Entering the 2012-13 NHL season, expectations couldn't have been higher for the New York Rangers. Coming off a season when they finished first in the East and advanced to the Eastern Conference Final, they enhanced their lineup over that summer with the acquisition of forward Rick Nash.
Despite being an early Stanley Cup favorite, the Rangers occasionally struggled to find traction last season. But a strong finish and an offseason coaching change have the club poised to make a run in 2013-14.
Nash did his part last season, scoring 21 goals and 42 points in 44 games. The Rangers went 0-3-1 in the four games he missed due to injury. The offense and power play struggled for long stretches, but the team got hot at the perfect time. They were 10-3-1 in April and went more than a month without losing at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers also managed to outlast the Washington Capitals, arguably the League's hottest team entering the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in seven games in the opening round.
But New York struggled against the Boston Bruins in the second round, bowing out in five games. A failure to match the Bruins' aggressiveness and clutch play ultimately convinced Rangers management it was time for a change.
Coach John Tortorella was let go after more than four seasons in New York. He was replaced by former Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault, who built a new coaching staff from scratch and could be exactly who the team needs to jump-start its offense.
"I haven't met [Vigneault] yet, but I've heard a lot of great things. I'm looking forward to meeting him and to get going and see what we can do this year," Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. "I talked to a few players. They had a lot of great things to say about him. Every time you change a coach, you have to come in with an open mind and expect a lot of different things. For me personally, when it comes to my game, I don't change much. I try to play my game."
For a three-year stretch with Vancouver, Vigneault's offense was the class of the NHL. With Nash spearheading a forward unit that includes Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin, the New York offense should improve.
The Rangers showed something of an offensive explosion late last season when they signed forward Mats Zuccarello and acquired center Derick Brassard in a deadline-day trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Each player had success with the Rangers, helping forward Brad Richards snap out of a lengthy slump that defined the toughest season of his career.
Partnered occasionally with Zuccarello and Brassard, Richards finished the regular season with a six-game scoring streak of 11 points. But the veteran center scored one goal in 10 playoff games before being a healthy scratch for the Rangers' final two games against the Bruins. With a new staff, Richards will need a bounce-back season if he wants to end speculation the Rangers might use their compliance buyout on his nine-year, $60 million contract.
The defense was typically stout, ranking fourth in the League at 2.25 goals allowed per game. The Rangers feature arguably the world's best goaltender, Lundqvist, and veteran defensemen who play responsibly in their own end. That unit includes Dan Girardi, Anton Stralman and Ryan McDonagh, who signed a six-year contract extension this summer. John Moore was acquired in the trade with Columbus and emerged as a strong presence, but Michael Del Zotto took a slight step back from his breakout 2011-12 season.
RANGERS' OFFSEASON OUTLOOK
Additions: C Dominic Moore, LW Benoit Pouliot, D Justin Falk, D Aaron Johnson, D Danny Syvret, RW Danny Kristo
Subtractions: LW Ryane Clowe, C Kris Newbury, D Matt Gilroy, RW Christian Thomas
UFAs: D Steve Eminger, D Roman Hamrlik, D Michael Sauer
Promotion candidates: RW Danny Kristo, LW Marek Hrivik
It remains to be seen what lingering effects the eye injury sustained by alternate captain Marc Staal will have on his play. If Staal can return to the form he showed prior to the injury, the unit should be one of the best in the League.
Hagelin and captain Ryan Callahan had shoulder surgery during the offseason and their rehab could cause each to miss the beginning of the season. Once they return, the offense is expected to take a step forward under Vigneault.
"I'm skating now. Pretty soon I can start shooting. So come training-camp time, I'll be able to do skating and shooting," Callahan said in mid-August. "I think the big thing with the shoulder is contact. I won't have an exact timetable until it gets closer.
"The injury isn't really a big deal to me. Obviously getting a new coach, there's going to be some adjustment with that. I'm excited to get going this year, the shoulder's not going to be a problem when I get going here."
For a team that came so close in 2011-12 and found its stride at the perfect time in 2012-13, a new coaching staff and core players who have had a few seasons to develop chemistry could give Madison Square Garden another playoff run. But the Rangers will need to make improvements under Vigneault in order to compete with the elite teams in the Eastern Conference.
"Personally, I want to win. That's why you play. Having a new coach, he's going to set the tone a little bit, how we do things. It's going to be interesting to see how that plays out," Lundqvist said. "But I think we can do it. We have the team to win, no question. But there are a lot of good teams out there. That's the biggest challenge, to try to play your absolute best for a long stretch. That's what we need."