Tough way to go out if you're a Ranger's fan. After a rough start and numerous highs and lows over the course of the season, the team looked good heading into the playoffs, just like last year. And just like last year, the team is done in the second round. Clearly things have to change to get over the hump and contend: Fortunately (I guess...) turnover in today's NHL is rapid. This years playoff team, and the one that got bounced in four to the Devils in the first round the year before last had eleven players in common. And Prucha hardly counts in the emasculated form he's been reduced to since his 30 goal rookie season when he was flying around the ice like a coked up midget. So we'll call it a round ten.
And even that is misleading. Lundqvist and Tyutin were given contract extensions, and are here for the long haul: They're the two longest tenured members of the organization, if you can believe that, acquired at the start of the millenium, 2000 and 2001 respectively.
The HBO line remains rostered in blueshirts too, but they alternate as fourth liners and healthy scratches: Betts is a very good checking line center with vast penalty killing skills, and a fearlessness in blocking shots. Even with his face. We all hope he heals up well in the off season. Orr can fight (ex. 1a: Fedoruk, Todd at 0:21 of the first period, 03/21/07) and Holly is well.. a jolly presence in the locker room, but his impact on the actual ice tends to slant heavily towards... well, I don't want to say negative... but I just did. Boarding? Again? Seriously?
The rest of the ten are unrestricted free agents this off season: Malik has deteriorated and will be gone in two months- hell, for all intensive purposes, he's already been gone for two months, and he was never really all here to begin with. Strudwick and his mustache contribute more off the ice than on, but thats kind of been his MO throughout his whole career. Did you know he's related to Rob Niedermayer? Who is brothers with Scott Niedermayer!! Wow. Rozsival has been... alright. He's gifted offensively, but doesn't really do too well leading the power play, and he's below average defensively. If he comes back, okay. If he leaves, okay. I think that kind of indifference is pretty unanimous amongst Ranger's faithful.
That brings us to two: Straka, who may have something left in the tank, but not as a top line winger. Frankly, I'm not too concerned about him, but I think he's likely to go wherever the big man goes: Jaromir Jagr. Jags has been very uncertain of what he wants to do and where he wants to go. Earlier in the season, I was alright with the idea that number 68 may be on his closing tour of Broadway, but seeing him play as passionately as he did down the stretch and in the playoffs, I'd like to see him back for an encore... as long as his heart is in it. Maybe he's not good for 100 points over the course of the season, he's getting old, maybe he did it right, so that the fire burned brightest when it counted most. I don't really want to see him given the Teemu Selanne treatment either, I hope if he comes back, he's there for the opener in his hometowns backyard, against the Lightning. If not, well then, the team moves on. Really, Jagr's decision will shape the 08-09 season more than anything else.
So, who's still gonna be at the Garden on game night? Well, the team is set down the middle: With Drury and Gomez still around for the longterm, and Dubinsky proving he belongs, we've got three playmakers centering our scoring lines. Its really a matter of who they're going to make plays with: Scrappy Ryan Callahan and the aforementioned shell of Peter Prucha, who they've either gotta give some ice time or give up on and trade, are the only wingers currently under guaranteed contract. Nigel Dawes, who has shown he can score (and be a weapon in the shootout) and Freddy Sjostrom are restricted free agents that should both return. I'm excited for what both of them bring to the table. But of the four, none of them is a first line scoring threat at the moment. On the blue line, Marc Staal is our number one guy for today, tomorrow, and the next day. Like everyone else in the family, the kid can play. He's an asset. Tyutin's regular partner in crime, Dan Girardi, a success of the Ranger's organization, has a lot to learn, but he's solid in the middle or back end of the rotation. Then there's Christian Backman, who may be destined to fill Malik's skates for a year, as the big, soft defenseman that gets booed. He's shown flashes of some real offensive potential. and maybe some of his (really) dumb penalties show more of a propensity to be aggressive than his predecessor, but I think even the most optimistic of fans can only really say they're not really too excited to see him back.
Now, of the veterans who are currently in contractual limbo, the only guy who I think is an absolute must sign is our super pest, Sean Avery. The guy loves New York, and he bleeds Ranger blue... so much so that he nearly died for the team, at least if you listened to the Daily News in the morning hours following game three. He even got a summer job here in the city- working for Vogue... whatever dude, its the off season, I don't care what he does. He absolutely must remain under the diagonal RANGERS banner.
After him... Shanahan, love him, but he's old. Let him go... to retirement, to Boston, to Detroit... wherever. Thanks for a couple good years in New York, wearing the A, throwing down when you needed to... you'll be remembered fondly here Shanny. Mara? He's okay. If we can't upgrade, bringing him back wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but he's not worth the cap hit we inherited bringing him over, either. Valiquette? Uh, sure. Not a big deal to me who plays the ten or so times Henrik gets a break, and and least we know the gangly dude owns the Flyers... If the King goes down for any substantial period of time, the season is going to be a wash anyway, as he's the key to this team's success.
New York demands results. The Rangers, like the Yankees, will always have a tough time legitimizing any sort of youth movement or rebuilding phase, because the pressure to win is always for today... there's no option to organize like the Phoenix Coyotes and just let a ton of young talent spend years getting it together. The Rangers are going to sign some free agents, like they do every off season. In this market, they have to. But after years of mercenary employment (and the subsequent failures therein) they have found a better formula of mixing youth with experience. Heading into this off season, the needs are simple, but the solutions are not: The Rangers need goalscoring wingers, and defenseman to quarterback, and to hit someone. We didn't have a bone rattling checker all year. Thats a major weakness.
In terms of our dearth of wingers, there are a few big names out there: Hossa (the good one, not the one we shipped to the desert) and Rolston the most prominent of them. I like the idea of adding one of them should Jagr depart (and I prefer Rolston for his leadership and big shot) for several reasons: First of all, either one will score at least thirty goals, something no one one the roster this year managed. I guess Vrbata or Huselius on the other side would be alright, but they're both prone to streakiness, and veterans need to be consistent to allow the prospects the opportunity to learn. Ryan Malone is an interesting option as a power forward, although word is he intends to stay a Penguin if at all possible. One winger thats been mentioned as a possibility is Ruslan Fedotenko, who's been on the island since winning the cup with the Lightning. Forgive me if I'm being rash, but I don't think any islander is going to be answer to our scoring woes.
This past year, the defensive corps were very ordinary in their approach. Besides Staal, who is a stud in waiting, the back line pairings were solid, but average. No big hitters to clear the slot, no one to man the point on the power play, and it showed. There are a few options for both in free agency: Campbell, or Streit are the top of the class, and will cost as much. Pulling Wade Redden out of Ottawa has been mentioned as another high profile possibility, along with talk of signing relative youngsters Ron Hainsey or John-Michael Liles. Mike Commodore stands out to me as a real defenseman's defenseman, and I'd like the team to inquire there if possible... along with Brooks Orpik, who some have already declared an inevitable Ranger, the heir apparent to Jeff Beukaboom. We'll see.
Luring in a stud RFA is within the realm of possibility, especially if we don't resign the big names we've lost. Going after wingers like Andrew Ladd from Chicago, Martin Erat from Nashville, Marek Svatos from Colorado, Chuck Kobasew from Boston, or defenseman like Shea Weber or Ryan Suter from Nashville, Mark Stuart or Dennis Wideman from Boston, Steve Eminger or Mike Green from Washington could be effective...although the chances of signing any of them are clearly limited... especially without overpaying them, sometimes the vultures will win, so it shouldn't be disregarded. The team's salary is going to butt up against the cap no matter what.
Of the prospects, right now I'm only concerned with those that may contribute this coming year... Cherepanov is promising, and I hope he's here sooner rather than later, but I hear he's going to spend another year in Russia, so not much to say if that proves to be the case. Ansimov looks alright, but we seem to be set at center for the next half decade. so barring injury, I'm not sure where there's a place for him. Dupont is a power forward prospect, but like the rest of these guys, we'll have to see when a spot opens up, over the course of the season. The wingers, Korpikoski, Byers, Moore, and Jessiman all have a shot of finding a roster slot; Pyatt and Bourret are both probably at least a year away, bur promising. Defensively, Baranka may be ready to make the jump from the minors, but more highly touted prospects Sanguinetti and Sauer may be another year or two, but are going to be studs. The defense, which has been very mediocre, is on its way to becoming a surefire strength.
I'm excited to see how this all pans out. Until then, well, we're super bowl champions, and now its baseball season, This year's hockey team joins the last couple as good but not great, hopefully a building block towards raising the cup again. It will have been 15 years since Messier brought it home. High time for another one.