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Miller, Kreider, Raanta are X-factors for Rangers

by Dan Rosen

The New York Rangers have raised banners in Madison Square Garden for accomplishments in their first two seasons under coach Alain Vigneault. But neither of them are for a Stanley Cup championship.

The Rangers won the Prince of Wales Trophy as Eastern Conference champions in 2014 and the Presidents' Trophy as the best team in the regular season for 2014-15. They have won 98 regular-season games and 24 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs the past two seasons.

Vigneault set the tone for this season on the first day of training camp when in referencing the Rangers being a team capable of winning the Stanley Cup said, "Failure is not an option."

Before the Rangers can get there, they'll have to make it back to the playoffs. Here are three X-factors that could have an impact on their fate:

Miller's emergence: Martin St. Louis' retirement opened the door for J.T. Miller to become a top-six forward.

"I don't expect anything around here, but [an opportunity] is something you work for," Miller said. "You have to make the most of it."

Vigneault wants to give the 22-year-old the opportunity to solidify the spot early in the season, but he didn't have the most glowing reviews of Miller's audition for the role during the preseason, suggesting Miller didn't generate enough scoring chances while in the top six.

Miller scored off a strong, individual rush against the Boston Bruins on Sept. 30 but was not playing in the top six that night; Kevin Hayes was instead.

"No one has grabbed that spot yet," Vigneault said.

Miller, who had 23 points in 58 games last season, was moved into a top-six role after Mats Zuccarello sustained a season-ending head injury in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round. Miller finished the playoffs with eight points in 19 games, and impressed Vigneault with his ability to handle a bigger role and more responsibility.

If Miller can earn a spot in the top six, it will allow Vigneault to play Hayes at third-line center. Vigneault prefers Hayes as a center because of his size (6-foot-5, 227 pounds) and offensive ability. Hayes as the third-line center also gives the Rangers the chance to have three viable scoring lines; he had 45 points in 79 games as a rookie last season.

In turn, Miller in a top-six role and Hayes as the No. 3 center would give Vigneault the chance to play Dominic Moore and Jarret Stoll on the fourth line. That would give the Rangers a legitimate checking line that features two of the League's best faceoff specialists who would have the ability to take faceoffs on their strong sides; Moore is a lefty, Stoll is a righty.

Oscar Lindberg also could play center if needed. He might have to if Hayes is forced to play on the wing in the top six because Lindberg provides more offense than Stoll and Moore.

Kreider hitting his mark: Left wing Chris Kreider never stated his goal is to score 30 goals, but approaching that number or surpassing it is something Vigneault is thinking about and expecting from the emerging power forward.

Vigneault said early in training camp that this is Kreider's time to shine and he can be an elite player in the League. The coach is crazy about Kreider's athleticism and believes he can use that and his strength to be at the net to score in the neighborhood of 30 goals this season.

The Rangers need to make up the 21 goals that St. Louis scored last season. Kreider also had 21 goals last season.

"The foundation is in place so I know what I want to do on a nightly basis," Kreider said.

Raanta's role: Antti Raanta's role as backup goalie is important to the Rangers even if he appears in less than 25 percent of the games. The Rangers found out the hard way last season how important quality backup goaltending is to the success of a team.

Cam Talbot was thrust into duty with Henrik Lundqvist sidelined for almost all of February and March because of a vascular injury to his neck. Talbot handled the job well and the Rangers picked up enough ground in the standings that by the time Lundqvist returned they had nine games left and were in line to make a run at the Presidents' Trophy.

Talbot went 16-4-3 with a 2.16 goals-against average and .929 save percentage in Lundqvist's absence. Talbot was traded to the Edmonton Oilers during the offseason and will enter the season as their No. 1 goalie.

The Rangers' hope is that Raanta will be relied on for spot starts throughout the season, no more than 20 if possible, but he has a lot to live up to considering Talbot's success in two seasons as Lundqvist's backup.

Talbot went 33-15-5 with a 2.00 GAA and .931 save percentage, including 12-6-1 with a 1.64 GAA and .941 save percentage in 21 games in 2013-14. If Raanta comes close to Talbot's numbers, the Rangers will be fine.

Raanta was 20-9-5 with a 2.41 GAA and .912 save percentage in 39 games as a backup for the Chicago Blackhawks the past two seasons.


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