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Recalibrated Rangers primed for another Cup run

by Tal Pinchevsky / NHL.com

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

From start to finish, 2013-14 must have seemed like 10 seasons in one for the New York Rangers, and not just because of their run to the Stanley Cup Final that had them playing well into June.

They would like to make a return trip to the Cup Final, but preferably without all the distractions they encountered last season.

Between offseason coaching changes, a grueling 3-6-0 road trip to start the season, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist's negotiations on a contract extension, seven players participating in the 2014 Sochi Olympics and two games at Yankee Stadium as part of the NHL Stadium Series, there never was a dull moment for the Rangers.

PROJECTED LINEUP

FORWARDS
R. Nash D. Stepan M. St. Louis
C. Kreider D. Brassard M. Zuccarello
C. Hagelin M. Lombardi L. Stempniak
T. Glass D. Moore J. Miller
DEFENSEMEN
R. McDonagh D. Girardi
M. Staal D. Boyle
J. Moore K. Klein
GOALIES
H. Lundqvist
C. Talbot

Though some important pieces of that Cup Final team left in free agency, the core remains intact. And perhaps just as important, the Rangers have been spared another season-opening marathon road trip.

"We need to reach our full potential as soon as we can. Last year we put ourselves in a bad start by having a tough start," Lundqvist said. "At the same time, it shows it is a process and it's not a sprint going into the season. You need to get things working, you need to work on your consistency, but also get your top level up. Once we were in [the playoffs], we just peaked at the right time."

With his staff almost entirely intact, coach Alain Vigneault is expected to continue to roll four forward lines and three defense pairs to keep his players fresh and ensure that everyone gets an opportunity to contribute to New York's fast game plan.

However, Vigneault will have to find a new top-line center following a fractured fibula sustained by Derek Stepan during a conditioning drill Sept. 24. Stepan is expected to miss 4-6 weeks.

Vigneault also will be tasked with integrating some new players into his system and compensating for a few glaring free-agent losses. But it's clear the Rangers have their sights set on returning to the Cup Final and getting the bounces that seemed to elude them in their five-game Final series loss to the Los Angeles Kings.

"You want to make that run again," Lundqvist said. "We didn't win the last round, but the first, second and third rounds were all great. Even in the Final, it was just so much fun to be a part of. You could feel the excitement in the city and in the organization and the guys on the team. We had a great time."

FORWARDS

Depth up front was a major strength for the Rangers in Vigneault's first season, with eight different forwards scoring at least 15 goals, the most of any NHL team. However, some of that depth was lost during the offseason when one of those 15-goal scorers, Benoit Pouliot, signed a five-year, $20 million contract with the Edmonton Oilers.

RANGERS AMONG FANTASY TOP 275

The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.

Below are New York Rangers players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.

11. Henrik Lundqvist, G (Top 50 breakdown)

48. Martin St. Louis, RW (Top 50 breakdown)

50. Rick Nash, LW/RW (Bounce-back)

63. Ryan McDonagh, D

99. Derek Stepan, C (Injured)

118. Mats Zuccarello, LW

123. Chris Kreider, LW (Cubeta's breakout pick)

161. Dan Boyle, D

173. Derick Brassard, C (Jensen's sleeper)

250. Cam Talbot, G

Also the Rangers will have to find a replacement for Stepan. The Rangers open the season Oct. 9 against the St. Louis Blues, and if Stepan is out six weeks, he'll miss the first 12 games.

Among the candidates to fill Stepan's spot is Dominic Moore, who played a top-six role in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season when Stepan and Derick Brassard were hurt.

"I think he [Moore] is ready to assume a bigger role, and I know that's what he'd like," Vigneault said. "I do know that when we needed him last year to pick up some ice time he came through for us."

Other options for more prominent roster spots in the wake of Stepan's injury are J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Matthew Lombardi.

"I think we have a good list of potential candidates," Vigneault said. "Now we just need to get them in situations and see how they respond to the opportunity."

Even without Stepan the Rangers have talent up front. New York finished second last season in shots on goal and the offense is expected to stay dangerous. Particularly with a full season from Martin St. Louis and a number of forwards starting to hit the prime of their careers, including Brassard, Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin and Mats Zuccarello.

Some of the Rangers' vaunted depth left during the offseason; in addition to Pouliot, Brian Boyle signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Brad Richards received a compliance buyout and Derek Dorsett was traded to the Vancouver Canucks.

Among those brought into replace them were Lombardi, Lee Stempniak and Tanner Glass. All are veterans who should have little trouble stepping in and filling whatever role Vigneault assigns them.

There also are some younger players who also could grab roster spots with strong showings at training camp. Miller exhibited occasional flashes last season and enjoyed a breakout season in the American Hockey League. He'll now be given a prime opportunity to become an every-day player with the Rangers.

Hayes, selected by the Chicago Blackhawks with the 24th pick of the 2010 NHL Draft, was signed as a free agent after failing to come to terms on an entry-level contract with Chicago. The 6-foot-5 forward enjoyed a dominant final season with Boston College and could compete for a spot, as could prospect Anthony Duclair. The 2011 third-round pick (No. 80) enjoyed a breakout season with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, ranking third in the league in goals (50) and sixth in points (99).

DEFENSEMEN

SUMMER MOVES

ADDITIONS: D Dan Boyle (free agent, Sharks), F Matthew Lombardi (free agent, Geneve-Servette, SUI), D Matt Hunwick (free agent, Avalanche), F Tanner Glass (free agent, Penguins), F Kevin Hayes (free agent, Boston College), F Chris Bourque (free agent, Biel, SUI), F Chris Mueller (free agent, Stars), F Lee Stempniak (free agent, Penguins), D Steven Kampfer (free agent, Wild), D Michael Kostka (free agent, Lightning), G Cedrick Desjardins (free agent, Lightning).

SUBTRACTIONS: F Brad Richards (buyout, Blackhawks), F Benoit Pouliot (free agent, Oilers), F Brian Boyle (free agent, Lightning), D Anton Stralman (free agent, Lightning), F Derek Dorsett (trade, Canucks), F Daniel Carcillo (free agent, Penguins), D Justin Falk (free agent, Wild).

PROMOTION CANDIDATES: D Conor Allen, F Anthony Duclair, F Danny Kristo, F Jesper Fast, D Dylan McIlrath, C Ryan Bourque.

There may have been no greater loss in free agency than veteran Anton Stralman, who signed a five-year, $22.5 million contract with the Lightning. Stralman was an important piece to a top-four defense unit that arguably was the best in the Eastern Conference. Fortunately, the trio of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and Marc Staal is as consistent as they come.

With McDonagh emerging as one of the top two-way defensemen in the League, and Girardi and Staal already established as top shut-down defenders, defense should remain an area of strength.

"What made us was playing to our strengths, each player not trying to do too much out there. Vigneault was good at playing guys in spots and with certain players so they succeed," McDonagh said. "For us, it got to a point where we were really good at realizing when it wasn't going well. Maybe we had to back off being as aggressive. When things were going well and we had good legs or good speed and were coming out of our own zone clean, we wanted to capitalize and keep that momentum."

Losing Stralman was tempered by the signing of veteran Dan Boyle, who should join McDonagh on the back end of New York's top power-play unit and provide some extra leadership in the room. Michael Kostka also was acquired in free agency and should provide added depth. The duo of Kevin Klein and John Moore will be expected to provide consistency on the third pairing, especially after they developed strong chemistry as the playoffs progressed.

GOALIES

It will be business as usual in the Rangers crease, meaning a whole lot of Lundqvist with the occasional appearance by backup Cam Talbot, who emerged last season as a legitimate NHL goaltender.

Henrik Lundqvist
Goalie - NYR
RECORD: 33-24-5
GAA: 2.36 | SVP: .920
Talbot's arrival after longtime backup Martin Biron was waived in October aided Lundqvist, who now has a young, up-and-coming goaltender behind him for the first time since arriving in New York. Seeing Talbot work hard to prove himself in the NHL seemed to spark Lundqvist, who at age 32 now seems calmer, wiser and possibly better than he's ever been.

"You have to push really hard and be consistent with the way you practice and manage everything around you. Just so you're mentally and physically in the right place when it starts. That doesn't change," Lundqvist said. "I think I'm better now at trying to appreciate the journey than just being focused on the result. I'm not focused on making the playoffs now. My focus now is just being ready and having a good camp and starting to build on that. You don't want to look too far ahead."

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