After their second consecutive second round exit in last year’s playoffs, the Rangers decided to retool this summer in a big way. That retooling began with the decision to let Jaromir Jagr go to free agency. Now that decision comes with many risks; Jagr was the Rangers’ most talented player but he also was an overwhelming personality in the locker room and with Chris Drury and Scott Gomez signed to long-term contracts, Glen Sather must have figured it was time to pass the torch. With the proverbial torch passing, the Rangers will look to get past the second round this season for the first time since 1997.
The Rangers forward corps has really taken on a different look since the end of last season. Out are Martin Straka, Jaromir Jagr and Sean Avery; in are Markus Naslund, Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche. In addition, the Rangers have added big depth players like Patrick Rismiller and Aaron Voros to their fourth line. But with all those changes, are the Rangers forwards really any better than they were at the end of last season? To be honest (why would I be anything other than honest?), probably not. The Rangers are banking on Markus Naslund to have a bounce back season but there is no indication that the three-time 40 goal scorer will magically regain that scoring touch. In fact, since 2002/03 Naslund has seen his scoring totals decline each season until last season when he scored 25 goals which was one more than he scored the previous season. Considering he is now 35 years old, it is difficult to believe that he can suddenly return to old form. The wild card for the Rangers this season will be Nikolai Zherdev. The young Russian winger is a great skater, has tremendous hands and has a high hockey IQ. The question is: Can he get his head on straight and put it all together for an entire season? The Rangers are banking on him being able to do so, and it is not the most unrealistic expectation in the world. That said, the uncertainty that goes along with Zherdev should make some Rangers fans uneasy. Aside from the new off-season acquisitions, the Rangers should continue to see improved performances from Brandon Dubinsky, Nigel Dawes and Ryan Callahan.
The Rangers may have arguably become worse up front, but they have added a nice and much-needed offensive dimension to their defense with the signing of Wade Redden this off-season. Redden can be expected to quarter back the power play, something he did quite well during his long tenure in Ottawa. Additionally, he makes a good first outlet pass and is better defensively than he demonstrated during his last season with the Senators. Along with Redden, the Rangers re-signed Michal Rozsival and Paul Mara and signed free agent defenseman Dmitri Kalinin. Kalinin did not play very well for the Sabres last season, but the Rangers are hoping he can be a steady third pairing defenseman who can handle third line competition and allow the Rangers’ defensive prospects another year to develop.
Even with all the moves the Rangers made this off-season, the key to their defense may very well be 21 year old Marc Staal. Staal is extremely mature for his age, has great defensive sense and uses his tremendous positioning to his advantage at all times. Some do question his offensive game, but right now, that is not a big worry for the Rangers as they have other defensemen capable of carrying the offensive load. Add in the steady Dan Girardi and the Rangers have a pretty solid six man defensive group. Finally, if you believe in size being an asset, none of the six aforementioned defensemen is below 6’2, 200 Lbs.
Henrik Lundqvist is the Rangers’ best player and if he struggles then the Rangers could be in for a long year. Lucky for Rangers fans, Lundqvist is one of the best goaltenders in the league and rarely struggles for long periods of time. In fact, Lundqvist is arguably amongst the top five netminders in all of hockey. He has the ability to take the Rangers on a prolonged run at any time.
Lundqvist is going to be backed up by Stephen Valiquette, who is a fine backup but if he plays a substantial amount of games, then the Rangers will have a difficult time cracking the top eight in the Eastern Conference.
Ceiling: 2nd in Eastern Conference.
Floor: 9th in Eastern Conference.