New York Rangers: Wearing A Target
It was a short summer for the New York Rangers after a surprising trip to the Stanley Cup finals last spring during Alain Vigneault's first year as head coach. The squad significantly retooled its roster during the offseason, inking veteran defenseman Dan Boyle on July 1 while parting ways with key postseason performers like Benoit Pouliot, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman, all of whom signed elsewhere in free agency. The team will also be without veteran center Brad Richards, who was bought out following the club's deep run, but the Blueshirts have kept their nucleus intact as the team gears up for what promises to be another season as one of the teams to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Starring roleThough the Rangers have done some serious tinkering with their roster, there is no reason to think they can't replicate their success this season. The main reason? As one Western Conference executive told ESPN.com recently: "They've got the goaltender." That's 32-year-old Henrik Lundqvist, who broke multiple franchise records last season after signing a seven-year, $59.5 million deal that will likely keep the Swedish netminder in New York for the rest of his career. Lundqvist has been the backbone of the Rangers for years now, and they'll need to lean on him heavily once again with a target on their jerseys following last spring's success. Though Lundqvist was hampered by a minor shoulder injury early on -- the silver lining of which was the stellar play by backup Cam Talbot -- Lundqvist still managed to post a 33-win season with a .920 save percentage and a 2.36 goals-against average. He'll be the key for the Rangers if they want to get back to being one of the final two teams in June.
Supporting castWhile Lundqvist holds court as "the King," he'll be surrounded by a strong leadership group that includes defensemen Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, as well as veteran forward Martin St. Louis, who sparked the team following his trade from Tampa Bay last spring. Though there has yet to be an official announcement, McDonagh appears to be the odds-on favorite to succeed Ryan Callahan (traded to the Lightning as the main piece in the St. Louis deal at the deadline last March) as the next Rangers captain. Asked earlier this month what that would mean to him, the 25-year-old defenseman told ESPN.com: "Regardless of what happens, it won't change the aura in the room."
The Rangers have as solid of a defensive corps as any team in the Eastern Conference, and signing Staal to a long-term extension will likely be a priority (his agent, Paul Krepelka, told ESPN.com recently via email that there have been "productive conversations" toward that end) to ensure that as an area of strength for years to come. Up front, the situation is a bit more fluid. With the salary cap to consider and a number of players who elevated their asking price with a strong playoff performance, the Blueshirts were forced to make some tough decisions with their forward group. The team lacks depth down the middle and hopes that someone can step up internally (J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, Oscar Lindberg) to fill that third-line center role behind Derek Stepan and Derick Brassard. Could be a pivotal season for Rick Nash as well. The streaky winger has disappeared during stretches of his tenure on Broadway.
DebutsEver since talented young blueliner Michael Sauer went down with a career-ending concussion in 2011, the Rangers have been looking for a right-handed defenseman with a big, heavy shot who can man the point on the power play. Well, they finally found one this summer in longtime San Jose Shark Dan Boyle. They'll hope the smooth-skating veteran will provide that needed dynamic on the man advantage, an ailing unit that has troubled the Rangers in recent years. Ryan Malone, signed recently to a two-way deal, was a good low-risk move for the team (as assistant GM Jeff Gorton told ESPN.com recently: "There's no downside") and could pay dividends if the 34-year-old cracks the roster and is able to provide physicality and a strong net-front presence. Lee Stempniak will also be counted on to make an offensive impact, while the Tanner Glass deal remains a puzzling one.
CastoffsOffensively, losing the production of Pouliot, who forged great chemistry with Brassard and winger Mats Zuccarello, will hurt. The Blueshirts will also miss Richards' veteran leadership, Boyle's versatility and Stralman's steadiness on the back end. And though Daniel Carcillo played a limited role, he essentially changed the dynamic inside the team's dressing room once he was acquired from Los Angeles midseason. These absences all allow for some healthy internal competition, however, and the Rangers have a deep pool of prospects to choose from. One of the youngsters should be able to step up and carve out a new role with the team.
Director's chairAfter a rocky start to his first year in New York, Vigneault was lauded for the way his team cultivated a new identity in the post-Tortorella era, playing with both passion and creativity. He'll look to follow that up with another successful season, helping some of the organization's young prospects develop into the type of everyday NHL players the team needs. Meanwhile, general manager Glen Sather will oversee the club's personnel as assistant general manager Jeff Gorton deals with the day-to-day demands. Could this be the final year for Slats? We wouldn't be shocked to see him step aside into a less-demanding role following this season.
Hollywood endingStrang's prediction: Without the contract on his mind, Lundqvist will begin the season with a clear head and an intense focus. He'll have another banner year, which will make up for some of the offensive shortcomings the team will experience in the wake of some holes in the lineup. The Rangers will battle for the top spot, but will finish second to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Metropolitan Division.
Coach: Alain Vigneault
Experience: Entering 13th NHL season
Stanley Cups: 0
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Rangers:
• July 1: Signed D Dan Boyle, D Mike Kostka, D Matt Hunwick, C Chris Mueller, LW Tanner Glass and G Cedrick Desjardins.
• July 1: Re-signed C Dominic Moore.
• July 16: Signed C Matthew Lombardi.
• July 19: Signed RW Lee Stempniak.
• July 22: Re-signed LW Mats Zuccarello.
• July 23: Re-signed LW Chris Kreider.
• July 27: Re-signed C Derick Brassard.
• Aug. 4: Named Darryl Williams assistant coach.
Sept. 11: Signed LW Ryan Malone
• RW Derek Dorsett (traded to Vancouver)
• C Brad Richards (unrestricted free agent)
• C Brian Boyle (unrestricted free agent)
• D Anton Stralman (unrestricted free agent)
• LW Benoit Pouliot (unrestricted free agent)
• D Justin Falk (unrestricted free agent)
• RW Arron Asham (unrestricted free agent)
• LW Daniel Carcillo (unrestricted free agent)
• D Raphael Diaz (unrestricted free agent)
• C Darroll Powe (unrestricted free agent)