THE BOTTOM LINE
By Scott Burnside, Special to ESPN.com
Ah, the Rangers. The former poster boys for spending without results have been preaching for months that they're ready to build a franchise the right way, from the ground up. Unfortunately for the Broadway boys, they have to fill in the giant pit in which the franchise has existed these past seven years before they can claim to be starting on the ground floor.
Caught between being a legitimate playoff team and a rebuilding team with enough resources to ice a homegrown team a la the San Jose Sharks, the Rangers ended up bringing in free agents other teams didn't particularly want, such as Martin Rucinsky, 34, whose career is in decline, and talented but brittle Martin Straka, who has averaged only 32 games a season for the past four campaigns. They also surprised many by keeping Darius Kasparaitis and his $3.4 million contract.
Offense: What little good news there is comes in the form of a guy named Jaromir Jagr, who already has anointed the Rangers a playoff team. OK. Still, on any given night, Jagr might still be the best player in the game. How many of those nights the mercurial Czech decides to bestow on the Rangers will dictate how close the Rangers get to their first postseason berth in eight years. Look for Jagr to line up with Straka and Michael Nylander, who signed on with the Rangers before the lockout.
Defense: In terms of youth, the Rangers' expectations are high for defensive gem Fedor Tyutin. It will be up to coach Tom Renney to make sure he and others don't follow in the footsteps of many Ranger prospects and become burned out before their potential is realized.
Goaltending: The duties will be up to Kevin Weekes, who is used to playing in front of bad teams, and Swedish prospect Henrik Lundqvist, whose stock has risen considerably in the past couple of years.
WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
YES If you completely suspend disbelief, it's possible that if Jagr turns in an all-world performance for the entire season, if Straka stays healthy and productive, and if a much-maligned defensive corps plays disciplined hockey, the Rangers could edge into the final playoff spot. OK, never mind.
The Rangers have little offensive depth and less defensive depth. They have a history of being undisciplined and difficult to motivate. They are without a proven leader. They are, quite simply, not a very good team.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Tom Poti. When the Worcester, Mass., native arrived in New York in a March 2002 trade with Edmonton, it was expected he would follow the mold of Rangers star Brian Leetch as a smart, puck-moving defenseman who could anchor the power play. He has not met those expectations, but might under the new rules.
Tom Renney has a good reputation as a teaching coach, which should help the Rangers as they embark on their rebuilding experiment. Renney also will have to facilitate a vast improvement in the Rangers' special teams performance as both the power-play and penalty-killing units languished near the bottom of the league in the 2003-04 season.
BEST OFFSEASON MOVE --> CONSISTENCY
Keeping Renney behind the bench. There was some discussion during the lockout that the Rangers might pursue high-profile coaches such as Joel Quenneville or Paul Maurice, but Renney has earned this shot. It won't be easy or particularly pretty, but good on the Rangers for sticking with him.
WORST OFFSEASON MOVE --> HELLO?
You have to wonder whether the Rangers couldn't have found a better way to spend cap money than by returning Kasparaitis at an inflated $3.4 million. That's money that might have been better spent trying to lure a top defenseman with more mobility and offensive upside, like an Adrian Aucoin or Roman Hamrlik.
Jaromir Jagr, RW
Jagr led the Rangers with 31 goals and 43 assists in 2003-04.
Mike Dunham, G
Recently departed Dunham took the brunt of the load in 2003-04, posting a 16-30-6 record and a dismal 3.03 goals-against average.
“I don't think I will be the captain. Because you have to speak to the fans, in my opinion, it's a lot easier for a North American guy who speaks fluently in English. I wouldn't mind if the New York Rangers were in Czech [Republic].”
— Jaromir Jagr