Are the Rangers Stanley Cup contenders?

Are the Rangers Stanley Cup contenders?

With 26 games left to play in the 2010-11 regular season, an Insider article by Hockey Prospectus author Robert Vollman ponders the topic, looking at how the team’s injury woes may have actually made the Blueshirts better.

Those same words have been uttered by head coach John Tortorella in many a post-game press conference, but it’s easy for jaded fans to discount that point of view as rhetoric. However, Vollman points to a few concrete positives: The increased ice time and improved play of Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust for starters.

The downside? Considering players like Boyle and Prust are playing well over their usual season averages, there’s some thought that their breakthrough campaigns will regress to the mean in the days ahead. In fact, perhaps we’ve already seen some of that in these past five losses.

But ... if they don’t regress and their production truly is a measure of talent rather than just increased ice time, then the Rangers may field one of the deepest teams in the league entering the playoffs. So are they Cup contenders?

Maybe. Here are a few things the Rangers do well and a few more that need to improve, in my eyes, in order for the Blueshirts to be considered a serious threat.

The Upside

The Rangers are one of, if not the, grittiest team in the league. They do all of the little things required of teams to advance in the playoffs and have some of the big pieces as well. In brief:

  • They win the puck battles along the boards

  • They have a roster of players willing to sacrifice their bodies to block shots

  • They have a championship-caliber goalie who can win games by himself

  • They have a shutdown blueliner in Marc Staal who can neutralize opposing offensive threats

But they’re still missing at least one important piece right now.

Room For Improvement

Scoring. Scoring. Scoring. The Rangers need it and they need it bad.

It’s great that the Blueshirts have scraped out so many close games. Ditto that they’ve received so much secondary scoring. But because of the offensive struggles of their top goal scorers, they tend to walk a very fine line most nights. Of their 56 games to this point, 26 of them have been decided by one goal or in the shootout, including 14 of their last 18.

A little more cushioning could go a long way. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they get it ... even without a trade.

If you subscribe to the regression argument that Vollman discusses in his article, then you also believe that Marian Gaborik is due for an emphatic breakout. With 16 goals through 42 games, the sniper is some nine goals off his usual season average. If he’s to reach his usual average of 37 goals per 82 games, he’s got about 14 more goals coming over the remaining 26 games (assuming I've done my conversions correctly). That would be a nice bump indeed. Of course, there have been few signs that Gaborik is approaching such an explosion.

Without any improvement in the scoring department though (and better power-play production wouldn’t hurt either), the Rangers are going to have to keep excelling at all those little things and will continue to walk a fine line every game. And against the East’s best teams, that's a very challenging path to walk through the playoffs.