The past two years for the New York Rangers have been whimsically scripted. In 2011, a year after losing lamely to the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs, little was expected of the Rangers entering the season. Save free agent acquisition Brad Richards, they were mostly the same team, which is to say Henrik Lundqvist and a lot of shot blockers.
But the Rangers bought into John Tortorella’s “safe is death” philosophy and surged to the top of the Eastern Conference, growing faster by the month like a 5-Express Train. Eventually, they bowed out to the Devils in the Conference Finals, but even the sting of losing to those cross-river upstarts (they will always be “those cross-river upstarts” to Rangers fans) couldn’t diminish what a marvelous season it had been.
After toiling in that pack of good-enough-to-get-in, not-good-enough-to-advance teams for six years, there was suddenly a new standard for the Blueshirts. So when they added Rick Nash last summer to beef up the offense, expectations went soaring through the Garden roof. With a deep set of defenseman, a talented outfit of forwards and the best goalie in the universe, the Rangers look poised to make a legitimate run at The Cup.
And what did they do? They did what they often do best: heard the hype and ran the other way. They stumbled through most of the lockout-shortened season, winning just enough games to stay relevant and not nearly enough to be relevant. A late-season surge lifted them to the sixth seed in the East, whereupon they dispatched the Capitals in the first round, but the Rangers fell limp in the ensuing series and were sent home quietly by the Bruins in five games. With the bar raised higher for the team, it was a soundly disappointing season.
So what’s this all to say? Well, it’s impossible to know what the Rangers will do this season. Telling the team’s fortunes is as sure a thing as predicting earthquakes. For when they seem to have vanished, they materialize out of nothing, and when they seem to have finally dug their feet into the ground, they fall right through. With that in mind, here’s an earnest – and most likely erroneous – season preview for the Broadway Blueshirts.
In an offseason where shortsighted contracts were handed out like penny candy, the Rangers stayed quiet. For Glen Sather, it was an unusual display of restraint and it came at the right time. The main pieces are already in place for a Cup run, and the team needed only a winger here and a center there to complete the puzzle.
So Sather went out and signed Benoit Pouliot, a bottom-six forward with some scoring ability (37 goals in the past three seasons), and Dominic Moore, an ex-Garden favorite and the kind of player you love to play with and simply hate to play against. Neither were blockbuster moves by any means, but both represent significant upgrades over last season’s personnel.
The left-winger Pouliot will slide into the 3rd/4th line wing role occupied last season by Darrel Powe, who failed to record a point in 34 games, something you just about have to try to accomplish in a sport that awards secondary assists. (For now, with Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin still sidelined, Pouliot will play on the second line to fill the void.)
Moore – who is returning to hockey after a one-year hiatus to care for his late wife, Katie – will takeover as the team’s 4th line center, a job last season that turned into an unlikely game of Hot Potato. Players fell out of the role as quickly as they gained it, and the one man who held onto it for more than a few shifts, Jeff Halpern, was cut in late March. He had 1 assist through 30 games.
Moore has made his living in the NHL as a 4th line center – winning faceoffs, dogging forwards, generally pestering anyone within a stick’s length – and understands his duty on the ice. And if he can put forth his usual 10-goal, 10-assist season, that’s approximately 10 more goals and 10 more assists than the 4th line centers provided last year. Two players who make a combined $2.3 million this season may earn their year’s pay within the first month.
If the Rangers don’t look much different on the bench, they look drastically different behind it. John Tortorella, who fell out of favor in New York sometime last spring, was fired in late May and soon replaced by Alain Vigneault, former coach of the Canucks. In Vancouver, Vingeault’s teams were known for two things: a high-scoring offense and a lethal power play. In New York, Tortorella’s teams were known for a lot of things – namely, the value of two points over two limbs – but never were they known for a high-scoring offense or a lethal power play.
From 2009-2011, Vigneault’s Canucks scored 767 goals for an average of 3.11/gm over three seasons, far and away the highest in the NHL. In that same time span, Tortorella’s Rangers scored 664 goals for an average of 2.7/gm, which placed the Rangers well in the bottom half of the league. Random sample? Not so much. Those were the three highest-scoring Ranger teams under Tortorella, and they still didn’t even come close to what Vigneault was orchestrating in Vancouver.
Ultimately, this – not the media, not locker room dissent, not Henrik Lundqvist’s contract – is what drove Tortorella out of town. Only two Stanley Cup winners since 2000 finished outside the league’s top 10 in scoring, and one of those teams had a prime-of-his-career Martin Brodeur in net, and the other learned how to score right around the beginning of May (‘11/’12 Kings). You have to score goals to win championships and you have to win championships to stay in New York, and so died John Tortorella.
For his first full three seasons as bench boss in Manhattan, Tortorella was pardoned given the team’s lack of firepower. Not even Viktor Tikhonov, famed coach of the Red Army, could have coaxed enough offense out of those slender Ranger teams, who looked at opposing 100-point scorers in reverent awe, amazed such players even existed. Last season, though, Tortorella was given the goods. Rick Nash was shipped in. Marian Gaborik was returning. Ryan Callahan, too. Derek Stepan was blossoming into a superstar. And yet Torts, with the ingredients for an offensive machine, cooked up the same defensively-minded team he had in years past: responsible but mechanical, smart but uncreative.
Therein lies the challenge for Vigneault. With a stable full of guys that can get up and down the ice – that want to get up and down the ice – he has to abandon the reins and let them fly. His defensive unit, which moves as well as any in the league with the likes of Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and John Moore, is capable of joining the offense and recovering defensively. And if they don’t, the Rangers have the best security blanket money can buy looming between the pipes. Indeed, rushing up ice with Henrik Lundqvist in net is like practicing backflips over a pool of Jell-O. More often than not, you’ll be fine. Speaking of Moore, one of the players acquired in the Gaborik trade last season, look for this young defenseman to have a breakout season in New York. The 22-year-old American skates so well, so smoothly, Tortorella himself admitted to mistaking him for McDonagh several times last spring. He has a long, powerful stride, and the kind of engine that is rearing to race: if he is given an inch, he’ll take a mile. Under Vigneault, a coach always known for involving his defensemen offensively, Moore will have the opportunity to use his legs and make plays with his speed. He’s on the third defensive pairing right now, but look for him to move up the depth chart as the year progresses.
And if we’re in the business of predicting big seasons, keep an eye on Derick Brassard – another player acquired in the Gaborik deal. From the moment he came over from Columbus to the Rangers’ final game in May, Brassard was arguably the best player on the team. In 13 regular season games he tallied 11 points, before turning smoke into fire in the playoffs, where he racked up 12 points in 12 games. A playmaking center, “Brass” is the kind of player who could turn Darrel Powe into a goal-scorer. Go stand near the net, keep your stick on the ice and I’ll get you the puck. He’s not a speed demon, by any means, but he moves fluidly enough to make up for it. In fact the way Brassard weaves this way and that, circling here and then spinning there, never moving fast but always moving somewhere, brings to mind the play of the Sedin Twins, who, you might recall, just about took over the NHL while playing for Vigneault in Vancouver. For now, Brassard is centering Pouliot and the nifty-mitted Mats Zuccarello, a line combo that showed early signs of chemistry in the preseason. If Pouliot can channel his goal-scoring ways from his years in Montreal, this trio has the potential to be an early-season lifeline with Callahan and Hagelin still sidelined.
In fact, the Rangers’ secondary scoring will not be any more important this season than in the first three weeks. They start the year with a nine-game road trip, the first four on the west coast, and they’ll be doing it all with a depleted roster. And it’s not just the injuries to Callahan and Hagelin. Stepan, though healthy and back in the fold, reported to the training camp for the first time last week due to a contract holdout. He’s been thrown right on the first line, as expected, but the 23-year-old center can’t be expected to be in full form when the puck drops in Phoenix. If guys like Zuccarello, Pouliot, J.T. Miller and rookie Jesper Fast can fill the offensive void until the team is at full strength, the Rangers will be in fine shape come November. But if like last season, the burden all falls on Rick Nash and – gulp – Brad Richards, the Blueshirts could be digging themselves out of a hole before they even play a game on home ice.
If they come out of the road trip alive, they will most likely have their robust defense and that guy in net to thank. And that’s fine for the Rangers. They have proven – oh, for the past seven years – that six defensemen and a goalie is sometimes all they need. But when the Rangers are back home October 28, with the Garden ice lit up for the first time since May and the team dressed as designed, a new identity will have to be formed. That old one doesn’t suit them anymore; they simply wore it out. Even if it were taken off the rack yesterday, it wouldn’t fit this team anyway. These Rangers aren’t designed to cave toward the net in their own zone, block shots and then dump-and-chase. Enough with the valiant struggle of a 2-1 win. These Rangers are designed to attack, to press the opponent, and take confident risks. Instead of trying to coax a win out of hiding, careful not to scare it away, go after it, pursue it, hunt the damn thing down. Maybe by April, they’ll have caught enough of them to be where they belong.