The Rangers open their 2013-14 season this Thursday against the Phoenix Coyotes, the first of nine games on the road to start the season as the MSG rennovations are finally completed. It's a tough road for a team that appears to be in somewhat disarray following a pre-season where they went 1-5, being outscored to the tune of 9-22.
Pre-seasons aren't generally a very good predictor for the regular season, but no one likes to lose...even when the games don't mean anything.
First the good news, the defense looks strong to start the year with the top six all healthy, particularly Marc Staal looking very comfortable after suffering a career altering injury last year. The other five defenders all played for the Rangers last year, and will be supported by new acquisitions Justin Falk - trade, Aaron Johnson - UFA and Conor Allen - rookie.
Goaltending remains unchanged, though Cam Talbot did impress enough to be considered a viable call up in the event of an injury.
Perhaps the biggest issue for the Rangers remains their unbalanced forward roster. The decision to retain Brad Richards instead of buying him out in June, has meant the Rangers are running close to their Salary Cap limit going into the season. They have gotten a little break by placing Hagelin on Long Term Injury Reserve (LTIR) and reassigning veteran Darroll Powe to the AHL, freeing up approximately $1.3M in space...at least until Hagelin returns.
Richards' retention also means the roster remains largely unbalanced. The emergence of Derick Brassard and Derek Stepan last year meant the Rangers already had two in form centers on the roster. In addition, the Rangers used Brian Boyle, J.T. Miller and Powe regularly in the position last year, and got solid performances out of rookie Oscar Lindberg in camp, as well as the addition of veteran Dominic Moore.
By contrast the depth on wing looks very shallow indeed. With Hagelin sidelined for 2-4 weeks to start the year, and Ryan Callahan also expected to miss a handful of games (as well as all the preseason), the Rangers were already down two of their top four wings.
The inability for Chris Kreider to seize his chance has compounded the issue. Kreider was reassigned to Hartford over the weekend, and now faces the prospect of having to play his way back into the line-up.
That leaves Rick Nash as the solitary wing for the projected top four who will actually start Thursday. Filling out the other three spots will be third year forward Mats Zuccarello, UFA signing Benoit Pouliot and Richards, who will move from center.
Rounding out the remainder of the roster will be veterans Tom Pyatt and Arron Asham, in their second years with the Rangers, rookie Jesper Fast who impressed enough in camp, and second year pro J.T. Miller.
As to the impact that new head coach Alain Vigneault will have, that remains to be seen. The much maligned power play has shown some life - if not necessarily the results yet, and the defense have been given much more of a green light to jump into the play to generate offense - the blueliners accounting for three of the nine goals scored. The latter change probably contributed somewhat to the lopsided scores as the team gave up chances at the other end from broken coverage.
There's also an increased willingness for defenders to remain on their feet, which will likely lead to more chances getting through to Lundqvist, but hopefully also will enable better breakouts the other way.
As it stands right now, the Rangers will need to figure it out quickly. They don't have the luxury of being able to make much in the way of personnel adjustments during the year, without being forced to trade a core component. The one big contract they would consider parting with - Richards - could come back to bite them in future years if he were to retire early after being moved.
Nor do they have the benefit of the last change, familiar surroundings and the home crowd. Two years ago they used that to their advantage, when they began the year in Sweden before facing a long, hard trek through Western Canada before finally hoping up at home three weeks later.
That year, they started 3-3-3, earning points by keeping games close, before accelerating away. Under Vigneault's more aggressive scheme, they might struggle to pick up those early points, and it seems unlikely they'll repeat that 2011 Eastern Conference title.
A slow start seems likely...what they do after that remains to be seen.