by Mark Owens
Chris Drury and Scott Gomez, along with Henrik Lundqvist, take over as the team’s leaders. Jagr’s offensive production ‘ hopefully ‘ will be replaced by the speedy, enigmatic, underachieving, high first-round pick Nikolai Zherdev (sounds a little like Alex Kovalev, doesn’t it?). Replacing Shanahan’s 23 goals, theoretically, will be Markus Naslund, whose production the past two seasons has tailed off, much like Shanny’s.
Another reclamation project is Wade Redden, who by any measure (except hits) should be an upgrade over the Columbus-bound Fedor Tyutin, who certainly seemed to ‘plateau’ (one of Tom Renney’s favorite words) this past season and never did develop into an effective power-play defenseman. Redden will hopefully help improve the Rangers’ awful power play and actually shoot the puck on net from time to time, something Rozsival (unwilling) and Tyutin (unable) failed to do.
The Rangers are counting the days (and crossing their fingers) that Bobby Sanguinetti will soon give them the power play quarterback they’ve lacked since Glen Sather got rid of Brian Leetch. Let’s also hope the Rangers’ coaching staff can improve their game and devise schemes or line combinations that can at least lift the Rangers’ power play unit from bottom-tier to middle-of-the-pack or better.
The real improvements will be found on the team’s fourth and possibly third line. Ryan Hollweg‘s season-long (career-long?) pattern of committing bonehead plays at crucial junctures finally cost him a ticket out of town after his inexcusable, unforgivable boarding penalty in game three against the Penguins negated Ranger momentum and effectively sealed their fate for the series. Patrick Rissmiller, Fredrik Sjostrom, Lauri Korpikoski (his playoff goal doesn’t hurt), Greg Moore, and others will compete for the roster spot vacated by Hollweg.
Dan Fritsche may finally relegate Blair Betts to Black Ace status, although Renney will have to figure out how to replace Betts’ considerable penalty-killing and shot-blocking skills. Despite a total absence of offensive production, don’t be surprised if Betts somehow holds onto his lineup spot, given his status as a Renney favorite, dating back to their junior hockey days together.
This season’s fourth line should have no problem improving on last season’s HBO line, whose grand total of five goals last season (Hollweg 2, Betts 2, Orr 1) equated to one goal per 44 games. Fritsche (10 goals last season), Rissmiller (8) and Voros (7) can all hit the side of a barn at least.
Hollweg’s addition by subtraction was copied on the blue line, where Marek Malik has gone gently into that good night (no team yet), and Sather did the seemingly impossible in dumping Christian Backman‘s $2.3 million salary on the apparently desperate Blue Jackets.
Simply put, there is no replacing Sean Avery, but Aaron Voros will try. He will scrap, take penalties, draw penalties, and mock opponents and fans alike, as well as score some goals, something Ranger fans have grown unaccustomed to seeing from their fourth-line players. The exception, of course, is Colton Orr, whose hands of stone are actually an asset, virtually guaranteeing him a roster spot on the basis of his status as policeman/enforcer/heavyweight contender.
Wild cards abound this coming season. Can Dubinsky and Nigel Dawes improve on their modest offensive production (40 and 29 points, respectively)? Will Artem Anisimov crack the lineup after steady improvement last season in the AHL? Can Ryan Callahan (8 goals in 52 games) and/or Petr Prucha (7 goals in 62 games) replace Straka (41 points in 65 games) as a productive top-nine forward? Can Sanguinetti make the jump from junior hockey to the NHL, like Marc Staal did so well last season? Will P.A. Parenteau get a look, after racking up 81 points with the Wolf Pack last season? Which prospects will impress in preseason? Who is Vladimir Denisov?
Also, who will be the team’s sixth and seventh defensemen? Redden, Rozy, Staal, Dan Girardi and Dmitri Kalinin (new whipping boy?) appear to be locks for the top five spots, with Sanguinetti, Paul Mara, Thomas Pock and Corey Potter among those who will compete for the sixth spot. Expect Sanguinetti to start the season in Hartford and Potter to get a long look after a very solid season with the Wolf Pack and ability to play a physical game. My guess is Mara replaces Jason Strudwick as the Black Ace seventh defenseman and Pock once again plies his trade in Hartford.
Let’s hope lower expectations across the board can translate into less pressure and steadier performances, culminating in a memorable playoff run. That formula worked pretty well for the Giants at least.