by Charles Solomon
Glen Sather had a busy off-season this summer. By acquiring unrestricted free agents Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitis he added toughness that the Rangers sorely lacked last season. Slats also subtracted cancerous mediocrity in the forms of Bryan Berard, Michal Grosek, and Andreas Johansson. The antics of Theo Fleury are also no longer a concern for the Blueshirts as he has found a new home in the Windy City. However, going into training camp rookie head coach Bryan Trottier still has much to cogitate about. He has a seventy plus million dollar roster that is laced with egos and question marks, and loaded with talent.
One area that the Rangers will always have to be concerned about is Eric Lindros’ health. Can he play at least seventy games in the regular season and be healthy for what hopes to be a long playoff run? If Lindros stays healthy the Rangers are a shoe-in to break their five-year drought and qualify for the playoffs. However, if Lindros spends more than twenty-five games on the injured reserve, the Rangers will once again be golfing in the middle of April. Another question troubling the Rangers is how well Radek Dvorak’s knee will recover from surgery. Dvorak needs his speed in order to be effective in the NHL. When Dvorak’s engine drops from a V12 to a V6, his lack of size and strength can be taken advantage of by bigger, stronger opposing defensemen. Dvorak’s Czech-mate, Petr Nedved, was terrible last season and will have to virtually double his production while making a move to left wing. Lastly, what will happen to The Captain, Mark Messier? He could become the best fourth line center in the NHL, and if used in appropriate situations he could be a weapon for the Rangers while retaining his health for a long Cup run. Although his reported contract demands are obviously ludicrous, the Rangers, specifically the younger players, could use his leadership, experience, and wisdom.
The Rangers are going to need to rely on more than the Lindros and Bure combination for offense if they plan to make it to the Cup Finals. Somehow ultra-tough Bobby Holik will have to blend with softer players Petr Nedved and Radek Dvorak. If this chemistry experiment blows up in the coaching staff’s face, expect either Nedved or both Nedved and Dvorak to be traded. This is clearly a make or break year for both of them. The Rangers will have a really solid third line that will probably feature bash brothers Sandy McCarthy and Matthew Barnaby, both of whom can also score, as Rem Murray’s wingers. The Rangers fourth line will hopefully include Jamie Lundmark on the left side, Roman Lyashenko on the right side, and Captain Dad playing in the middle. Lundmark needs the NHL experience and a season on Messier’s wing will be invaluable to Lundmark and Lyashenko’s development. The only hole the Rangers have in their lineup is the left wing on the first line. Why not try Nils Ekman, acquired in the Tim Taylor trade two years ago and signed this summer? Heck, the Rangers could use former Devil, Krzysztof Oliwa as a cop on that line and it would be productive.
It is clear that the Rangers have made a transition from having one of the worst defenses in the league to arguably having the most potent defense. The Rangers have eight NHL-caliber defensemen, and an elite top four. The Leetch and Malakhov pairing will be much more successful this season without the responsibility of carrying the team and without the extra wear and tear from the Olympics. The second pairing will most likely consist of offensive Olympian Tom Poti and bone-crushing Darius Kasparaitis. Talk about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this pairing will be fun to watch, and effective in both ends. For the final two spots on defense, the Rangers have the option of going with any combination of Kloucek, Purinton, Lefebrve, or Karpa. The Rangers should inject some youth energy into the lineup and use Kloucek and Purinton. They are certainly no worse than the other two, and will provide the team with the toughness that is a necessity in the Eastern Conference. The experience these two players will also receive from playing a full season in the NHL will make them much stronger players. Having veterans Sylvain Lefebrve and Dave Karpa waiting in the wings just in case an injury occurs (or if either Purinton or Kloucek struggles) provides the Rangers with depth.
One area the Rangers will not have to worry about is between the pipes. If Richter, who should flourish with a real team in front of him, goes down, the young phenom Dan Blackburn can responsibly take over. Ultimately, seven time Stanley Cup champion Brian Trottier will determine how this collection of superstars fairs in a mediocre but deep Eastern Conference. If he can get his team to gel and always hold each player accountable the Rangers have the ability to win the Eastern Conference. However, the Rangers are probably a Keith Tkachuk and another high scoring left-wing away from seriously contending for Lord Stanley’s chalice. Although, with the talent the Rangers have on their roster and a few shrewd deadline moves by Sather, anything is possible this season. If the Rangers do live up to their potential and catch a few breaks they could easily find themselves only four wins away from hockey’s holy grail.