Expectations for the New York Rangers were higher than they've been in years. Many had them as a lock for the playoffs and a possible Cup favorite and it was pretty easy to see the reasons behind it. They were the top seed in the Eastern Conference the previous season and made a big splash in the off-season by trading for Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets to help them get over the hump. Perhaps this is why many saw last year as a disappointment for them.
For most teams, making the playoffs for the fourth time in five years would be enough to keep your fanbase happy, but more was expected out of the Rangers last year. Most thought that they would at least make it out of the second round given the talent on their roster and how good they were the previous season. The Rangers came up short of those lofty expectations, finishing sixth in the Eastern Conference and losing in the second round in five games to the Boston Bruins. The general consensus was that the Rangers underperformed all of last year and head coach John Tortorella was the one who took the fall in the head, as he was relieved of his duties and replaced with Alain Vigneault.
It's tough to say how much of the Rangers problems were related to Tortorella because if you look beyond their results, they were a pretty great team at even strength and could have finished higher in the standings in an 82-game season. They also had a few things go in their favor the previous year which resulted in them tallying more points in the standings (top 10 5v5 shooting percentage, 21-5-7 in one-goal-games etc.) and it was going to be tough for them to replicate that no matter what. This isn't even going into their questionable depth both up front and on defense, which was going to be tested in a shortened year.
The Rangers may have gone into the year with Cup aspirations, but they had their share of questions and I thought Tortorella did a decent job when taking those into consideration. After all, this was a mediocre team at even strength the previous year and they really improved in that department last year, even if they weren't getting rewarded for it as much. However, I do tend to agree that there were some key guys on the Rangers who underperformed and while I'm not sure how much of that is on Tortorella, there seemed to be some tension between him and the players. I usually don't buy into the "coach lost the team" narrative, but there have been some current and former players who have talked about what it is like to play under Torts and they didn't have much positive to say. So maybe a fresh start under a new coach will help the Rangers?
Can Vigneault make that much of a difference, though? He has guided the Vancouver Canucks to six Northwest Division titles and two President's Trophies but succeeding in the playoffs has been where his teams have come up short. His coaching strategy is pretty similar to Tortorella's, so I think he is a great fit for the Rangers because there won't be as much of an adjustment period. He could also get through to some of the younger players better than Tortorella did, which could definitely help guys like Mats Zuccarello, JT Miller and Chris Kreider.
The Rangers enter this season with almost the same roster and core pieces as they had the previous season, so it will be interesting to see how much of a difference the coaching change makes. I don't think Tortorella was all of the Rangers problems, but they replaced him with a great coach and have a solid foundation in place so they should have a good season. Will it be good enough to live up to their usual high expectations, though? After the jump, we'll explore that issue and take a closer look at the Rangers roster.
Rangers at a Glance
When looking at these numbers, there are plenty of reasons to feel confident about this season if you're a Rangers fan. They have most of their key pieces returning and all indications are that they were a pretty good team that had trouble scoring. With talents like Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard up front, they should be slightly better at even strength this year. The power play is another story, as the Rangers ranked in the bottom third of the NHL in both power play efficiency and shots per 60 minutes.
John Tortorella and Brad Richards were the two who received the most criticism for the Rangers struggling power play, as the latter quarterbacks the first unit an the former helped run the power play. Richards had a bad season by everyone's eyes, despite his decent production at even strength, and many expected him to be bought out. Tortorella ended up being the one leaving though and Richards appears to be in New York for at least another season. New head coach Alain Vigneault has typically run a solid power play during his tenure with the Canucks so it's possible that Richards could bounce back under him. Although, this might not be enough to spark a power play that was just a complete mess last season.
Ranger fans can take solace in the fact that Henrik Lundqvist remains their goalie for the time being, as the former Vezina winner is capable of keeping his team in every game. Lundqvist is also a goalie who is good enough to make his team a few wins better so if the Rangers even strength play regresses a little, Lundqvist can bail them out of tough situations and give his team more confidence in close games. That is, unless his performance takes a big nose dive, which is unlikely because he is the best goalie in the world right now.
|Who's In?||Who's Out?|
|LW Benoit Pouliot||LW Ryane Clowe|
|C Dominic Moore||D Steve Eminger|
|D Justin Falk||D Roman Hamrlik|
|D Aaron Johnson||D Matt Gilroy|
|RW Brandon Segal|
The Rangers didn't have much cap space to work with and had a few RFA's they needed to re-sign, so Glen Sather ended up having a quiet off-season. They still need to sign Derek Stepan, and have a little under $3 mil. in cap space to make it happen, but I think they will get that done eventually. With that being said, the Rangers didn't lose anyone too important, as Gilroy, Eminger and Hamrlik are all depth defensemen and replaceable while Clowe wasn't with the Rangers long enough to be a significant loss. I also loved the Benoit Pouliot signing. He has been one of the more efficient offensive players in the league for years when it comes to producing relative to his ice time. This should give the Rangers some much needed forward depth and help them early in the season with Hagelin & Callahan hurt. Bringing back Dominic Moore on a one-year deal was also not a bad move since he should be an upgrade over Darroll Powe if his play hasn't dropped off too much.
Both Hagelin and Callahan underwent shoulder surgery after the playoffs and could not be back until December at the latest, which is going to leave a massive hole to fill in the Rangers top-six. Next to Stepan & Nash, these two played the biggest assignments in the Rangers forward corps and one of Brad Richards or Derek Brassard will need to step up into a slightly bigger role to make up for the loss. Richards played a similar role last year and actually had a decent season at even strength, so I suspect that they'll be fine here. Plus, Stepan is healthy and showed that he was capable of being a top-two center last season so the Rangers top line could remain in decent shape.
A player who is a bit of a wild card is Mats Zuccarello. He didn't play much last year but Tortorella wasn't afraid to give him a big role and Zuccarello performed well with it. He was a very effective player at driving possession and his creativity with the puck adds another dimension to the Rangers lineup. I would look for him to step up in the absence of Callahan. Benoit Pouliot should also fit into the equation here too as someone who can play in the top-six if needed.
Getting Marc Staal back in the lineup will be a huge boost to the Rangers, as he carries a heavy burden on their defense corps and will take some pressure of McDonagh & Girardi. These had to do virtually all the heavy-lifting last season after he suffered a gruesome eye injury. How effective he will be after the injury remains to be seen, but Staal's ability to play big minutes makes the Rangers defensive depth about three times better than it was last season. It may also force Michael Del Zotto to the third pairing, which is where he is probably most suited for.
|Left Wing||TOI/G||Corsi%||Center||TOI/G||Corsi%||Right Wing||TOI/G||Corsi%|
|Rick Nash||19:58||55.4||Derek Stepan||20:55||55.3||Ryan Callahan||21:30||52|
|Carl Hagelin||17:18||55.4||Derrick Brassard||16:38||55.4||Mats Zuccarello||16:25||58.2|
|Benoit Pouliot||13:14||50.7||Brad Richards||18:48||53.9||Chris Kreider||10:06||40.9|
|Taylor Pyatt||13:06||48.9||Brian Boyle||14:12||50.1||Derek Dorsett||15:59||46.5|
|Darroll Powe||8:42||40.5||Dominic Moore||N/A||N/A||Arron Asham||6:37||45.8|
The lineups will look very different on opening night with Hagelin & Callahan hurt and I'm not sure who will take over the right wing spot on the first line. Zuccarello's underlying number suggest that he would be a decent fit for it, so I think he will get a shot there. Another thing the Rangers could do is move Derick Brassard to the wing and use him on the first line. He seemed to really turn his game around after being traded to the Rangers and while I don't expect him to continue scoring at a 60-point pace, he is talented enough to play on the wing and could work well with Stepan & Nash. I'm not sure if it will happen, but the Rangers have the center depth to move one of him or Richards over while Callahan recovers.
The Callahan injury could also open the door for youngster Chris Kreider, who bursted onto the scene in the 2012 playoffs but has struggled to find his footing as a full time NHL-er. He is a very good skater and could potentially off-set the loss of Hagelin, but his two-way game hasn't exactly developed well and his underlying numbers have suffered. I would still expect him to get a shot in the top-nine at some point because the Rangers don't have much depth on the right wing and has more of an upside than some of the other player she is competing with.
Pouliot can also off-set the loss of Hagelin depending on how well he produces with top-six minutes. He played on Steven Stamkos' line last season and has a decent skill-set of his own, so I think he could do very well for himself if he is given the ice time. Pouliot is at least an upgrade over Taylor Pyatt at left wing and should give the Rangers some much needed depth scoring once Hagelin returns.
The signing of Dominic Moore was interesting because they made a similar move by acquiring Jeff Halpern last season and he ended up being redundant with Brian Boyle also on the team. Boyle is a very solid defensive center and usually anchors the fourth line when everyone's healthy, so I'm not sure what they'll do with Moore if Brassard plays center. If Vigneault carries over his zone matching strategy from Vancouver, these two will likely take over the Malhotra/Lapierre role and get buried in the defensive zone to boost Stepan or Richards' line.
|Left Defense||TOI/G||Corsi%||Right Defense||TOI/G||Corsi%|
|Ryan McDonagh||24:21||53.9||Dan Girardi||25:24||50.5|
|Marc Staal||24:27||51.1||Anton Stralman||18:02||57.2|
|Michael Del Zotto||23:10||49.7||Aaron Johnson||14:52||60.2|
Even with Staal coming back, McDonagh & Girardi will probably stay attached at the hip on the Rangers top defense pairing. These two play basically all of the tough matchups and were excellent in that role last season. However, Staal being back means that Vigneault won't have to lean so heavily on one defense pairing like Tortorella did for most of last year. This will depend on how effective Staal is coming off the eye injury, though. If he is back to where he was last season, then he should be able to make a great second defense pairing with Anton Stralman or Michael Del Zotto. If he struggles, then Vigneault will probably be forced to ride his top pairing for most of the game, which isn't always a good thing.
Goaltending is one thing the Rangers never have to worry about because Lundqvist is the best in the league. He is presented with a big workload every year and always manages to post a save percentage above .920 despite that. I tend to think that goalie performance is unpredictable, but Lundqvist has consistently put up great numbers over his career and he should be able to do that again this season. As long as he is in net, the Rangers usually have a chance to win no matter how badly they are getting outplayed.
|Michael St. Croix||30|
Two of the Rangers best prospects both played in Sweden last year (Fasth & Lindberg) and I'm not sure when either of them are projected to come to the NHL. I think they want them have them make an impact sooner rather than later, especially with the Rangers current depth at right wing. Other than these two and JT Miller, I don't know who the Rangers plan to call-up this season if needed.
The Final Word
The Rangers are a team that's good enough to win this division. They have talent up front and on defense, elite goaltending and just acquired one of the best coaches in the league. Getting through the first couple of months without Callahan will be a huge test but if they can get to December with a decent record, they could go on to be one of the Top five teams in the East.