Rangers: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Scott Burnside
There was so much buzz around the signing of free-agent center Brad Richards this summer, it was easy to forget that the New York Rangers already had a lot going for them, from an elite netminder to a collection of young, hard-working defensemen to a handful of homegrown, talented forwards.
Make no mistake, Richards is a key addition and should help rejuvenate star winger Marian Gaborik after a disappointing 2010-11 campaign and propel the Rangers up the Eastern Conference standings. But this is a team that is far more than the sum of its free-agent signings.
1. The King (plain and simple)
We asked netminder Henrik Lundqvist if he felt threatened by the presence of Richards, who knows his way around men's fashion. But it was really a throwaway question because no one challenges Lundqvist when it comes to style. Or shutouts (he led the NHL with 11 last season). But Lundqvist suddenly finds himself as one of the graybeards on a young Rangers team with whom he broke in after the lockout. He remains fiercely competitive and acknowledged his disappointment at the Rangers' quick exit from the playoffs.
"I think last year, I was very disappointed. I felt like we could have done better," Lundqvist told ESPN.com. "We had a good chance of doing something. But somehow, we just let it slip a little bit, I think. It was great to make the playoffs again, and being back there was a good feeling, but when you're there, you want to do better. You want to go for a run, so I was disappointed.
"I think this year we should expect more out of ourselves. I think we have a better team compared to last year, so I'm excited to start playing and see what we can do."
2. King Brad
Richards was pursued by half the league and, in the end, had to decide on big-time offers from Calgary, Los Angeles, Toronto and the Rangers. He told us in a recent interview that the lure of playing in a traditional hockey market was a strong one, having broken into the league (and won a Cup and playoff MVP award) in Tampa Bay before being dealt to Dallas.
"It's going to be a lot of fun to play in that building [Madison Square Garden]," Richards said. "Getting a chance to put on a jersey with the Original Six kind of tradition, that jersey represents a lot. When you travel and wherever you go, you're going to see Ranger fans and that's going to be a lot different for me and that's something that maybe I craved a little bit in my career that I never had in other places."
3. The chemistry
Richards is quick to point out that his already anointed winger (Gaborik) did manage to score 42 times two seasons ago without Richards' help. Of course, the Rangers did miss the playoffs that season. Last season, Gaborik slumped to 22 goals during the regular season, including just six in his last 24 regular-season games. Gaborik added one goal in the Rangers' five-game, first-round playoff series loss to Washington.
The first priority for Richards is to get the gifted Gaborik the puck in situations that will allow the Slovak winger to succeed. Richards has done so in the past with players like Loui Eriksson and James Neal in Dallas, and he should be able to do so again in New York.
"He's a smart player. Hopefully it works. That's the game plan," Richards said.
Um, but what if it doesn't work? Rangers coach John Tortorella believes Gaborik played with the puck too much last season and that limited his production. Richards should have the puck a lot more and that will give Gaborik more of a chance to find open spaces and unleash his wicked shot.
If that plan doesn't pan out, however, the Rangers are on the hook for three more years (counting this season) at an annual cap hit of $7.5 million. That's a lot of cash for a 20-something goal scorer. If Gaborik can't make hay with Richards, it's going to get more than a little uncomfortable for a player who needs a big season. In a recent chat, Gaborik told us he was looking to put last season behind him; he's a proud guy, so effort should never be an issue, just productivity.
5. The split
Lundqvist played in 68 games last season, the first time he did not hit the 70-game mark since his rookie season. Still, all things being equal, Lundqvist will see that number drop by another six or seven games this season. It would have last season if backup netminder Martin Biron didn't break his collarbone on trade deadline day. The immensely likable Biron was a more than serviceable backup after a rocky start to his tenure with the Rangers, finishing with a 2.13 GAA and .923 save percentage. The two netminders' personalities seem to mesh nicely and should do their part to keep the Rangers at the top of the league's goals-against category.
6. Wojtek Wolski
Will the former rookie star return to the form that made him the 21st overall pick in the 2004 draft? Tortorella has made no secret he plans to use Richards and Gaborik as a unit and Wolski was getting a shot to fill the spot on the left side. It may be the kind of opportunity that could reclaim a career that has gone more than a little sideways since Wolski scored 22 goals as a rookie with the Avalanche in 2006-07.
Tortorella is looking for a lot more consistency from Wolski, who was a healthy scratch a couple of times after being dealt to the Rangers. Wolski told ESPN.com he spent the offseason working on his skating and spending time with fitness maniac Gary Roberts and is ready to meet the challenge. He also said personal problems that may have contributed to his lack of consistency last season are also in the past.
7. The boys on the blue line
It's entirely possible the entire Rangers blue line will be made up of 20-somethings this season with Steve Eminger the old man of the group at age 27.
"Going into the camp, it's a very young D. We're going to keep on looking at guys. That's a position where spots [are] wide open there," Tortorella said.
With Eminger, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Sauer and Michael Del Zotto (along with rookie Tim Erixon hoping to break into the lineup this fall), Tortorella is putting a lot of responsibility on a group of young men who seem more than capable of accepting such a challenge.
"The first time I saw them, they were really young, and now they've been playing in the league for a few years and obviously they get more and more comfortable and confident," Lundqvist said of the young blue line that toils in front of him. "Both being a leader on the team, Staal and Girardi have been back there now for a few years. I know them pretty well on the ice, how they play and how they move. It's fun to see them grow as players and [we] just have to wait and see how this year goes."
8. Storm clouds
The Rangers were fifth overall in goals allowed per game last season, so team defense and the blue line specifically wasn't a real problem. However, a lot of the unit's effectiveness will hinge on the ability of top defender Marc Staal, who is still dealing with the effects of a concussion sustained in late February when he was rammed by his brother Eric.
Staal, who signed a new five-year deal this offseason worth just south of $20 million, admitted at camp he was having recurring headaches after working out at a high level. He had been cleared for contact, but the Rangers are going to be ultra-cautious with their blue-chip defender. Staal is not making the initial trip to Europe with the team, but Tortorella said Sunday the defenseman could rejoin the team during its six-game stretch overseas.
Look for the Rangers to try to bolster the blue line with some veteran experience sooner rather than later. Paul Mara, a former Ranger, may be in the mix; it's curious that Bryan McCabe, who finished the season with the Rangers, is without a contract at this point and is not in the mix.
9. End of Avery?
You can't read too much into training-camp pairings unless you're like Sean Avery, a veteran NHLer with a spotty track record on and off the ice who was playing with guys destined to be somewhere else in October and fighting junior players early in camp. Avery had just three goals in 76 games last season and was a healthy scratch at times down the stretch and at the start of the playoffs. Is it possible the iconoclastic Avery is at the end of his tumultuous NHL career? If he can't stick with the Rangers, he'll head to the team's AHL affiliate in Hartford. It's hard to imagine any other team having much interest in Avery given his past and declining production.
10. The captain
If there was ever an indication of just how things have changed around the Blueshirts, it was reinforced when Ryan Callahan was named captain. A homegrown Ranger, Callahan is a heart-and-soul player who will command instant respect on and off the ice. On many teams, the captaincy is largely symbolic, sometimes given to the best player. Callahan is captain because, like Chris Drury before him, who else would you give the "C" to? Look for Callahan to have a monster season despite the added responsibilities.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering 12th NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 1
• Brad Richards made no bones about the fact that a chance to play for Tortorella again factored heavily into his decision to sign with the Rangers.
That speaks volumes about Tortorella and the kind of environment he creates and the commitment he has for winning.
Some players were joking over the past few weeks about Camp Torture-ella because of the focus on skating, but this is a coach whose eyes are constantly on the prize. Richards acknowledged that it's probably not going to be a bowl of cherries every day with the sometimes acerbic Tortorella.
But no one will question whether the Rangers are ready to play every night, and that comes back to Tortorella and his staff. --Scott Burnside
Best bet: Henrik Lundqvist
Henrik Lundqvist is as close to a completely reliable fantasy goaltender as you'll find. In his six-year NHL career, the Swede has had 213 wins, has gone over 2.40 in GAA just once, and his lowest seasonal save percentage is .912. King Henrik is not an early- or late-season bloomer, either; he remains consistent throughout the season. A surefire early-round selection, a fantasy owner can feel secure with Lundqvist as his or her No. 1. -- Tim Kavanagh
Risky pick: Marian Gaborik
Though the patterns suggest this will be a season when Gaborik misses fewer than 10 games, his constant health concerns remain a factor dragging down his ranking. He will remain a boom or bust selection in your fantasy draft and it will be up to each owner to assess what level of risk they are comfortable with. Certainly the upside that Brad Richards provides will make it hard to shy away from Gaborik in the earlier rounds. Just remember to hedge your bet with a few safe picks if you decide to become Gaborik's owner this season. -- Sean Allen
Sleeper pick: Mats Zuccarello
Zuccarello will have to earn a top-six spot in the New York Rangers' lineup, but h has the potential to work up to such a role. A great playmaker who is only limited by his size, Zuccarello put up 23 points in 42 games as a rookie with the Rangers last season. There is potential for his game to develop in North America, and it's possible that offseason adjustments he has made could make him a budding star in 2011-12. There is also the chance he needs more time to learn. Zuccarello represents a true bang or bust option, so he should be selected late in your fantasy draft, if at all. -- S.A.
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Rangers:
• June 1: Acquired D Tim Erixon and a fifth-round pick in 2011 draft from Calgary for LW Roman Horak and a pair of 2011 second-round picks.
• June 30: Re-signed C John Mitchell.
• July 1: Signed C Michael Rupp.
• July 1: Re-signed LW Ruslan Fedotenko.
• July 2: Signed C Brad Richards.
• July 8: Re-signed D Michael Sauer and C Artem Anisimov.
• July 15: Re-signed C Brian Boyle.
• July 21: Re-signed C Brandon Dubinsky.
• July 25: Re-signed D Steve Eminger.
• July 27: Re-signed RW Ryan Callahan.
• Aug. 9: Signed D Brendan Bell.
• C Chris Drury (retired)
• D Matt Gilroy (unrestricted free agent, signed by Tampa Bay)
• C Evgeny Grachev (traded to St. Louis)
• C Vinny Prospal (unrestricted free agent, signed by Columbus)
• LW Alex Frolov (unrestricted free agent, signed by KHL's Avangard Omsk)
• D Bryan McCabe (unrestricted free agent)