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Well, it is that time again, where we all finally get to snap out of the summer doldrums and watch some Rangers hockey (or any hockey in general). Most of us have spent this offseason pondering line combinations, and desperately trying to figure out what kind of team this will be. After a full offseason, and a full preseason of hockey, it is time to make some predictions.

The past few years I have done a division by division preview, but I don’t think its worth the time doing that. Instead I will break down the Rangers 4 aspects, and then do some Eastern and Western Conference predictions for the Regular Season.

Goaltending:
The Rangers were built like an old school hockey team. From the net out. It explains why there is such a barren cupboard of offensive prospects, and also explains the ridiculous embarrassment of riches in the net and on the blueline. With Henrik Lundqvist in net the Rangers have a perennial Vezina contender. A guy who certainly would have won it by now if he had any sort of offensive support whatsoever since he started his NHL career. The Rangers have basically relied on Henrik stopping everything that comes at him, and hoping (and praying) that if they score 1 or 2 goals, he can make it hold up. And that he has done, reaching the 30+ win plateau each of the past 4 seasons, backstopping some pretty underwhelming teams (names be damned) to 4 consecutive playoff appearances. If for no other reason, the Rangers will always be a threat with him in net. But he is only mortal. As we saw last year, a goalie put under the kind of pressure Henrik was put under, can show cracks in the armor, and he showed those cracks by getting killed a few times against the Caps in the 7 game series after putting on some breaktaking performances. Expect Henrik to bounce back with another Vezina caliber performance, because I have no reason to think otherwise.
Overall Grade: A+


Defense:
Sticking with the “from the net out” theme, we next have to approach the blueline. While I did mention earlier that the Rangers have an embarrassment of riches on the blueline, most of those riches have 2 or fewer years of NHL experience. Unfortunately that means you have to deal with some growing pains as the likes of Staal, Del Zotto, Gilroy, Sauer, Sanguinetti, and McDonagh incorporate themselves into the everyday lineup. This year the Rangers are bringing in 2 of the above mentioned kids to go with Staal, Girardi, Redden, Rozsival and Semenov to complete the 7 defenseman Torts intends on carrying. The 2 kids may be the key to the Rangers success this season (but no pressure) as they are really the only offensive presence we have whatsoever back there. In Matt Gilroy and Michael Del Zotto the Rangers are bringing in 2 kids who bring very different offensive looks from the blueline. Matt Gilroy gives the Rangers a lightning quick presence who can join the rush, lead the rush, finish on the rush, and just plain skate like a maniac all over the damn ice. He has questionable at best defensive skills, little to no crease clearing ability, but a good poke check, and a decent read on the defensive play. What Gilroy does though, is makes everyone on the other team aware he is out there by flashing bursts of speed up and down the ice. He is fearless in joining the play, and often times will find himself being the first one in deep on the rush, and the first one back on the play. Being blessed with that kind of speed will let you do that.

On the flip side the Rangers have also brought in Michael Del Zotto. While I was very much against this draft pick, I must admit I have been beyond happy to be proven so very wrong by this kid. Watching him play during the preseason was an absolute joy to watch. Unlike Gilroy, Del Zotto is far more reserved when it comes to rushing the puck in deep, or getting involved directly in the goal scoring by pinching down low. Del Zotto is a puck distributor with vision I haven’t seen in a Rangers uniform in many, many years. Quite frankly the kid can see things seemingly before they happen. He makes cross ice passes, and area passes so well, it must have John Tortorella drooling to get this season started. While Gilroy is the kind of player who backs everyone up, Del Zotto is the kind of player who makes every player around him significantly better, just with his ability to distribute the puck. He has an uncanny ability to draw defenders towards him, and deliver a perfect saucer pass on the tape of a cutting forward for a one timer at a wide open net. Unfortunately so far most of his passes haven’t been converted as the players seem to be getting used to each other, but I expect a pretty significant offensive boost to this team by Del Zottos presence alone. So far he has been what Wade Redden was supposed to be.

Speaking of Redden, He returns in year 2 of his bloated depressing contract. What I have seen of him thus far this preseason (and the end of last season) leads me to believe #6 will have a bounce back year. Not a 6.5 million dollar year, but definitely not a season like last year where he was consistently the worst player on the ice. Redden seems to play his best when he can use his smarts to make plays, rather than his body. In Tom Renneys system, Wade was basically required to be a shut down defenseman, as all his defenseman really were meant to be. In John Tortorellas system, Wade can use his hockey instincts to pinch in at opportune times, to back up the play, to rush the puck, to spring an outlet pass. In short I expect him to be a good #2 defenseman, because that is really how he has played like since Torts has taken over.

Dan Girardi will be an interesting player to keep any eye on, has he has all the tools to be a very good defenseman, but has yet to show the consistency or the drive to make it happen. Don’t be surprised if Dan is dealt this trade deadline, or next offseason to make way for Michael Sauer, who probably is already better than Dan in his own end. Expect Dan to be exposed a bit more for what he is at this point. A 3rd pairing defenseman.

Michal Rozsival has been an unmitigated disaster this preseason, and it has been well documented that the guy didn’t have the best year last year. But he has the ability to also be a true blue #2 defenseman. At 5 million bucks a year though, I would be shocked if he is in uniform with us next year, and I would not be surprised if he fetches a good return. Expect a bounce back performance from Rozsival, but not quite up to his glory years when Jagr was here.

Marc Staal is the anchor for this defense. He is to the blueline what Henrik Lundqvist is to the goaltending situation. The kid is a shut down force, a physical player who won’t run you through a wall, but who will make you aware he is out there. Staal has an amazing stick, and an off the charts hockey IQ. Don’t be surprised if he is wearing a letter on his jersey come opening night. Offensively, I don’t agree with Torts. I think you let the offensive players play the offensive game, and the defensive players play the defensive game. I’d expect a bump in his numbers just because of the type of system we are playing, not necessarily because he has improved his offensive game much. What I will expect though is for him to keep Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, Tavares, etc in check, and I would also expect him to bring home a huge payday after this season.
Overall Grade: C+


Offense:
The offense of this hockey team the past few years has been borderline depressing. You used to watch the games knowing that there was literally no way the Rangers would score more than 3 goals in a game. Not so much this year. With 5 players almost assured of hitting the 20 goal mark if healthy (Kotalik, Drury, Callahan, Higgins, and Prospal), another 3 who possibly might hit that number (Avery, Lisin, Dubinsky) and 1 player who probably will score anywhere from 35-50 goals if he is healthy (Gaborik) this Rangers offense could be something really special. Then again, a lot of these are caveated predictions. IF Gaborik is healthy. IF Higgins is healthy. IF Prospal has a bounce back year. IF Kotalik can show some consistency. IF, IF, IF!!! The likelyhood of everything falling into place aren’t very good. Odds are this will be an average to slightly above average offensive team. I expect them to finish in the 240-250 goal range. But that is a significant improvement over last years team. Remember, last year the Rangers scored 200 goals (going by NHL.com’s numbers), and managed to rack up 95 points in the standings. While you have to expect their goals allowed to rise because of the nature of the way they intend to play, it is not a stretch to imagine that this team should be better than last year. Again, assuming Marian Gaborik stays healthy…if he isn’t all bets are off.

With regards to the forwards themselves, the Rangers have their 3 instant energy sparkplugs who should provide some nice offense in Sean Avery, Ryan Callahan, and Christopher Higgins. All 3 play a similar game on the ice (verbal jousts aside) by getting in deep on the forecheck, finishing off their checks, and creating offense with speed through the neutral zone. All 3 tend to get their goals from within 5 feet of the net, and none of them have particularly impressive passing ability. Expect this trio to lead the way in terms of playing John Tortorella hockey. If you are unsure at all to what Torts hockey is all about, look at those 3.

Down the middle the Rangers should be fairly good. Brandon Dubinsky, Chris Drury and Artem Anisimov all bring some interesting aspects. Drury and Anisimov play a smart 2-way game. Anisimov and Dubinsky are both larger kids who can play the boards. They have size, toughness, offensive skill, a lot of very good aspects, but none of the players are particularly dominating. Expect Dubinsky to have a 50-60 point season just because of the wingers he will likely play with, and expect the same of Drury because that is a typical Drury season. Anisimov on the other hand has more upside than either of those 2. He has offensive ability to go with his defensive prowess, a 25-25 season from the kid wouldn’t shock me, but would probably be a little high for a kid who will likely start off on the 4th line, and work his way up to the 2nd line by seasons end. The 4th line is likely to be centered by Brian Boyle, a big player who should bring a little toughness and size to our lineup. Not necessarily the most skilled guy though.

The Rangers also brought in Marian Gaborik, in my personal opinion one of the 5 best offensive players in hockey when healthy. He has speed, size (granted he isn’t a physical player), hands, a hard shot, dangle ability, and a nose for the net. He also has very underrated vision as he tends to have the assists where a player buries his pass, rather than the kind of assist where a player buries his rebound. Gaborik is the gamebreaker that the Rangers lack last season (aside from Lundqvist). He’s the kind of player who can put the franchise on his back and win you a round or 2 in the playoffs. Of course, all of this is under the assumption that he isn’t in the pressbox nursing an injured groin, hip, leg, head, whatever. Gaborik has been very injury prone the past few years, mostly related to his hips and groin. Having minor groin problems to start the preseason didn’t do anything to assuage our fears. But I personally don’t think they will be a problem. I have him penciled in for 75+ games this year, and until proven wrong, I will stick with that prediction.

The other wingers are a mixed bag of question marks. The Rangers traded steady and solid Lauri Korpikoski for finisher Enver Lisin, who has a nose for scoring goals, but has little else in his hockey repertoire. The Rangers also inked Ales Kotalik to a mind numbing 3 year contract at 3 million per season. While Kotalik is a steady 20/20 player with a canon for a shot, he does little else aside from that to make you happy he is on your team. He isn’t a physical player, he isn’t a good passer, he isn’t all that fast. All he does is sees the puck, and shoots the puck. But for a team that was maddening on the power play last season, he may be a worthwhile investment for this season, and trade bait in the offseason.

Vinny Prospal was bought out from the Lightning….and when you are bought out from a franchise that poorly run, it is never a good sign. But he signed a very cap friendly deal, and should be a good veteran presence for a very young team. He also has experience with Tortorella, which also makes him a valuable buffer for the players. He is definitely another candidate for a letter on his jersey. Prospal is more of a playmaker than a finisher, which is good for a team filled with finishers and very few playmakers.

Finally we have Aaron Voros and Donald Brashear. Voros has played very well this preseason. Getting back to his roots and trying to be an energy banger, rather than an offensive player, Voros has really shown me something, and I feel has earned a spot in the lineup every now and then. Expect him to split time with Lisin on the 4th line. Brashear on the other hand is an everyday player. I may have been against this signing, but if you are paying him that kind of money, and you can’t waive that money off the books, then you need to play him. Brashear is a considerable upgrade over Colton Orr, but really an unnecessary player in this day and age.
Overall Grade: B-


Coaching:
I want to keep this one short and sweet. I personally feel John Tortorella might be the second best coach in hockey behind Brent Sutter. I absolutely love the way he coaches, I love the way he treats his players, sometimes kicking them in the pants, sometimes kicking us in the pants for doubting them. More than anything though, I love his willingness to coach in game, and bench players who are playing like crap, regardless of their salary, etc. Torts makes every player earn every bit of ice time. And if you don’t he will “run you out the door” like he did with Paul Mara in Tampa. I couldn’t be happier with our coach.
Overall Grade: A+


Final Prediction:
I have been all over the map with this team. Some days I can see them challenging for the top spot in the East, some days I can see them challenging for the Taylor Hall sweepstakes. A lot of it depends on a lot of things going right, most importantly, health. The Rangers were uncommonly healthy last season, and the law of averages may decide to catch up with us this season, especially with us taking a huge gamble (one I happen to be wholeheartedly behind) with Marian Gaborik. Originally I expected to pick us finishing 7th or 8th in the Conference, and being a bubble team all season long, barely squeaking in on the last day or 2 of the season. However this preseason has gone a long, long way to changing my mind. Let’s take a look at it for a minute. The Rangers lost a squeaker to Boston, they lost in SO to the Devils (who were playing most of their regulars), they had a collapse against the Red Wings that is highly unlikely with competent goaltending, and they played like crap for 2 periods against the Capitals but were only defeated by 1 goal against the Caps everyday lineup. There were a lot of very good signs shown by the Rangers in the preseason, and after the first 10-15 games, the Rangers really should understand, and be able to execute Tortorellas system. I’m going to go a bit bold and say the Rangers finish 5th in the conference, just ahead of the Hurricanes and Devils. Come playoff time, who knows what can happen. Here are my full predictions for both Eastern and Western conferences.

Eastern Conference
Western Conference
1
Philadelphia Flyers
112 Points
San Jose
119 Points
2
Boston Bruins
109 Points
Detroit Red Wings
115 Points
3
Washington Capitals
108 Points
Calgary Flames
104 Points
4
Pittsburgh Penguins
102 Points
Chicago Blackhawks
108 Points
5
New York Rangers
99 Points
Vancouver Canucks
99 Points
6
Carolina Hurricanes
98 Points
Anaheim Ducks
97 Points
7
New Jersey Devils
97 Points
St. Louis Blues
96 Points
8
Tampa Bay Lightning
93 Points
Minnesota Wild
94 Points

9
Montreal Canadiens
92 Points
Los Angeles Kings
90 Points
10
Atlanta Thrashers
83 Points
Edmonton Oilers
89 Points
11
Buffalo Sabres
82 Points
Columbus Blue Jackets
88 Points
12
Ottawa Senators
80 Points
Nashville Predators
80 Points
13
Toronto Maple Leafs
74 Points
Colorado Avalanche
70 Points
14
New York Islanders
68 Points
Dallas Stars
62 Points
15
Florida Panthers
63 Points
Phoenix Coyotes
58 Points

UPDATE: Special thanks to the HFBoards HockeyBasedNYC for providing this amazing New York Rangers Schedule. Check it out and make sure to drop him a thanks over on this thread.


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