Five years ago, Markus Naslund was the NHL’s best player according to his peers. Naslund was awarded the Lester B. Pearson Award, the NHL Players' Association tribute to the best player in the League during the regular season.
Naslund finished second in NHL scoring that season with 104 points, two points behind Peter Forsberg. He finished second the season before, putting up 90 points behind Jarome Iginla's 96 points. Naslund was the NHL's fourth-leading scorer in 2003-04 with 84 points.
His team, the Vancouver Canucks, were perennial Stanley Cup contenders, but they trended downward the past three seasons, and Naslund's point totals also declined. During the past three seasons, he has averaged 27 goals and 64 points a season and is minus-23.
Naslund signed with the Raners this summer and faces a tall task in New York, trying to replace the scoring of departed veterans Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka and Sean Avery. Second-year center Scott Gomez has been skating with Naslund in recent weeks and can't wait to see Naslund start producing in the regular season.
"He feels like he has a lot to prove. He had 90-100 points just a couple of years ago and it's still there," Gomez said. "He had a lot of pressure in Vancouver where they had a team with high expectations and they didn't get it done for whatever reasons."
Naslund said he needs to familiarize himself with Eastern Conference players, but he's not worried. The Pittsburgh Penguins made Naslund the No. 16 pick in the 1991 Entry Draft and traded him to Vancouver late in the 1995-96 season, so he's familiar with the eastern part of the United States.
"This is a special place to play," Naslund said. "It's an Original Six team and everything that goes with that. Playing in New York City and playing on the East Coast again, I'm looking forward to all those things. Plus, the way the team has been going and the vibe that is in the organization, I have the feeling that it's going to be a hungry group. It's going to be a competitive team."
If you're a forward on the Rangers, you know the question everyone is going to ask you: "Do you want to play on Chris Drury's line or Scott Gomez's line?" The two centers signed as free agents last year and have different styles of playing center.
"The key to having success is having two great scoring lines so that they can't shut one line down and you have no offense," Naslund said. "You can look at the good teams when they won, that's usually their recipe. Look at Colorado when they had (Peter) Forsberg and (Joe) Sakic. Who was their first line? I don't know. If Detroit splits (Henrik) Zetterberg and (Pavel) Datsyuk, that's the same story.
"I think we have a great advantage with Drury and Gomez. They are both great players and super guys so it's going to be fun to be part of it.”
The quick-witted Gomez takes that as an endorsement and he'd be thrilled to have Naslund on his line. He said Naslund reminds him of a former linemate.
"Just having him walk in the room, you can feel his presence," Gomez said. "He's a quiet leader. He played with Jason Strudwick and "Struddie" gave us a good report. Strudwick is one of the greatest teammates ever and to have him say that Markus Naslund is a great guy, we believe him. I've had a chance to watch Markus for a couple of weeks, just skating with the group. The young guys are going to be able to go to him. You can tell he cares about his teammates.
"I've always been a Markus Naslund fan. I know when I've played against him, he comes off that left wing like Alexander Mogilny. We were just talking about Mogilny the other day and I don't know if Markus realizes it, but he's got a lot of Mogilny in him.
He knows how to get open and he knows how to score. We've just added another great player to the group. He's going to flourish in New York."
Both Naslund and Gomez said they believe that the No. 1 line and No. 2 line designations are more artificial than fans realize.
"Coming over from the Devils, we never had a No. 1 line," Gomez said. "Well, we did for awhile with the (Jason) Arnott line, but what really mattered was winning. To win, you have to have three lines going and that fourth line is an agitating line. The No. 1 question people ask me, well, they look at me and don't think I play hockey, but then they ask if I start and I tell them hockey is a little different. Certain nights you start and some other nights you don't, depends on who you are playing and what matchups coach wants.
"Chris and I don't have the egos that need to be called No. 1. As long as we are winning, that's what counts."
Naslund looks at a forwards corps and sees right wings Nikolai Zherdev, Ryan Callahan, Dan Fritsche, Colton Orr, Petr Prucha and Fredrik Sjostrom competing for jobs. He's at the top of a list of left wings that includes Nigel Dawes, Pat Rissmiller, Aaron Voroz, Lauri Korpikoski and Tom Pyatt. Brandon Dubinsky and Blair Betts figure to center two lines.
Free agents Wade Redden and Dmitri Kalinin join veterans Michal Rozsival and Paul Mara and sophomores Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist is backed up by veteran Stephen Valiquette. Naslund sees a group that can contend for the Stanley Cup.
"I like the defense," Naslund said. "We have guys like Girardi and Staal coming up, young kids who are the future of the franchise. Then we added Wade Redden and Dmitri Kalinin to the veterans who were here, Paul Mara and Michal Rozsival. Then we have Henrik Lundqvist back there. It always starts with the goalie, in my mind.
"Having Henrik back there is a great advantage. I think we look strong on the back end. I haven't had a chance to watch a lot of these guys on a day-to-day basis because I've been playing on the West Coast. I know a little bit about them but I know it's a strong defensive core."
Lundqvist took many NHL watchers by surprise three years ago and proved he was no fluke with solid performances the past two seasons. While some in North America were surprised, Naslund knew his former Swedish national team member had the stuff to succeed.
"I knew about him," Naslund said. "He was part of our World Cup team that we had in 2004. I don't think he played a game for us but he was there for the training camp and the practices and you could tell that he was going to be a star goalie. He does have that confidence that all the good goalies have. They believe in themselves for the right reasons. He knows he's good and it rubs off on the team."
Naslund will be reunited with his former Canucks coach from a decade ago, Rangers coach Tom Renney. Naslund said playing for Renney is one of the reasons he wanted to join the Rangers.
"Tom is a teacher and he is a listener too," Naslund said. "I think it goes a long way when you treat people fairly. Guys who have been here for the past few years are very excited about playing for him. I had a chance to play for him for a year when he was the head coach in Vancouver.
"Anytime you look at teams, you look at how they are playing and also who is coaching. Tom being the coach here was part of my decision."