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Rangers will rely on Richards, better health

by Dave Lozo /
The New York Rangers didn't clinch a 2011 playoff spot until hours after they finished their regular-season schedule with an afternoon victory, as they needed a loss by the Carolina Hurricanes later that night to sneak into the postseason.

With the improvements the Rangers made during the offseason, they probably won't require any help in reaching the playoffs for a second straight season.

Brad Richards was the crown jewel of this summer's free-agent frenzy, and the Rangers beat out the Toronto Maple Leafs, Los Angeles Kings and Calgary Flames for his services. They added toughness and playoff experience by signing free-agent winger Mike Rupp. They also retained all of their restricted free agents.


Record: 44-33-5, 93 points, eighth in East

John Tortorella (4th season)

Interesting fact: New York will open the season with a game on Oct. 7 against the Los Angeles Kings at the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden. The trip will be extra sweet for All-Star goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who will be playing in his home country for the first time as an NHL player.
The Rangers were hampered throughout the 2010-11 season by injuries and inconsistent scoring. Nearly every key member of the team missed significant time with an ailment, and while the Rangers finished 14th in the League in goals, they had a hard time scoring three in a game most nights.

Playing a grind-it-out style, the Rangers clawed their way into the playoffs before being knocked out in the first round by the Washington Capitals.

The major reason for optimism in New York goes beyond the addition of Richards, a Stanley Cup winner and playoff MVP in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning and coach John Tortorella. The Rangers are a young team on the rise and return their 12 leading scorers from last season.

The combination of new veteran talent and emerging youngsters could have the Rangers poised to deliver their first division title since they won the Stanley Cup in 1994.


1. Will Brad Richards thrive on Broadway?
There's been a history of players who receive hefty contracts then flop on Broadway. Richards, however, will not be one of them. The natural goal-scorer knew what he signed up for when he inked a nine-year deal with the Rangers -- he could've signed with nearly any team in the League. Richards will live up to the billing as the elite No. 1 center New York has needed for years.

2. Who will wear the "C"?
When the Rangers bought out Chris Drury's contract, it left a significant void on New York's roster -- they need a new captain. New York coach John Tortorella said he won't make any decisions until at least training camp, but expect hardworking right wing Ryan Callahan and up-and-coming defenseman Marc Staal to be leading candidates.

3. Who will make up the Rangers' top line?
Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik seem to be a lock to play on New York's No. 1 line. But who will be their left wing? The competition is wide open in training camp, but look for Brandon Dubinsky, Ruslan Fedotenko, Wojtek Wolski and maybe even Mats Zuccarello to get good looks out of camp.

-- Emily Kaplan
The biggest loss for the Rangers is Chris Drury, who had the final year of his contract bought out this summer. Injuries and age stripped the team's captain of his speed and talent, and he's yet to find a new home. Drury had just 1 goal and 4 assists in 25 games last season, but his one goal came in the must-win season finale against the New Jersey Devils.

After getting past the Rangers' 12 leading scorers from last season, No. 13 is Vinny Prospal, who signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets as a free agent. He returned in February from offseason knee surgery to post 9 goals and 23 points in 29 games, but the signing of Richards made him expendable.

Winger Alex Frolov was signed to a one-year deal last summer, but had just 7 goals and 16 points in 43 games before suffering a knee injury that ended his season. He was not brought back for a second season.

Defensemen Matt Gilroy and Bryan McCabe are also gone. Gilroy had an uneven two seasons after signing out of Boston University in 2009. He found a new home with the Tampa Bay Lightning, while the 36-year-old McCabe remains unsigned.

Todd White played just 18 games for the Rangers after coming over in a trade with the Atlanta Thrashers last summer and is now an unrestricted free agent.

And it's odd to list his name here, but the shocking death of Derek Boogaard in May left the Rangers reeling emotionally and with a hole in the roster. The big bruiser had been signed to a four-year contract last summer.

There were only three additions to the roster made by Sather, but they should all have an impact this season.

The big one was Richards, a playmaking center whose No. 1 job will be to get Marian Gaborik back on track. After 42 goals in his first season with the Rangers in 2009-10, Gaborik slipped to 22 goals in 68 games last season. Richards has 116 assists in 152 games over the past two seasons, making him the center Gaborik hasn't had during his time in New York.


Wojtek Wolski, LW -- There was talk that the Rangers would buy out the talented, but inconsistent winger. Instead, he'll likely find himself on the team's top line with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik. Wolski is only 25, but he'll have to grow up quickly and start playing John Tortorella's grinding style if he wants to stay in the coach's good graces.

Michael Del Zotto, D -- Remember him? After a 37-point campaign as a 19-year-old rookie in 2009-10, Del Zotto redefined the term "sophomore slump" last season. He struggled defensively and on the power play and eventually found himself in the AHL. He had just 11 points in 47 games last season, but there's enough upside with Del Zotto that the Rangers aren't giving up on him any time soon. He'll have a chance to make the team out of training camp.

Artem Anisimov, C -- The 23-year-old Russian quietly put together a solid second NHL season playing mostly with Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky. He had 18 goals and 26 assists in 82 games, one of the few Rangers to avoid the injury bug last season. He has size and skill and Year 3 could be his best yet.
Richards should also inject life into the Rangers' beleaguered power play, which finished 18th in the League at 16.9 percent before going 1-for-20 in a first-round loss to the Capitals. Richards likes to operate from either the point or along the half-wall, finding teammates with sharp passes through the penalty-killing box.

It's an element the Rangers have lacked in recent years.

The signing of Rupp doesn't seem like a big deal in comparison, but the 6-foot-5, 230-pound winger brings an element of size and toughness the Rangers were missing last season after injuries sidelined Boogaard. Rupp hasn't had more than 19 points or less than 120 penalty minutes in any of his last three seasons, but he's played in 43 playoff games and scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in Game 7 for the Devils as a rookie in 2003.

The other piece added by Sather came by way of a trade with the Calgary Flames. Defenseman Tim Erixon was shipped to New York for a prospect and draft picks and has a genuine shot at making the Rangers out of training camp. Erixon, the 23rd pick in the 2009 draft, would be in the lineup more for his physical presence than his scoring touch.

If the Rangers can avoid half the injuries they suffered last season, not only will they be a lock for the playoffs, but they'll contend for the Atlantic Division. They have a solid group of young defensemen who showed improvement throughout last season and a world-class goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist there to cover up any mistakes.

Consistency from the offense will be key. If the Rangers have it, they could find themselves in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2008.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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