to work on rebuilding the forward group with the kind of players who might better fit Tortorella's system. Sather took some gambles – especially an expensive one with fragile Marian Gaborik(notes) – but you can't blame the GM for standing pat. If nothing else, the Rangers won't be boring this season.
Last season: 43-30-9 (95 points), fourth place in the Atlantic Division, seventh place in the Eastern Conference and 12th in the overall standings. Finished between 94 and 100 points for the fourth straight year, all top-eight conference finishes after missing the playoffs for seven straight years. In the postseason, the Rangers won the first two games on the road against Washington and built a 3-1 series edge before losing three straight – including 2-1 in a Game 7 to see their season end.
Imports: RW Marian Gaborik (Minnesota), RW Ales Kotalik(notes) (Edmonton), LW Christopher Higgins(notes) (Montreal), RW Vaclav Prospal(notes) (Tampa Bay), RW Donald Brashear(notes) (Washington), C Tyler Arnason(notes) (Colorado), C Brian Boyle(notes) (Los Angeles), C Corey Locke(notes) (Edmonton) and RW Enver Lisin(notes) (Phoenix)
Exports: C Scott Gomez(notes) (Montreal), C Nik Antropov(notes) (Atlanta), RW Colton Orr(notes) (Toronto), D Derek Morris(notes) (Boston), D Paul Mara(notes) (Montreal), RW Fredrik Sjostrom(notes) (Calgary), D Doug Jankik (Detroit), LW Lauri Korpikoski(notes) (Phoenix), RW Greg Moore(notes) (N.Y. Islanders), RW Nikolai Zherdev(notes) (walk-away from arbitration) and LW Markus Naslund(notes) (retired).
Salary cap: With approximately $56.1 million committed in payroll, the Rangers are pretty snug with the ceiling on the cap. They've got only enough room for one more body at the league minimum of $500,000 without some wheeling and dealing.
Three keys: Who is anyone kidding? The Rangers will go as Henrik Lundqvist(notes) goes. New York hasn't had to worry about the performance in goal of late. Lundqvist has simply started his career as the league's only goalie to win at least 30 games in each of his first four seasons.
Last season was the first time he wasn't a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, an award he has yet to win. Lundqvist didn't exactly have a terrible year, going 38-25-7 with a 2.43 goals-against average, .916 save percentage and three shutouts.
Lundqvist had a lot of pressure on him because the Rangers just didn't score a lot of goals – their 210 were only nine more than the East's worst total scored by the Islanders. Lundqvist is only 27 years old, just entering the prime of his career. The fans love him, he's a leader on this team and he's probably the one person the Rangers have little to worry about.
Second, with all the movement of bodies coming and going over the offseason, did the Rangers really address their offensive needs? Exactly who is going to play first-line center? The Rangers are looking a lot like the proverbial doughnut – a team with a big hole in the middle.
Chris Drury(notes) isn't really suited for anything more than a second-line role, and if his offensive production continues to slip he might fall to a No. 3 center, too. The Rangers could turn to Chris Higgins, but that's asking the ex-Canadien to do more than he's probably really equipped to handle. Brandon Dubinsky is a possibility now that the previously unsigned restricted free agent is in the fold.
Clearly, Tortorella's biggest challenge will be to assemble some lines which can find chemistry and erase the thought that the team will struggle to score like last season. It could be New York's biggest challenge.
Third, the Rangers have a number of players who could be a distraction – Sean Avery(notes) for his past antics, Donald Brashear for a cheap shot on ex-Ranger Blair Betts(notes) last spring and Dubinsky with his contract squabbles – but they're going to have to find a way to put everything in perspective.
Don't forget, too, how players need to have a thick skin when picking up the paper the day after a poor performance, or even after a narrow win. Tortorella has been known to air it out in the media and use any means necessary to get his message across to a player he's trying to motivate.
On the hot seat: Marian Gaborik definitely fits the profile of a skater who can excel in an open offensive attack – not that he got a chance to display those attributes much with conservative and tight-checking Minnesota under Jacques Lemaire. The Rangers signed the free agent Gaborik to a five-year, $37.5 million deal.
Gaborik scored 12 goals and 23 points in 17 games last season. OK, that wasn't a hot streak, that was his entire season. But it's no secret that everything starts and ends with Gaborik's health. Groin and abdominal problems have cost Gaborik 121 out of a possible 328 games over the past four years, and it's not starting too well this preseason either.
Gaborik, who had offseason hip surgery, arrived two weeks early to camp but felt what he described as general tightness and soreness – not necessarily associated with this repaired hip. He's yet to appear in a preseason game, but that might change next week. Tortorella said he needs to play in an exhibition before being considered ready for the regular season.
Poised to blossom: Marc Staal has quietly produced two very solid seasons at the start of what is sure to be a long and successful career. When you look at the makeup of the Rangers' blue line and see either older defensemen or young and inexperienced rearguards, it becomes increasingly obvious that Staal is going to find himself on a pairing that will be matched against opposing top lines on a nightly basis. Look for Staal to lead the Rangers this season in average ice time, and do a solid job in the process.
Time has passed: Wade Redden(notes) is 32 years old and coming off a subpar season. He's been hearing it from Tortorella in the press, too, early in camp. The defenseman enjoyed his best years in Ottawa when he played with some talented defensemen, including Zdeno Chara(notes).
But in New York he's been a bit exposed when asked to do maybe a little more than he's accustomed to handling. The game continues to get faster. The scary part is that Redden is not only set to make $6.5 million this season, but also for four more as well.
Prediction: The Rangers have too many question marks without obvious solutions – forward lines that make any sense, Gaborik's fragile nature, the shortcomings on the blue line, Tortorella's volatile nature – to make them a cinch for the playoffs. We see them hanging around the eighth spot but unable to crack the top three in the division, which will leave them vulnerable to miss out.