As we sit on the eve of the NHL season, it’s time to take stock of the team we have. The Rangers officially kick their 2009-10 campaign off in Pittsburgh against the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins. And what a difference a year makes.
Around this time last year, the Rangers were one of four teams who opened up the season with games in Europe. I was fortunate enough to be in Prague for those games, and share the experience with the local Czech Ranger fans, and witness the best possible start to the season.
The Rangers would go on to win ten of their thirteen games in the month of October before the wheels came off, leading to a series of changes that included the dispatching of Coach Tom Renney, along with several players from the opening night roster.
Gone are Blair Betts (free agent), Nigel Dawes (trade), Scott Gomez (trade), Dmitri Kalinin (trade), Lauri Korpikoski (trade), Paul Mara (free agent), Markus Naslund (retired), Colton Orr (free agent), Petr Prucha (trade) and Nikolai Zherdev (free agent). Or in overall terms, one half of the Rangers roster.
In their place, yet another collection of free agents, acquisitions as well as three rookies, including two defensemen who have yet to suit up for an NHL game.
So what can we expect from the Rangers in 2009-10?
One thing seems apparent, and that is the scoring problems the Rangers had in the past under Tom Renney’s conservative approach are unlikely to plague the team this year. The Rangers managed just 210 goals last season, 10 of which were credited for winning the shootout. And of those remaining 200 goals, the Rangers have parted ways with more than half (111), replacing them with a collection of players with varying degrees of success.
Marian Gaborik (13 goals) and Christopher Higgins (12 goals) both missed time to injury last year, while Vaclav Prospal (19) had his contract bought out by the Tampa Bay Lightning before signing on for a one-year contract with the Rangers. All three players will be looked to, to improve the top two lines, along with Ales Kotalik (22) who split time between the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers last year.
The foursome will combine with returnees Brandon Dubinsky (13), Ryan Callahan (22), Chris Drury (22), Sean Avery (8) and newcomer Enver Lisin (13) to form a promising, if somewhat unproven top three lines. I say unproven in the sense that once again we see a set of forwards who’ve played little time together and will undoubtedly need some time to settle in.
At this stage it remains unclear who will ultimately play with who, and for those of you who were annoyed with Tom Renney’s line changes, get ready for a whole new level of mixing and matching under John Tortorella.
On the positive side, this isn’t the same sort of mix we saw in the 90s when Neil Smith rolled out veteran laden rosters largely past their prime. In fact with the exception of Prospal, Brashear and Drury, the remaining 10 forwards on the roster are all 30 years or younger.
There’s also some added size, with Brashear, Boyle and Anisimov in the mix along with the returning Voros, and though that doesn’t always translate into physicality, their size and strength can help wear down a defense.
Tortorella’s attacking style should also help at least some of these players. Callahan particularly blossomed last year after Renney’s shackles were released, and it’s hoped that others can also benefit from the change of scenery.
The Power Play too should be improved from last year’s 29th ranking. Tortorella already looks more creative with the man advantage, and several of the players that have been brought in have had past success playing on the power play. Ironically though, it may be a pair of rookie defensemen who make the biggest difference.
Since the lockout the Rangers have struggled to find players to man the point and get pucks to scoring positions. Michal Rozsival has looked even more lost without Jaromir Jagr, and Wade Redden‘s contribution last year was limited. Thus the door has opened for Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto, both of whom were used extensively at the point during the preseason.
The rookie duo have yet to dress in an NHL game, but already have shown more creativity and confidence on the blueline than the veterans before them. Gilroy in particular looks to be a player the Rangers will look to leverage this year, while Del Zotto has earned at least a trial nine games before the team has to decide what to do. Throw in the big shot from Ales Kotalik off the point, and the Rangers suddenly have scoring threats from the blueline.
And while we’re on the topic of defense…
This may very well be the area that will be of most concern in the coming season. Inherent in Tortorella’s approach is an increase in risk. In contrast to Renney’s defense first approach, the new coach preaches aggressiveness and creativity from his defense, and this will no doubt lead to opportunities the other way.
Whether the six-pack of Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Wade Redden, Rozsival and the two rookies are up to the task is a big question. Girardi and Rozsival are both coming off indifferent camps, while Redden is still trying to find the form that justifies his big contract. Gilroy showed impressive skating and poise in the preseason, and Del Zotto certainly had his moments on either side of the evaluation equation.
There’s also undoubtedly be pressure on the Rangers goaltending as well, with both Henrik Lundqvist and Stephen Valiquette probably looking at more quality shots this season. Tortorella rightly has tried to reign in some of Lundqvist’s off-ice activities, and perhaps that along with a modestly reduced workload will help the fifth year pro maintain the level of play that will be needed.
Lundqvist’s play will particularly be important on the PK, where the Rangers lead the league last season. Whether they can maintain that position with the loss of Betts, Fredrik Sjostrom and Scott Gomez remains to be seen, but the addition of Higgins should help, and if Tortorella does decide to use Gaborik then the Rangers might very well improve their short-handed goal total.
Looking at our 2009-10 Rangers and they could finish almost anywhere on the ladder. Gaborik’s health will be a key concern of course, as will the performances of several of the supporting players. Can Callahan and Dubinsky lift their games in accordance with their new contracts, will Kotalik, Lisin and Higgins prosper in new surroundings, and will the defense be a plus or a minus.
I’m taking a cautiously optimistic line. While I don’t expect the Rangers to start well, I think at the end of the season they’ll be competing for the top spot in the Atlantic, and with a bit of luck, maybe even have a chance at going deep in the playoffs.
It’s a long way away now, but I start this season with greater expectations that last year’s.