Rangers' questions involve new lines, more pressure
For a team coming off a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, the New York Rangers have some big questions hanging over them after a very fluid offseason.
The Rangers lost some of their depth but added 40-goal scorer Rick Nash. Of their 12 regular forwards from last season, five are gone. The blue line will remain almost completely intact, something that is key for a club built on defense.
Can the Rangers reach the Stanley Cup Final this season for the first time since 1994? These six questions will go a long way toward answering that one.
Henrik Lundqvist went 39-18-5 with a 1.97 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, career bests in all categories. (Photo: Andy Marlin/NHLI)
The 30-year-old has been among the League's best goaltenders throughout his career, but he was finally deemed the best in the business last season. He went 39-18-5 with a 1.97 goals-against average and .930 save percentage, career bests in all categories, and was awarded the Vezina Trophy.
Expecting a goaltender to repeat a season like that is asking a lot. Lundqvist's lighter workload of 62 games helped to keep him fresh, but so did the fact the Rangers were atop the East for most of the season, giving coach John Tortorella the luxury of resting his elite goaltender more often.
The Rangers added Nash to boost the offense, but if the Rangers don't find a way to score a few more goals and Lundqvist reverts to his inferior, yet stellar numbers of the past few seasons, it could be a problem.
2. How will they handle big expectations?
The Rangers entered last season as a team that nearly missed the playoffs two years in a row. They also came into the season without the services of top defenseman Marc Staal, who missed the first half with concussion issues.
Flying under the radar for the first couple months, the Rangers surged to the top of the standings in November and December and never looked back. This season, the Rangers won't enjoy the cloak of anonymity.
Players talked about how every opponent wanted to give the Rangers their best shot as the NHL's top team over the final four months. The Rangers obviously responded by winning the East, but with the addition of Nash, no team in the East has a bigger target on its back. How the Rangers deal with the label of favorites entering a season, something they haven't had for a long time, will be interesting.
3. What will the line combinations look like?
Marian Gaborik will miss the first six weeks or so as he recovers from surgery on his shoulder. But when the Rangers are completely healthy, how will their lines look?
Of course, with Tortorella shaking up his lines like a child unhappy with his Etch-A-Sketch drawing, they're subject to change from shift to shift. Nash will likely start the season with Brad Richards as his center, and if the two develop a chemistry that Gaborik and Richards failed to find at the start of last season, they could be the go-to top unit.
That would leave Derek Stepan centering the second line with Gaborik. The two worked extremely well together at times last season, and with Stepan and Chris Kreider connecting so often during the postseason, they could make up one of the most potent secondary scoring lines in the NHL.
One bad game and one bad shift can result in the deck being shuffled, but a foundation of Nash/Richards and Gaborik/Stepan seems like a pretty secure one.
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Jeff Halpern, who was signed this summer, has loads of experience on the PK, but that leaves just Brian Boyle, Ryan Callahan, Stepan and Halpern as reliable options while shorthanded.
Players on the current roster who have an opportunity to fill that role include Richards, Nash and Taylor Pyatt.
Richards was a featured penalty killer through the 2008-09 season for the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning, but hasn't done much of it since. Do the Rangers really want their No. 1 center expending energy on the PK when goals don't exactly come easy to the club?
Nash was killing penalties regularly for the Blue Jackets through 2009-10. But again, how much time does Tortorella want to take away from his most-gifted scorer with Gaborik out to start the season?
Pyatt also has experience in a shorthanded role, but just like Richards and Nash, didn't do it regularly last season. As a third-line forward, Pyatt will likely be one of the first to be asked to fill one of those openings.
The Rangers' PK was fifth in the NHL last season. They will have a hard time repeating that number with the losses they incurred this offseason.
5. Will the Rangers' grinding style grind the Rangers?
Make no mistake about the Rangers' style of play -- they embrace it and used it to win 51 games last season. In a battle of toughness and will, few teams can beat the Rangers at their own game.
But it appeared to take its toll on the Rangers themselves at the end of the regular season and into the playoffs.
The Rangers went 11-9 in their final 20 regular-season games and went 10-10 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their inability to finish the eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators and seventh-seeded Washington Capitals earlier in the series left them with heavy legs in their six-game loss to the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals.
There wasn't a player who was willing to admit to being tired, mentally or physically, during the postseason, but their play on the ice said otherwise. The Rangers have just as much talent as anyone with the addition of Nash, but maybe a little less grind and a little more finesse will help the club go further this season.
If Carl Hagelin wasn't suspended during the first round of the postseason, it's possible Kreider never would have seen the ice during the playoffs. But that three-game ban opened the door and Kreider barreled through it with five goals and seven points in 18 playoff games.
There were times when Kreider was used on the first line and times when he was benched during the third period of tight games. Tortorella will have a longer leash on the 21-year-old this season, but is it asking too much for Kreider to match or exceed his postseason pace in his first full NHL season?
Kreider's playoff numbers factored out over 82 games would give him about 23 goals and nine assists. It doesn't sound like much based on the reputation he built for himself, but the Rangers will sign up for that as long as Kreider improves his play away from the puck.