by Mark Owens
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Chris Drury will be the second-best captain the Rangers have had in the past 30 years. He is more than ready to lead this team, especially with seven new players and legends Jaromir Jagr and Brendan Shanahan out of the picture. The team’s average age is now 26, down from 29.
We all know what Henrik Lundqvist means to the Rangers. He is a once-in-a-decade ‘ or once-in-two-decades franchise player ‘ which the Rangers have not had since Brian Leetch and Mike Richter hit the scene in the late 80s. Barring injury, the Rangers can count on The King to keep the Rangers in virtually every game despite an inept offense, while once again challenging for the Vezina Trophy (for the fourth year in a row).
Last season, the Rangers penalty killing and defense ranked in the NHL’s top six, but were negated by a bottom-ten power play unit, despite the presence of Jagr and Shanahan. To remedy that situation, the Rangers let Jagr and Shanahan walk and imported Wade Redden to quarterback the power play. They did not change their coaching staff.
As long as Markus Naslund and Nikolai Zherdev replace the offensive production of Jagr and Shanny, all things should be equal. The Rangers are hoping that an improved power play, more balanced scoring and a better-skating team will translate into more wins. A lot will depend on how much the young players contribute, and this is where Tom Renney’s well-earned reputation for player development will play a large role in the team’s success this season.
Brandon Dubinsky certainly appears ready to contribute even more after a fine rookie season. Ryan Callahan may turn into the prototypical third-line winger, contributing hits, guts and timely goals. Let’s hope Lauri Korpikoski‘s play in the pre-season is a sign of things to come. Aaron Voros and/or Dan Fritsche are significant upgrades over Ryan (Dude, where’s the penalty box?) Hollweg. Nigel Dawes needs to display his offensive wizardry on a more consistent basis, and may do so if he clicks with Dubinsky and Zherdev.
Aahh, Zherdev. Who is this guy? Is he destined to be a poor man’s Alexei Kovalev, with flashes of brilliance counteracted by periods of indifference and baffling play? Ken Hitchcock couldn’t get the best out of him, but can Renney?
On defense, Marc Staal should continue to improve, and will be even less-pressured to do so with Redden on board. Redden, despite the hefty pricetag, is a clear upgrade over Fedor Tyutin. Dmitri Kalinin appears to be a more mobile version of Marek ‘Lurch’ Malik, but may still wind up in the fan’s crosshairs.
Paul Mara is the sixth defenseman for now, but can be very easily replaced by Corey Potter, whose only sin this preseason was being eligible for demotion without waivers. Once the Prague trip is over, Mara may very well become this year’s Jason Strudwick when Miika Wiikman is demoted and a seventh defenseman is needed on the roster, paving the way for Potter.
One thing missing from this year’s team will be Sean Avery, the X factor. Yes, he disappeared in the second round of the playoffs in 07 and 08, but don’t you think he played a large role in the Rangers’ domination of the Devils and Flyers since his arrival? Who replaces that? Probably no one, but the Rangers may be better off without prima donnas like Avery and Jagr anyway, believe it or not.