The year 2013 was a disappointing one for the New York Rangers -- from the team’s second-round exit in the playoffs last spring, to the subsequent dismissal of coach John Tortorella, to the sluggish start this season. With 40 games played, the Rangers are still teetering on the brink of the playoff picture, with a middling 19-19-2 record that has them in ninth place in the Eastern Conference standings. Here are three questions facing the team in the new year:
1. Will Henrik Lundqvist play like a King?
Though the Rangers gave a seven-year $59.5 million contract extension to the 2012 Vezina Trophy winner, affirming his rightful place among the team’s goaltending hierarchy, there is still lingering concern over Lundqvist’s marked regression this season. He has recorded two straight wins, but there’s a reason Lundqvist has been passed over in place of backup netminder Cam Talbot during critical stretches this season. Lundqvist has given up three or more goals in his past eight starts, and his unsightly numbers (2.77 goals against average, .906 save percentage) paint a pretty grim picture. The Rangers need their best player to be at the top of his game to succeed. His performance up to this point just doesn't cut it.
2. What will happen on defense?
It’s no secret the Rangers are looking to move young defenseman Michael Del Zotto, and his recent play may increase his trade value. But the right deal has yet to come across general manager Glen Sather’s desk, as the Blueshirts will likely need to replace Del Zotto with another capable defenseman who can handle top-four minutes. Depending on where the Rangers find themselves as the NHL’s March 5 trade deadline approaches, the team may want to dangle defenseman Dan Girardi as well, particularly if no headway is made in contract negotiations with the pending unrestricted free agent. But Girardi provides the Rangers’ blue line with two very important elements: a rugged workhorse mentality, and a much-needed right-handed shot. If the Rangers move Girardi and don’t get back a fellow righty in return, Anton Stralman will be the only one left on defense with that key dynamic.
3. Will Ryan Callahan stay?
Though it seems crazy to even consider that the Blueshirts could part with their heart-and-soul leader, the very personification of (what used to be, anyway) their black-and-blue-collar identity, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Callahan is also set to become a free agent this summer, and the Rangers may harbor some concern over their captain’s durability. Callahan has been hampered by three separate injuries this season (surgically-repaired shoulder, broken thumb, sprained knee), an unfortunate side effect of his physical and relentless style of play. Depending on the Rangers’ spot in the standings come March, the Rangers could choose to pass on awarding Callahan a multi-year deal and what would be a well-deserved raise in hopes of stockpiling some assets for the future.