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Rangers feel parts are in place for Stanley Cup run

by Dan Rosen continues its preview of the 2015-16 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams.

NEW YORK -- Keith Yandle barely had time to adjust his body clock, let alone his playing style to adhere to a new team, before he was in meaningful games with the New York Rangers last season. He was acquired March 1, one day before the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline.

Now, with time to reflect on a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and a Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference Final, as well as take stock in who is back and what type of team he's playing for, Yandle offered the following assessment of the Rangers:

"I definitely wouldn't want to play against us," he said. "We're a team that can play in all three zones really well, and we're fast. It's only exciting things for this group."

No team in the NHL has played more combined regular-season and playoff games than the Rangers the past two seasons (208), but the only banners they have to show for it inside Madison Square Garden is one for winning the Eastern Conference in 2014 and another for winning the Presidents' Trophy last season.

The Rangers again have high expectations this season and an abundance of hope that on a warm June day they will parade the Stanley Cup down the Canyon of Heroes in New York City.

"We have the group to fight for it and to be there," goalie Henrik Lundqvist said.

The Rangers' management group clearly thinks so. They made minimal changes to the roster during the offseason because they believe the core in place remains young enough, still in its prime, and still capable of getting over the proverbial hump that leads to greatness.

"We believe that we have a team that has the elements to win the Stanley Cup," coach Alain Vigneault said. "We firmly believe that, so failure is not an option."

The Rangers return five players from their top-six forward group in centers Derek Stepan and Derrick Brassard, and wings Rick Nash, Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello, the latter back after missing the last two rounds of the playoffs with a head injury.

Gone is Martin St. Louis, who announced his retirement July 2. St. Louis had 21 goals and 52 points for the Rangers last season. J.T. Miller, who had 23 points in 58 games last season, most coming after his recall from Hartford of the American Hockey League in November, remains an option to fill that role.

He moved into the Rangers' top-six group during the playoffs last season after Zuccarello was injured late in the first round. Vigneault said he liked what Miller brought at the time (he had eight points in 19 playoff games), and believes there is more to come from the 22-year-old.

Having Miller on the wing on the second line would allow the Rangers to keep Kevin Hayes at center on the third line. Vigneault is intent on having three viable scoring lines, and having Hayes, who had 45 points as a rookie last season, in the middle of the third line gives him an offensive option.

"It gives us a big third-line center that can be effective offensively and defensively," Vigneault said of Hayes, who stands 6-foot-5, 227 pounds.


2014-15 Record:
53-22-7 (113 points)

2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs:
Lost in Eastern Conference Final to Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games

Key Additions:
C Jarret Stoll, RW Emerson Etem, LW Viktor Stalberg, D Raphael Diaz, G Antti Raanta

Key Subtractions:
RW Martin St. Louis, LW Carl Hagelin, G Cam Talbot

However, Miller did not impress Vigneault during the preseason, and Hayes could slide to the wing on the second line when the Rangers open the regular season Wednesday against the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center.

Jesper Fast, like Hayes and Miller, is an up-and-coming forward who could be used to fill the role that Carl Hagelin had for the past two seasons.Hagelin, who was traded to the Anaheim Ducks on June 27, was a third-line left wing and top penalty-killer. Fast could handle those jobs, and after he had 14 points in 58 games last season, would like to contribute more offensively.

If Hayes is the third-line center, Jarret Stoll or Dominic Moore will serve as the fourth-line center and the other will play on the wing. However, since Stoll is right-handed and Moore is left-handed, odds are they will alternate faceoffs depending on which side of the ice the play starts on. Each should play a significant role on the penalty kill as well.

Emerson Etem and Oscar Lindberg are expected to play bottom-six roles. The goal is for each to show significant development this season. Etem was acquired in the Hagelin trade; Lindberg was one of the Rangers' top forwards in Hartford last season.

The only change from last season is the addition of rookie Dylan McIlrath, who is expected to be the seventh defenseman. The Rangers kept their top six intact, a benefit teams rarely are afforded in the salary cap era even if they don't want to make any changes.

It's expected the same defense pairs the Rangers ended last season with, Ryan McDonagh with Dan Girardi, Marc Staal with Dan Boyle, and Keith Yandle with Kevin Klein, will be the ones they use to open the season Oct. 7 against the Chicago Blackhawks at United Center.

"It gives us a big advantage," Girardi said. "We have six strong [defensemen] and we've got guys fighting for the seventh and eighth spot. We're pretty deep on the back end. With [Lundqvist] back there and us on the back end it gives us a chance to win every night."

Raphael Diaz was signed during the offseason but was waived Oct. 2 after losing a training-camp competition with McIlrath. The Rangers will start the season with seven defensemen. 

Henrik Lundqvist returns for his 11th season as one of the best goalies in the NHL.

He had 30 wins, a 2.25 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in 46 games last season. Lundqvist missed almost two months with a vascular injury to his neck, but returned in time to get his game in order before the playoffs, when he won 11 of 19 games and had a 2.11 GAA and .928 save percentage.

Lundqvist is the Rangers' all-time leader with 339 wins.

He has a new backup this season. Antti Raanta was acquired to replace Cam Talbot, who was traded to the Edmonton Oilers after proving he could be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL in Lundqvist's absence.

The Rangers hope Raanta doesn't have to carry as big a load as Talbot did last season, but getting 18-20 strong games out of Lundqvist's backup could go a long way toward having a successful spring.

The Rangers were 21st on the power play last season at 16.8 percent after finishing 15th at 18.2 percent in 2013-14. The difference is minimal, but it speaks to the relatively average power play they have had under Vigneault.

However, having an experienced point man in Yandle all season should help establish greater consistency in at least creating momentum, if not scoring.

New York likely will go with Yandle and four forwards on its top unit: Kreider, Nash, Brassard and Stepan. The second unit could feature two defensemen, McDonagh and Boyle, and forwards Hayes, Zuccarello and Miller.

"If you look at our groups that we have, it's a lot of skill," Yandle said. "But you have guys that want to work hard and guys who want to get dirty goals, play in the rough areas. It's not one of those things where it's just all finesse on the outside."

The Rangers hope the addition of Stoll and the continuing improvement of Fast will enable them to again have one of the strongest penalty kills in the NHL. They were sixth last season at 84.3 percent after finishing third at 85.3 percent in 2013-14.

Not only is the core of the roster intact, but the same players will be coached by the same staff for the third consecutive season.

Vigneault returns with associate coach Scott Arniel (forwards, power play) and assistants Ulf Samuelsson (defense, penalty kill) and Darryl Williams (eye in the sky). Williams is in his second season. Benoit Allaire has been the goalie coach for Lundqvist's entire career.

The Rangers are 98-53-13 (209 points) under Vigneault, whose mild-mannered and measured approach clearly has proven to be a welcome and successful change from the previous regime, led by John Tortorella.


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