After struggling through a marathon nine-game road trip to start the 2013-14 season, the New York Rangers found their footing by the holidays before enjoying a memorable march to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 20 years.
With many key players leaving in the offseason and more potential roster changes coming next summer, here are five questions the Rangers face entering this season:
1. Can Dan Boyle help replace both Brad Richards and Anton Stralman? -- Boyle, 38, signed a two-year contract with New York, and the veteran defenseman has the unenviable task of trying to replace two recent departures in defenseman Anton Stralman and forward Brad Richards.
The offseason started with the Rangers using a compliance buyout on Richards and then trading Derek Dorsett to the Vancouver Canucks before Stralman, Benoit Pouliot and Brian Boyle departed in free agency. Other than Boyle's $9 million contract, New York didn't make waves in free agency.
On the power play, Dan Boyle replaces Richards, who quarterbacked a unit that ranked 15th in the regular season before disappearing entirely in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Boyle has already spearheaded top units with the San Jose Sharks and Tampa Bay Lightning, and could help improve New York's special teams.
"When it looked like we couldn't get something done with Anton, Dan Boyle was a guy we identified," Rangers assistant general manager Jeff Gorton said. "Knowing we were going to lose Brad Richards and having Danny out there to handle the power play and be that right-handed defenseman that could be in our top four, he can fill two roles for us."
The true challenge will be replacing the puck possession and defensive responsibility Stralman provided before signing a five-year, $22.5 million contract with the Lightning. Stralman's 56.5 Corsi-for rating led all Rangers regulars last season.
2. How will the Rangers supplement the forward depth they lost? -- In his first year as Rangers coach, Alain Vigneault rolled all four lines and got consistent scoring from the top three units. He'll be challenged to do that again this season.
New York got key plays from Richards and Pouliot, who signed a five-year, $20 million contract with the Edmonton Oilers. A fourth line considered among the NHL's best was also dismantled when Brian Boyle signed with the Lightning and Dorsett was traded.
3. Will the Rangers sign Marc Staal to an extension? -- New York could experience similar free-agent drama next summer when forward Martin St. Louis becomes an unrestricted free agent and Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin become restricted free agents. But their biggest free agent could be defenseman Marc Staal, who has expressed his wishes to sign an extension before becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer.
The Rangers secured their core early last season by signing goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and defenseman Dan Girardi to extensions. Doing the same with Staal would lock up a team leader and important defender.
4. Who will replace Pouliot on that key left wing spot? -- While New York developed chemistry and consistency from December through June, the trio of Brassard, Zuccarello and Pouliot emerged as a top offensive threat.
Playing for his fifth team in five seasons, Pouliot blossomed, scoring a career-high 36 points and becoming a Vigneault favorite. But like Stralman, the Rangers couldn't match another team's offer. Chris Kreider features similar reach and speed, but it remains to be seen who can fill the hole left on that line.
"The coaches have some ideas and we've talked to them about that. There's definitely a few guys that we'll look at," Gorton said. "I think it will be a little trial and error."
5. Can Rick Nash return to elite form? -- New York's success drew attention away from a disappointing season for its highest-paid skater.
Nash led the Rangers in goals last season, but 26 goals and 39 points in 65 games aren't necessarily numbers befitting a star player responsible for a $7.8-million cap charge in each of the next four seasons. Nash's production dropped precipitously during the postseason, when he scored three goals in 25 games.
With St. Louis and Stepan potentially serving as linemates, Nash will be expected to recapture the form that saw him score 38 or more goals three times with the Columbus Blue Jackets.