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Rangers determined to return to playoffs

by Mike G. Morreale
The New York Rangers are ready to make amends after they were denied a fifth straight postseason appearance when they lost a shootout at Philadelphia on the final day of the 2009-10 regular season.

General Manager Glen Sather made a few offseason tweaks, most notably the addition of Alexander Frolov from Los Angeles. He allowed Olli Jokinen to sign with Calgary after the big center failed to live up to offensive expectations in Manhattan. The Rangers finished 16th in the League with a 2.67 goals-per-game average, but often struggled to score -- leaving overworked goalie Henrik Lundqvist little room for error.

"I do know that we have to be more consistent than we were last season," Lundqvist told the team's Web site. "We played some really good hockey last year, but we were not nearly consistent enough."

The Rangers started the season strong and finished with a rush. But their up-and-down play for the middle months of the season wound up costing them a playoff berth. Sather hopes his roster tinkering will change that.

With Frolov in the fold (and possibly on his line), maybe Marian Gaborik won't have to be the one-man offense he was in 2009-10, when he equaled his career-high with 42 goals and set career bests in power-play goals (14), assists (44) and points (86).

The Rangers hope to have solved the one area that seemed to be their Achilles heel on more than one occasion last season -- depth. Still, long-term injuries to Gaborik or Lundqvist would be devastating.

At first glance, it appears the Rangers have more than their share of capable point producers with Gaborik, Frolov, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal, all of whom registered 30-plus points last season. Callahan also finished third in the League with 285 hits.

They also have an agitator in Sean Avery (11 goals, 31 points, 160 penalty minutes), and a couple of heavyweights in 6-foot-8, 257-pound Derek Boogaard (544 penalty minutes in 255 NHL games) and 5-11, 195-pound Brandon Prust (25 fighting majors in 2009-10).

"I'd like to see us gain our identity back where we outworked other teams, weren't intimidated by other teams, and won games," Avery said.

The trick will be for those forwards to maintain, or, in some instances, increase their point production. Coach John Tortorella has hinted that Erik Christensen and Artem Anisimov will be two of his centers, leaving Tim Kennedy, Todd White, Brian Boyle and prospect Derek Stepan competing for openings while Drury recovers from a non-displaced fracture of his left index finger. If Stepan, who signed after starring at the University of Wisconsin and with Team USA at the World Junior Championship, does make the team out of training camp, he could replace Christensen on the top line, between Gaborik and Frolov.

Kennedy, a rookie with Buffalo last season who signed with the Rangers as a free agent Aug. 30, had 10 goals and 26 points in 78 games in 2009-10. He was a big scorer at Michigan State and helped the Spartans win the NCAA title in 2007. Stepan inked an entry-level contract with the Rangers in July following his sophomore season at Wisconsin. In 81 collegiate games, the 20-year-old center had 21 goals, 66 assists and a plus-10 rating, including 12 goals and 54 points last season.

Frolov, who can play either wing, has 168 goals and 381 points in 536 regular-season games. The Rangers are hoping the 28-year-old Russian can return to the form he exhibited two seasons ago when he led the Los Angeles Kings with 32 goals and was second with 59 points -- but he dropped to just 19 goals last season.

Sather also brought in two-time Stanley Cup winner Ruslan Fedotenko for a training-camp tryout. The veteran forward has played nine seasons in the League and won Cups with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004 and Pittsburgh Penguins in '09.

There are two wild-cards in the Rangers' offensive plans this season -- forwards Evgeny Grachev and Mats Zuccarello. Grachev had 12 goals and 28 points in 80 games as a 19-year-old with the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack last season. Zuccarello, a 5-foot-7 speedster who starred for Norway at the Olympics, scored 23 goals in 55 games for Modo in the Swedish Elite League. Grachev, who led the Rangers' prospects with 4 goals in four games at the Traverse City Tournament in September, might need one more season in the AHL before joining the big club. Zuccarello has to show he can deal with the physical play on smaller NHL rinks.

Marc Staal, arguably the Rangers' best all-round defenseman last season, inked a five-year extension reportedly worth almost $20 million Sept. 15. Staal had 8 goals, 27 points and a plus-11 rating last season, his third with the Blueshirts, and has missed only two regular-season games.

"He's a big piece to our team right now and to the future," Tortorella said of Staal. "He's ready to play. From a coach's point of view, to have one of your top players, and a big part of your core, not miss anything -- especially a 23-year-old defenseman -- that's a big thing."

Tortorella also is glad Michael Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy will return to the back end with one season of experience under their belts. Both were forced to learn on the job -- Del Zotto led all Rangers defensemen with 9 goals and 37 points in 80 games, while Gilroy had 15 points in 69 games.

Dan Girardi, who will enter his fifth season, usually partners with Staal. Girardi finished tied with Staal for the team lead among defenders with 178 hits while also blocking a team-high 180 shots.

Staal, Girardi, Michal Rozsival (136 hits, 130 blocked shots last season) and Del Zotto have locked up spots along the blue line. Sather also acquired Steve Eminger, who has 15 goals and 70 assists in 344 career games, from Anaheim.

The club also is high on Ryan McDonagh, who signed an entry-level contract in July and was paired with Rozsival in the preseason. McDonagh is close friends with Stepan -- the two were teammates at Wisconsin. In four games at the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament in September, McDonagh had 3 assists and a plus-4 rating.

On Saturday, Sather waived veteran defenseman Wade Redden, who signed a six-year deal in 2008. Redden just didn't live up to Sather's expectations, posting the lowest offensive numbers of his career in his first two seasons in the Big Apple. The move will clear $6.5 million in cap space and give another young player, most notably McDonagh, a chance to shine with the big club. Redden is still undecided whether or not he'll report to Hartford or try to find work elsewhere.

While Lundqvist admitted to feeling the effects of playing 73 games last season, his statistics certainly didn't show it, as the veteran goaltender finished with a tidy 2.38 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. Really, though, Lundqvist had no other option than to carry the load -- backups Steve Valiquette, Alex Auld, Matt Zaba and Chad Johnson combined for 10 starts.

Perhaps that's why Lundqvist is grateful Sather signed veteran Martin Biron to ease the burden. Biron, an 11-season NHL veteran, is a more-than-worthy backup and could get close to 20 starts this season. With the Islanders last season, Biron, who twice has won 30 games in the NHL and has five 20-win campaigns, went 9-14-4 with a 3.27 GAA with the Islanders, but played well down the stretch.

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