Published September 28, 2011
| Sports Network
The New York Rangers returned to the postseason last year after missing it the year before, but still failed to get out of the first round, falling in five games to the Washington Capitals.
Although, the Rangers showed some moxie down the stretch by going 6-3-1 helping them secure the final playoff spot in the season's final weekend, the team continued to have trouble lighting the lamp.
Never was that more apparent than last season, as the team had just one player with over 50 points in Brandon Dubinsky, who posted a career-best 54 points and led the club in both goals (24) and assists (30).
A big reason for the lack of scoring has been the inability to find a No. 1 center, a void the Rangers have been trying to fill basically since Mark Messier left the first time back in 1997.
So when Brad Richards hit the free agent market it was almost a fait a accompli that the Rangers would be in the mix and would do anything it took to get him to Broadway, where he would be reunited with former coach John Tortorella for whom he was a Conn Smythe winner when the two won a Stanley Cup together for the Tampa Bay Lighting back in 2004.
The 31-year-old native of Prince Edward Island eventually agreed to a monster nine-year, $58 million deal following a season in Dallas that saw him score 28 goals with 49 assists in 72 games.
But the free agent market has been unkind to the Rangers in years' past. However, some have said that the addition of Richards could be the most important for the club since it acquired Messier via trade way back in 1991.
Speaking of Drury, the former captain decided to call it quits this offseason after playing in just 24 injury-plagued games last season.
Regardless of how good Richards is, though, the Rangers success still lies between the pipes where goaltender Henrik Lundqvist remains one of the best in the game at his position.
The netminder is coming off another terrific season and should be poised for another big year which kicks off in his native Sweden.
FORWARDS - As stated above the Rangers addressed a glaring need this offseason in obtaining a true No. 1 center in Richards, who will no doubt help a sluggish offense that last year ranked 16th in the league with 2.73 goals-per- game.
Richards arrival should have the biggest impact on right wing Marian Gaborik, who seemed to be bothered by injuries all of last season, as he netted 22 goals and 26 assists in just 62 games.
Gaborik, though, has had a knack of alternating good seasons and bad seasons, meaning a 40-plus goal campaign similar to his first year with the Blueshirts could be on tap, especially given the fact that he will playing with an elite center for the first time in his career.
Richards should also bolster a power-play unit that last year ranked 18th in the league, converting at a 16.9-percent clip. Tortorella has actually toyed with the idea of using five forwards on the Rangers' top power-play unit this season.
Newly appointed captain Callahan managed 48 points last season, setting career highs in goals (23) and assists (25) despite missing 22 games because of injury. He also led the team with 10 power-play goals.
Dubinsky, who led all Rangers forwards last season with 20:13 of ice time, will get a chance early on to skate on the top line with Richards and Gaborik, but judging by what has gone on in camp thus far that coveted spot could go to Wojtek Wolski, who was acquired midseason from Phoenix last year and scored six goals and had 13 assists in 37 games for the Rangers.
Should Wolski play with the top line, Dubinsky would likely play with Callahan and the hard-working Artem Anisimov, who established career-highs in goals (18), assists (26) and points (44) last season.
Young center Derek Stepan (21g, 24a) was a breakout star for the Rangers a year ago and the team is hoping for a similar result from Mats Zuccarello, who was in and out of the lineup last season.
Then there is the enigmatic, always controversial Sean Avery, who at times flashes the skill to be one of the team's top-six forwards, but more often than not leaves you scratching your head with his inability to stay within himself.
Avery, though, has never been truly embraced by Tortorella and could finally be wearing out his welcome in New York, despite being beloved by the Madison Square Garden faithful.
DEFENSE - Marc Staal was an All-Star for the first time last season and logged the fourth most minutes in the league at 25:44. He and Dan Girardi, who led the league with 236 blocked shots, emerged as one of the top shutdown tandems in the game.
However, Staal could be huge question mark, as he has been battling headaches stemming from a concussion after being hit by his brother, Eric, in a game last February. Staal did not travel with the team to Europe, but could join them in time for Opening Night.
Expectations are high for Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh, both of whom were pleasant surprises in their rookie campaigns last season for an overall generally solid corps.
Also Tim Erixon could be a huge addition following an under-the-rader pickup this offseason. Erixon showed signs last year of rounding into a complete defenseman, as he has the skating ability to join the rush, but rarely gets caught out of position.
Michael Del Zotto could be an X-Factor on the back line. He was tremendous in his rookie year two seasons ago, but was a huge disappointment a year ago and ended the campaign playing in the team's minor league system.
GOALTENDING - They don't get much better between the pipes than Lundqvist, who was hands down the team's MVP from a year ago. The plan this year is to lessen the workload for the 29-year-old netminder, whose 68 games played last season were the lowest he had appeared in since his 2004-05 rookie campaign.
Tortorella would like to have him somewhere around the 60-game mark, a level he likely would have reached had backup Marty Biron not been lost to a broken collarbone in late February. Biron will once again serve as the backup this season.
Still, Lundqvist, who started the team's final 26 games, went 36-27-5 with a 2.28 GAA and he also set career-bests in save percentage (.923) and shutouts (11).
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Rangers' postseason hopes came down to final weekend in each of the last two regular seasons. It's probably safe to say they should have a playoff spot locked up well before that this year. This is a good team. It could be a great team if certain things fall into place and either way should be right in the mix for an Atlantic Division crown.
Richards will help almost everywhere across the board. He will be the Ying to Gaborik's Yang, he will help on the power play and not to mention will be a huge addition in a locker room that features a 25-year-old captain.
Staal's concussion could be a concern, but if missing a few games at the start is the worst case scenario, the Rangers will be fine.
Honestly, the one player the Rangers can't live without is Lundqvist. Provided he stays healthy, the Rangers will be a playoff team, regardless how everything else pans out. He is that good and this year could finally nab that elusive Vezina Trophy for the first time.