Video courtesy of AJ Castiglia
These last two Rangers seasons have been largely successful. An unexpected run to the Cup Final was followed up by a President’s trophy & falling just a game short of a consecutive Eastern Conference title. Still, with this team anchored by this goalie in this city, they’ve failed in pursuit of their ultimate goal. We’re long past the what-ifs of the Lightning series. Zuccarello was missed. Their captain could barely stand for Game 7. Marty aged 50 years in the course of a season. Bottom line, the Blueshirts went out with a whimper – but with health & some new blood joining the squad AV’s boys will be back in the mix for another shot at the greatest trophy in sports. No better place to start the new journey than in Chicago for the champ’s home-opener next Wednesday night.
The NYR will yet again be backstopped by 33 year-old Henrik Lundqvist. Hank isn’t getting any younger but bounced back from serious injury last season with another stellar playoff run, proving there’s still plenty of elite consistency left in the tank. Cam Talbot earned himself a #1 gig in Edmonton (yikes) but he’s been replaced with Blackhawks castaway Antti Raanta. The undrafted Fin was stellar in backup duty prior to the all-star break until he was supplanted by Scott Darling. Talbot showed how important a second-stringer can be regardless of who they sit behind so, regardless of Hank’s health, Raanta will be relied upon to fill some big skates for at least a quarter of the schedule. Breaking away from a frustrating situation in Chi-town & having his name left off the Stanley Cup should be motivation enough for him to thrive.
Defensively, it’ll be the same set of 6 in front of the King. The only two to come out of the post-season unscathed were Klein & Boyle, but with their wounds licked and Yandle no longer a newcomer they should once again be one of the league’s top groups. #93 struggled his first couple weeks in New York but soon found himself in the assist column of the scoresheet almost nightly. He was arguably the Rangers best blueliner in the playoffs and his playmaking ability will be crucial from the back end, especially on the power play. As a 29 year-old with free agency right around the corner, Yandle’s in the perfect spot for a career year.
The future looked real bright too this preseason – namely 2012 first-rounder Brady Skjei. It was an almost impossible task for him to crack the top-6, but fans should be real excited to know this kid is ready if an injury or trade makes room. While he’s down getting regular ice time in the AHL, look for another former #1 Dylan McIlrath to earn that 7th spot over Raphael Diaz. Give me the extra 6 years, 6 inches & 25+ pounds who can also fill the tough-guy role when needed that’ll soon (hopefully) be vacated by Tanner Glass. McIlrath has been OK this preseason & still has upside. I do like Diaz, but vets with ceilings like his won’t be hard to find if the rookie flops.
Up front is where the Blueshirts should be most exciting. Hags & Marty are gone and I can’t imagine Tanner Glass not following suit considering the logjam of youth & talent. They’ve been replaced by Victor Stalberg, Jarret Stoll, Emerson Etem & Oscar Lindberg. Stalberg’s been outstanding this preseason and there’s whispers he might get first crack at that vacant top-6 wing alongside Stepan & Kreider. He’s a fast, big body with plenty of skill but his head & heart have been the reason teams have parted ways with him. After spending most of last year in the AHL before Nashville bought him out, the soon-to-be 30 year-old looks fired up about landing with a contender for what might be his last opportunity to stick in the big show. Stoll brings situational faceoff dominance the club needs along with physicality, a couple rings & a rap sheet. Etem and Lindberg are the two kids battling for what I think will be the Glass vacancy & Lindberg’s got the upper hand. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vigneault trot out 3 natural centers (Moore, Stoll, Lindberg) as the 4th line in Chicago. Etem’s looked raw in his first few games with his new club, but he’s not going anywhere. To send him (or Lindberg) down would expose them to waivers – no chance either of them are lost for nothing. Glass is older, less talented & would recoup the most cap space. Whether you’re a Glass hater or not, the decision on who goes is obvious.
The returning crop of forwards are SO young. Stepan’s an “elder statesman” at just 25. Kreider, Miller, Hayes & Fast are all younger while Brass & Zucc are in their primes at 28. The Rangers were the second-highest scoring team in the East during the regular season and there’s no reason they can’t finish at the same clip this year. There’s a handful of guys that’ll need to get paid next off-season who are primed to take the “next step”. Kevin Hayes scored at a 60-point pace in the second half & could sniff that number this year if he can gel with Fast and either Miller or Stalberg. Despite AV not being thrilled with his exhibition play, he might be their most important forward. You know what you’re gonna get from the top dogs, but secondary scoring starts with Hayes and he’ll have to do it without Hags & Marty. JT Miller will finally start a season with the big boys and at just 22 has the size and skill to be a Kreider-lite. Whether he starts the year on the second or third line, the experience Miller gained during last year’s playoffs along with being off the bubble should go a long way for the kid’s confidence. He’ll replace Hagelin’s goals. Then there’s King Ding-A-Ling Chris Kreider.
If any of this team’s youth vaults into superstardom this year, it’s gonna be Kreider. He’s big. He’s fast. Mean. Fearless. Clutch. He has no idea how fucking strong he is. He’s an absolute force who rattles opponents’ cages – a 30 G/100 PIM campaign a la Backes or Hartnell putting him squarely on the dominant power forward map is in the cards, especially with all the PP time freed up by MSL’s retirement. Oh, he’s got a huge hog and ladies all across the world love him too.
No doubt the conference has gotten better, especially in the Metro. The Caps & Pens added top talent. Columbus welcomes Saad to the fold & odds are they won’t be decimated by injury again. There’s no reason to believe the Habs & Bolts will fall off a cliff. I still believe it’s the Rangers conference to lose though. No team has a more reliable, deeper goaltending/defense combo and there’s not a forward likely to make the roster whose stock is falling. Losing an aged Marty along with Glass (assumedly) is addition by subtraction. Hags was an important piece but the Blueshirts have plenty of speed & two-way talent to make up for him.
Is the Cup window closing? If you logically believe a title revolves around Lundqvist, sure it is – but it’s not closed yet. Offense is what ended up being this team’s demise in the post-season but Hayes/Miller/Fast building off last year’s experience, a healthy Zuccarello & a full year of Keith Yandle will make a big difference. It’s a long road to April hockey but that should be the easy part for the Blueshirts. Navigating a familiar playoff road without getting off an exit too early will be the challenge once again. With a better starting squad than the prior two Octobers, there’s no reason not to have the utmost confidence that THIS is finally the year. VIVA LA BLUESHIRTS!!!