Last season, the New York Rangers were the team to beat in the East. This year, they are fighting for a playoff spot with a handful of other bubble teams in the conference. What gives? Here are five reasons why the Rangers are off to a slow start in 2013:
1. Sluggish Stars
When the Rangers made the move to acquire Rick Nash -- trading away some significant pieces in the process -- they knew they were going to have a dangerous, frontloaded team but also one with considerably less depth. What does that mean? That you have to get the best from your best players, pretty much night in and night out. And the Rangers haven't. While Nash has been impressive in his Broadway debut -- he currently leads the team in scoring with 15 points -- his fellow stars need to step it up. Before he was sidelined by a nasty hit from Buffalo's Patrick Kaleta, veteran center Brad Richards was mired in a 15-game goal drought. Richards' disappointing first half has earned him benchings and demotions, although he showed signs of turning it around before he got "banged up" on Sunday. Marian Gaborik is also a main culprit. Though the two-time 40-goal scorer is tied for the team lead with seven goals, he can be invisible at times and tends to score in spurts. Coach John Tortorella has experimented with using the sniper on both the left and right wing this season and with a number of different line combinations in an attempt to keep him "engaged."
2. No Training Camp
Sure, this can be said of all 30 teams who are battling the challenges of a lockout-shortened season, but Tortorella's notorious training camps are an especially vital element in building the team's black-and-blue identity. From the rigorous skating tests to the heavy emphasis on conditioning, Tortorella aims to instill a certain mental and physical toughness during the opening weeks that the team can draw upon during the season, and it paid off last season when the Rangers grinded their way to the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference with 109 points. Far from an offensive juggernaut, the Rangers were dogged in their puck battles, relentless on the forecheck and fearless in their shot-blocking. That element has been missing for stretches this season as they have failed to reclaim their reputation as one of the toughest teams to play against.
3. Poor Power Play
Even with three man-up goals in the past two games, the Rangers' power play ranks 24th in the league at a paltry 14.7 percent. Earlier this season, the Blueshirts were dead last in the league on the man advantage. Some of that has correlated with Richards' offensive struggles, defenseman Michael Del Zotto's inconsistency and some inopportune injuries to captain Ryan Callahan and Nash, but the Rangers' power play is still a glaring weakness. Although there doesn't seem to be evidence that an anemic power play will necessarily kill a team's chances at success -- neither L.A. nor Boston boasted a top unit in their respective Stanley Cup-winning seasons -- special teams has been the deal-breaker on too many occasions for the Rangers this season. The team needs a power-play specialist who can get his shot through from the point; that area is still lacking even with some of the firepower up front. Look for this to be an issue to address as the trade deadline approaches.
4. Loss of "Glue Guys"
Whether it was in the blockbuster trade to acquire Nash or via free agency, the Rangers lost some of their key role players from last season. Both forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov were shipped off to Columbus. Hard-nosed wingers Ruslan Fedotenko and Brandon Prust signed elsewhere this summer. And veteran tough guy Mike Rupp was traded to Minnesota in exchange for Darroll Powe. That last deal yielded a return that helped the Rangers, given Powe's versatility and penalty-killing ability, but they need more players like him. With the departure of both Rupp and Prust, the Black-and-Blueshirts also sacrificed some toughness. The Rangers signed rugged fourth-liner Arron Asham this summer, but he has been sidelined with a back injury since Feb. 21.
5. Nagging Injuries
Again, every team has this gripe to make. And the Rangers are certainly not in the same boat as a team like Ottawa that has suffered the loss of its two biggest stars in Erik Karlsson (Achilles) and Jason Spezza (back), but they've battled some untimely injuries. Nash, Richards, Callahan, Del Zotto, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh have all missed time this season. Add another top defenseman to that mix now, as Marc Staal has been ruled out indefinitely after being struck in the eye by a puck in Tuesday's 4-2 win against the Flyers. The Rangers also expect to go the entire season without young defenseman Michael Sauer, who has not played since suffering a concussion in December 2011.