Last night on the HockeyBuzz Podcast, Leafs writer Mike Augello picked the New York Rangers to win the Atlantic Division. The founder of this site responded in disbelief, comparing such a prediction to picking the Leafs to win the Northeast. But this reaction is unsurprising, if you have read Eklund’s Atlantic Divison preview, in which he questions the Rangers’ chemistry and toughness.
To which I ask, what Rangers team have you been watching?
The Rangers have their issues, and we will get to that later in the blog, but to think that they are lacking some sort of jump in the lineup is ridiculous.
The Rangers have a number of energy players, starting with Brandon Prust, Brandon Dubinsky, Mike Rupp, and Captain Ryan Callahan. There are many others who play a physical, mean game, but it would be foolish to list the majority of players on the roster. All you really need to know about the Rangers toughness is that they led the NHL in hits and were 4th in blocked shots. The Rangers are also willing to drop the gloves, and they picked up the 6th most fighting majors in the league. So there is no doubt the Rangers have many tough players on the squad.
Maybe that is hard to see because they are also good at hockey, unlike some of the bullies who have recently skated on Broad Street.
As far as chemistry is concerned, there is really only one question mark: Brad Richards playing with Marian Gaborik.
In theory, this should work out, but the same was said about Jagr and Gomez in 2007. We will not know until the season gets underway but suffice it so say that if the two struggle to mesh, the Rangers will as well. But going down the lineup, the lines are pretty much all the same from last season. Callahan is playing with Anisimov. Boyle is playing with Prust. And Stepan is playing with Zuccarello. All of these combinations had success in the past and if they struggle, it won’t be an issue of chemistry.
However, addressing Eklund’s misconceptions about the Rangers does not explain how they will top the Atlantic Division. In addition to the toughness and chemistry the team brings to the ice, the Rangers have other strengths that should lead to success.
It starts with Henrik Lundqvist, who is the only goalie in the NHL to finish in the top 12 in GAA and Sv% every
season since the lockout. He is consistently in the Vezina race, and nobody questions his skill as a top goalie. Whether he will make the jump to actually win the trophy is a nice debate, but not truly relevant. Either way, he keeps the Rangers in games night in and night out. His skills allow the Rangers to take more chances on offense, and helps the entire team. When he gets hot, Lundqvist can win games on his own, something that is crucial for teams that don’t have a top offense in the league.
The Rangers strength down the middle is also enviable. Enough has been said about Brad Richards, but the rest of the centers are young and promising. Anisimov, Stepan, and Boyle scored 18, 21 and 21 goals respectively in 2010-11 and are on the rise in their careers. As we have seen with past Stanley Cup Champions Pittsburgh and Chicago, one of the most important aspects of the game is the play center ice; the Rangers just happen to be very talented in that position.
This is also a prime opportunity for success in the division. The Islanders are improving but not quite a threat for the division crown yet. The Devils had struggles last year. Granted that was followed by great success, but Brodeur is one year older and there is no guarantee that the “real” Devils was the team that went on a tear in desperation time. The Flyers lost two of their most important pieces to get a goalie who may not even win the starting job from Sergei Bobrovsky. And Pittsburgh is obviously dealing with the loss of Sidney Crosby.
Now these are all talented teams, and the division is certainly not going to be a cakewalk. But everybody is dealing with their issues, and it is wide open for one of those teams to overcome adversity and capitalize.
The Rangers also have their fair share of adversity to deal with. They finished 16th in the league in scoring, but even that number was undeserved as the bulk of those goals came in blowout games, leaving few goals left to spread around for the rest of the season. But a few minor assumptions indicate that as a team, the Rangers scoring will improve dramatically.
It is probably fair to assume that most of the following young forwards will see a
bump in offense as part of their normal development: Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan, Artem Anisimov, and Mats Zuccarello. Brad Richards will help the scoring total himself, while helping Marian Gaborik to improve, at least somewhat, on his miserable 22 goal campaign. Meanwhile, the highest scorer the Rangers lost in the offseason is Vinny Prospal, who tallied all of 9 goals for the club. The dismal power play should also improve from 18th best, now that the club has a legitimate quarterback at the point.
Put all these factors together, and depending on how much improvement is shown, the Rangers can be closer to the top 10 scoring teams in the NHL. Couple that with Henrik Lundqvist and the 5th best goals against in the league from last season, and the Rangers are looking very strong.
The big issue is the defense, which looked very strong, albeit very young, when Marc Staal was a part of it. Now, it looks shaky, as the Rangers are forced to play Michael Del Zotto and Time Erixon in bigger roles than expected. Even so, these young players have tremendous talent, both 1st round picks in the NHL Entry Draft. However, they are likely to have struggles as they adjust to playing the pro game. Until Staal comes back, the Rangers will be vulnerable. Their shot at the division will hang in the balance, and they need to weather the storm for as long as possible until he returns. If he doesn’t come back, then they probably are out of the running. But if he does, this becomes a solid team in every aspect of the game.
Even the haters will agree to that.
Hate on the Rangers in the comment section below
"Opinion Blogs" every Thursday or Friday
"Weekly Recap/Preview Blogs" every Monday
Follow me on Twitter @ragstworiches