For NHL teams, most seasons can be defined by one factor. One segment of the team that made the season a success or a failure. For the 2011 Bruins, Tim Thomas was that factor. He was the difference maker for them, the biggest reason why Boston is celebrating yet another major sports title. The same goes for teams that failed; the Rangers’ season can very well be defined by their success, or lack thereof, on the power play.
The same holds true for the start of every new season. There are certain factors that are givens: we know Henrik Lundqvist will be spectacular, and we know that Marc Staal will be a force. And for the Rangers, there are very few question marks surrounding this team. The goaltending should be solid, as should the defense, and the bottom six forwards. Even the top six forwards carry little uncertainty; Dubinsky, Callahan, and Anisimov have been very consistent in improving from season to season. Stepan may have a sophmore slump, but that is not an overwhelming possibility. Richards may have injury issues, but the doctors did give him a clean bill of health. The only big question mark, the factor that will be a turning point in the entire season, is the man this offseason was based on.
Yes, the Rangers brought in Brad Richards to quarterback the power play, to center the top line, and to win faceoffs. But the most important reason they invested $60 million in the man was to protect a different investment they made two years ago. They needed to jump start Gaborik.
Brad Richards, in and of himself, is worthless to the Rangers. He can make perfect passes all game long, but it won’t matter if there is nobody there to bury the puck. His entire value is dependant on the club’s finisher. If Gaborik struggles, so will Richards. And if both players have trouble early, the media and fans will circle like vultures in a feeding frenzy to criticize yet another of Glen Sather’s free agent signings.
Whether Gaborik will succeed is no lock, not by any stretch of the imagination. Even if we put aside the health issue and assume that he plays, if not 82 then at least 70 games. The fact that Brad Richards is his pivot does not guarantee that he will score. Just four years ago, the general consensus was that Jaromir Jagr would be a scoring machine with Scott Gomez feeding him. His lack of success wasn’t so much based on Gomez’s struggles as much as because they did not find any chemistry. The result: the two rarely play on the same line, both have down years, and Jagr is given a one way ticket to the KHL.
So it does not matter how proven Brad Richards is. It matters if Gaborik plays well personally, and if he plays well in tandem with Richards.
Gaborik is the key to this whole season, and to the next few seasons when the Rangers look to make a run at a Cup. If he succeeds and puts up 40 goals or so, the Rangers are going to end up with a powerful, yes powerful, offense. If he struggles, then lines get shuffled, other players are forced to bear the brunt of the opposition’s top defensive pairing, and everybody suffers.
So while a whole lot changed over the past few days for the Rangers, everything is really exactly the same.
It all depends on Marian Gaborik.
Read my other article on HockeyRT