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30 in 30: Power play among Rangers questions

by Tal Pinchevsky

On paper, a lot of things appeared to go right for the New York Rangers last season. They improved down the stretch and overcame injuries to finish second in the Atlantic Division before knocking off the NHL's hottest team, the Washington Capitals, in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

But the Rangers were overmatched against the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, bowing out in five games to the eventual conference champions. That second-round defeat spotlighted some deficiencies on a team that has all-star talent throughout its roster. Those problems ultimately cost coach John Tortorella his job.

With former Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault now in charge, there are questions surrounding a team with a roster as compelling as any in the League. Here are six:

1: How will the Rangers offense respond to the new coach? -- With a stout defensive group and one of the world's best goaltenders (Henrik Lundqvist), defense should continue to be a strong suit. But the offense was stifled at times under Tortorella's disciplined system. The hope is Vigneault can jump-start a unit led by Rick Nash.

For three straight seasons, Vigneault's Canucks ranked among the League's top five in goals scored, leading the NHL in 2010-11. There will be a learning curve with a coaching staff built from scratch this summer, but a veteran-heavy team, led by captain Ryan Callahan, should help that transition.

"I always think the captain is an arm of the coach and has to extend what he's trying to teach to the players the best he can and vice versa, communicate what the players are thinking to the coach," Callahan said. "That's a relationship we have to build with [Vigneault]. As I get to know him better, that's something we'll work on."

2: Will Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller develop? -- Throughout last season, fans and Tortorella agonized over how to bring along the team's top two forward prospects without stunting their development.

Following an impressive playoff run in 2012, Kreider struggled at the start of 2012-13, scoring once in his first 13 games. He was sent to Connecticut of the American Hockey League before being called back up in the final month of the season. He was a healthy scratch in parts of the postseason but found his stride against the Bruins, scoring in overtime in the Rangers' win.

Miller, the team's first-round pick (No. 15) in 2011, was a standout last season in Connecticut and during the United States' gold-medal run at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship. After getting called up to the Rangers in February, Miller scored two goals in his first home game before failing to score in the next 24 games and being reassigned to the AHL. He and Kreider will be expected to take the next step in their development.

3: Can the Rangers overcome a tough opening month? -- A number of teams will have bumps at the beginning of 2013-14, but none will contend with the hurdles already in front of the Rangers.

With Madison Square Garden in the final phase of its renovation, the Rangers will open the season with nine road games. The team went through a similar trip when the arena began construction in 2011, starting that season with seven road games and going 3-2-2.

That tough schedule will be compounded by injuries that could trickle into the start of the season. Callahan and forward Carl Hagelin had shoulder surgery after the season and their rehab could stretch into the opening weeks. Defenseman Marc Staal engaged in a regular summer training program, but there's no real word yet on how the eye injury he sustained in March will affect his play in the long term.

4: Can Brad Richards rebound? -- In the second year of his nine-year, $60 million contract, things couldn't have gone much worse for Richards. He got off to a great start, centering a top line flanked by wings Marian Gaborik and Nash. Unfortunately, that first week would be the high point.

Brad Richards
Brad Richards - 2012-13
Center - NYR
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 23 | PTS: 34
SOG: 110 | +/-: 8
The 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Richards' production dwindled as 2012-13 went on, although he got red hot in the final two weeks playing with late-season addition Mats Zuccarello. With a six-game point streak (five goals, 11 points) to close the regular season, Richards disappeared in the playoffs. He scored one goal in 10 games before being a healthy scratch for the final two games against Boston.

That lack of production inspired speculation the Rangers might buy out Richards' contract. But in the end, they decided to keep him with the hope he'll find his game.

5: Can the power play improve? -- On a team with prominent weaknesses, none was more glaring than the power play. In each of the past two seasons, the Rangers' power play ranked 23rd in the League with a 15.7 percent success rate. That performance was troubling, then the man-advantage disappeared entirely in the postseason.

At a 9.1 percent success rate in the 2013 playoffs, the Rangers ranked ahead of only the Minnesota Wild, who failed to score on 17 opportunities in their five-game opening-round loss to the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks. With the Rangers' unit sputtering, Tortorella held an open audition to quarterback it, with everyone from Richards to Derick Brassard getting a chance.

Vigneault molded one of the League's top power-play units in Vancouver and will be expected to use some of that expertise to improve New York on the man-advantage.

6: Is the window closing? -- The Rangers signed defenseman Ryan McDonagh to a six-year contract extension this summer and added forwards Dominic Moore and Benoit Pouliot through free agency. But the team will have a number of big personnel decisions to make next summer that could alter its direction.

Many of the Rangers' biggest contributors are scheduled to enter free agency next summer, and the team will be hard-pressed to keep all of them. Entering 2013-14, players who can become unrestricted free agents include Callahan, Brassard, center Brian Boyle, defensemen Dan Girardi and Anton Stralman, along with Lundqvist and backup goaltender Martin Biron.

Kreider, Zuccarello and defenseman Michael Del Zotto could become restricted free agents, unless they sign contract extensions before free agency starts.

Though it's unlikely the Rangers will be able to bring back all these impending free agents, one player in particular doesn't see himself going anywhere.

"I love it here. I think the biggest thing is we're talking right now," Lundqvist said. "There's no pressure of getting this done now."


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