Several promising Rangers prospects fell victim to the second round of cuts on Saturday, as the roster was trimmed to 25 players. It seems like the club will at least start the year with only one rookie on the roster, and Stu Bickel does not figure to see much of the ice. This is a turnaround from last season when the opening night lineup included rookies Michael Sauer and Derek Stepan, who both went on to play big roles for the entire season. The phrase commonly used about guys like Hagelin and Bourque is “not NHL-ready” but it seems more like they are ready but not good enough to take spots from the established veterans. This is not a big deal on its own, but when 10 of the 12 forwards on the opening day lineup are almost 100% locks to return next season, these young talents may not get a real shot for a long time. A surplus is a good problem to have, but maybe it is time to take advantage and use the assets to acquire a player for an area of shortage: defense. In the long term, something has got to give.
With Wojtek Wolski sitting due to a lingering groin issue, Brian Boyle got a shot at the top line. We mentioned Boyle as a possibility in this space
and it appears Tortorella is also intrigued by the combination of skill and size he brings to a finesse line. Whether this move was meant as a real tryout for the former first round pick, or just as a temporary filler remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: the Rangers are not interested in moving Dubinsky to the top line. The Pack Line has had success throughout the preseason, but it is intriguing that the move is not being considered at all. Dubinsky seems like the logical choice, and his role on the 2nd line is replaceable, but the role he would play on the top line is not. Either Tortorella has faith that Gaborik and Richards will be successful regardless of linemates, or he does not want to take from Peter to give to Paul.
While I still disagree about the aforementioned issue, I must admit I was wrong about a different issue
. Mats Zuccarello should definitely be the one to crack the starting lineup for the club over any of the other young prospects. His skill level is undeniable, and it was truly on display in the large European rinks this week. It just proves that his only issue will be adjustment to the NHL-style of play. Yes, he is not a typical fourth liner, but he brings that extra threat to a line that is typically weak on offense. It is also nice to have a 12th forward who can play the power play; that role may be the best way to utilize the strengths of his game. He will have struggles, there is no doubt of that, but in the long run it is important to have the most skilled team possible. That makes Zuke the obvious choice.
They have played a bunch of games together, but we have yet to see truly amazing hockey from the Richards/Gaborik combo. There is still plenty of time left for them, and you have to believe it will all come together. But even at this point, the contributions of Richards are impossible to ignore. Most importantly, the power play has transformed from stagnant to downright creative. Pucks and players are moving all over, and Richards distributed the puck from the point with confidence and no hesitation. Granted, they have the advantage of larger ice surfaces and weak opposition, but it is clear that in strategy, at least, the power play is improved. The only problem remaining is Gaborik on the point. He looks uncomfortable as a puck distributer. We would like to see him sitting in the “Shanny-zone” in the slot, where he only needs to worry about shooting the puck.
At the bottom of the food chain, Sean Avery and Erik Christensen are awaiting the final verdict. One of the two will be cut before the regular season starts. While many dislike Christensen for his inconsistency, we are beginning to think he is worth a spot more than Avery. He can at least score at times, unlike Avery who has not been the same offensive threat that he was before his ill-fated stint with the Stars. He also is not a loose cannon, and while Avery can be effective as an agitator (see: Simmonds, Wayne- 2 minutes, roughing), he can also lose himself in the heat of the moment (see: 2 minutes, unsportsmanlike conduct). The value of a shootout specialist can also not be understated, and Christensen is a breakaway master. The fans like Avery, at least the ones in New York, but the Rangers need to avoid the unpredictability of an agitator on the decline.
Meanwhile, the backend of the team seems to be in trouble. With Staal out, the formidable young defense looks much less formidable. Michael Del Zotto still has issues. Michael Sauer is hurt. The Rangers cannot afford to play Stu Bickel or Brendan Bell as a 6th defenseman, but they are both one injury away from a spot on the lineup. Right now, with two defenseman hurt, they will both be in the lineup. The defense has been successful in the past in bandaging the weakness of one defenseman (see: Gilroy, Matt), but it will be tough to hide the weakness of a Del Zotto/Bell, much less a Bickel/Bell pairing. Unless Staal gets healthy soon or Erixon figures it out in Hartford, it is going to be a long few months for Henrik Lundqvist.
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