Every year The Hockey News publishes their yearbook which includes their predictions on the final placements of each team within their conference for the upcoming season. This year they are posting on their website, http://thehockeynews.com
, their predictions one place at a time. Needless to say I was quite surprised that they picked the Rangers to finish 13th in the East. Look, I thoroughly enjoy reading their preview magazine and the website. I think that Adam Proteau is one of the best hockey writers out there. However I have to emphatically disagree with their prediction of the Rangers finishing 13th in the Eastern Conference!!!
First let’s look at the Rangers: obviously they have radically changed their forward lineup by subtracting Scott Gomez, Nik Zherdev, Nik Antropov, Blair Betts, Fredrik Sjostrom, Lauri Korpikoski and Colton Orr while replacing them with Marian Gaborik, Chris Higgins, Ales Kotalik, Enver Lisin and Donald Brashear. They also saw veteran defensemen Derek Morris and Paul Mara leave via free agency. The team is expecting last year’s Hobey Baker winner as the best player in the NCAA last year, Matt Gilroy, to step in and assume a spot out of camp while also holding a spot for another rookie from an impressive crop of young blue liners. The King is back in net and as long as he stays healthy the Rangers will be strong in net.
Granted, figuring out what to expect from this team isn’t easy; frankly I’d rather take a shot at explaining where babies come from to a bunch of little kids. The Rangers do have the components up front to have a balanced attack especially if a couple of the younger players step it up. Of the players expected to skate a regular shift up front with the team, 5 (Drury, Gaborik, Callahan, Higgins and Kotalik) have scored 20+ goals in a season within the last couple of years. Sean Avery has a season in which he scored 18 goals and was on pace to score 16 last season if he had played a full schedule. Young players like Artem Anisimov, Enver Lisin and Brandon Dubinsky can realistically be expected to challenge the 20 goal mark in the coming years.
Defensively, they should be as good (I know, good is a relative term) as last year despite the losses of Mara and Morris just because I can’t imagine both Rozsival and Redden can be as bad as they were last year. Gilroy has the potential to be a solid two-way defender and at 24 and with his college experience, he should be able to step right in without missing much of a beat.
The King is the King and has deservedly been a Vezina trophy candidate for 3 of his 4 years in the league. He seems to slump for a stretch each year and it will be important for the team to get quality starts (and more of them) from backup Steve Valiquette; especially since Lundqvist will likely be the starter for Team Sweden at the Olympcs this year. The Rangers can not afford for Lundqvist to break down or wear out during the season.
John Tortorella will also get a full training camp to work with the team on improving their stamina and endurance. It seemed as if the squad would start to tire late in games last season after Torts took over. I also have a lot of faith in Tortorella’s coaching. I am confident that in a couple of years he can get this team deep into the playoffs.
I think it’s fair to say at this point that the team should be as good this year as they were last year. It’s not as if they won the President’s trophy and/or lost a lot of high end contributors from last year’s team. So if this team is as good as last years and The Hockey News predicts a 13th place finish then obviously a lot of the teams that finished behind the Rangers improved, right?? Really, where? I don’t see it. Here’s a breakdown of the teams that finished behind the Rangers in last year’s standings and whether or not they have improved themselves at all.
15. Islanders – They made the right move in drafting Tavares but in order to make up the 34 points they finished behind the Rangers they need more than that and the signing of 2 steady, if unspectacular, net minders.
14. Lightning – The Lightning have improved their greatest weakness, the defense, by adding solid vets like Matt Walker and Mattias Ohlund via UFA. But combine an uncertain ownership situation and an unproven coach, is it realistic to believe they can improve by 29 points over last year?
13. Thrashers - The Thrashers made a solid addition by picking up veteran D Pavel Kubina from Toronto. He is expensive at $5 million but only has one year left on his deal and the cost in terms of trade wasn’t too high. The team also added UFA Nik Antropov so they should be more potent offensively. However, their goaltending is still a big question mark and they would have to depend too much on young players like Bogosian and Little to expect them to improve by 19 points.
12. Toronto – The Leafs’ biggest move was bringing in Brian Burke to oversee their rebuild. He added UFA’s Mike Komisarek and Francois Beauchemin to an already solid defense corps. Toronto is still lacking in offensive ability and by adding the toughness that they did this off-season will probably be short-handed a lot this season. That was not a situation in which they excelled at this past season. Goaltending is also an issue unless Toskala steps up or Gustavsson proves to be the real deal.
11. Senators – Sure they added the enigmatic Alexei Kovalev to boost their offense but face the likelihood of having to deal top line LW Dany Heatley. Right now the suitors aren’t exactly falling all over themselves to give up the farm for Dany boy so the chance remains that the distraction known as Dany Heatley will still be a member of the Senators come opening night. That situation won’t make it easy to improve upon last year’s result.
10. Buffalo – Lost Jaroslav Spacek and replaced him with steady vet Steve Montador but have done little else to date this off-season. They would need an injury-free season from Tim Connolly and some productive seasons from young players to move up into a playoff spot in my opinion. Ryan Miller also has to be healthy and more consistent.
9. Florida – They lost their best player in Jay Bouwmeester and have added nothing of real significance to off-set that loss. Unless one or more of the underachieving group of forwards (Horton, Weiss, Olesz) or youngsters like Michal Frolik and Shawn Matthias are ready to step up then Florida will struggle to be as good as last year.
Additionally, two teams that finished ahead of the Rangers in the standings, the Hurricanes and the Devils, did little to upgrade their rosters this off-season and appear poised to potentially fall out of the playoffs entirely. The Canes only finished 2 points ahead of the Rangers and besides replacing injured vet Frank Kaberle with vet Aaron Ward on defense, the Canes have done very little to improve their roster. I am also not convinced that Cam Ward is a top notch starting goalie in the NHL. I can see the Canes falling a few spots and missing the playoffs this year.
For the Rangers, who finished 7th in the East last year, to drop all the way to 13th, 6 teams would have to jump them in the standings. Of the group mentioned above I only see 1 or 2 teams that would seem able to make that leap (Tampa and maybe Toronto). That also assumes other teams like the Canes or Devils don’t fall in the standings also. I just don’t see why THN picked the Rangers to place that low in the conference. Personally I think that the Rangers will finish anywhere from 6th to 10th in the Eastern Conference Standings. I know, I am not exactly going out on a limb or anything but that’s how unknown this squad is. What do my fellow Rangers fans think?
*Note: My fiancé just signed me up for a Twitter account and I don’t know anything about it.. I am at 2 followers right now. I wonder if I can get that to 20 by the end of this week. Help me out and follow me on Twitter at Gkmkiller.