Two seasons ago, the Rangers were eliminated from playoff contention on the final day of the regular season. Last season, the Rangers qualified for the playoffs on the season's final day, only to lose in five games in the first round against the Washington Capitals
This season, the Rangers believe they are ready to take another step forward in the face of raised expectations.
|M. Del Zotto
"I think that's good," said center Brad Richards
, the Rangers' marquee free-agent addition this summer and the No. 1 reason for the added optimism. "It's better to be on a team that has expectations and wants to win. The last couple years (in Dallas), when we started a season, it was, 'Can we make the playoffs?' I'd rather be on a team that expects (to win). That'll push us, hopefully."
The 2010-11 season saw the Rangers finish with 93 points despite missing a slew of important players for long stretches due to injury. Marian Gaborik
, Chris Drury
and Ryan Callahan
, who was named the team's captain Sept. 12, were just a few who battled injuries. Backup goaltender Martin Biron
suffered a broken collarbone late in the season, forcing Henrik Lundqvist
to start the team's final 31 games.
The Rangers suffered their share of losses during the summer, parting ways with forward Vinny Prospal
and defenseman Bryan McCabe
, who was acquired at the trade deadline. But with Richards, physical forward Michael Rupp
and perhaps another young face on the blue line in Tim Erixon
, the Rangers might have that perfect mix of emerging youth and established veterans to make a run at a division title this season.
There's no denying the Rangers top two forwards are Richards and Gaborik; the question entering the season will be who plays left wing on their line. The early favorite is Wojtek Wolski
, who possesses the offensive gifts to work well with the talented duo.
IN: Brendan Bell
, D (free agent, Biel, Switzerland); Tim Erixon
, D (trade, Flames); Brad Richards
, C (free agent, Stars); Michael Rupp
, C (free agent, Penguins)
OUT: Chris Drury
, C (retired); Alex Frolov
, LW (free agent, Avangard Omsk, Russia); Matt Gilroy
, D (free agent, Lightning); Evgeny Grachev
, C (trade, Blues); Roman Horak
, LW (trade, Flames); Bryan McCabe
, D (free agent); Vinny Prospal
, C (free agent, Blue Jackets)
Gaborik had just 22 goals last season after scoring 42 in his first season with the Rangers, in 2009-10. Some have said Richards was brought to New York to help Gaborik rediscover his game, but that's not how Richards sees things.
"Two years ago he had 42 goals, 86 points, and he wasn't playing with me," Richards said. "I don't know if I'm resurrecting anything. He's a good player. I'm just happy to play with him. Hopefully we complement each other. He's a great player with or without me. He's proven that."
A formidable top line gives something the Rangers they've lacked for quite some time -- a second line that can contribute consistently.
, Callahan and Artem Anisimov
found chemistry as a unit last season, and they'll probably get a chance to start this season together. All three had career years last season, with Dubinsky scoring 24 goals in 77 games, Callahan scoring 23 goals in just 60 games, and Anisimov totaling 18 goals and 26 assists in his second full season.
The power play was an issue last season, but the addition of Richards gives the Rangers an added weapon and a better second unit with the Dubinsky-Callahan-Anisimov trio. Richards doesn't expect too many growing pains with him working the point.
"Power play is a little different than chemistry on your lines," Richards said. "The power plays in the NHL aren't all the same, but guys have their assignments. The position I'm going to be playing on the power play, I'll feel comfortable doing that because I do it lots. It shouldn't be a huge adjustment."
The Rangers' bottom-six forwards are a mix of talent and grit. Brandon Prust
proved to be a diamond in the rough last season, scoring 13 goals in 82 games after entering the season with 6 goals in 115 NHL games. Five of those 13 goals came shorthanded, as Prust established himself as one of the team's top penalty killers.
had 21 goals as a rookie last season and will be crucial to the team's scoring depth on the third line. Brian Boyle
also had 21 goals, a career-best, and stepped up when the team was ravaged with injuries. Ruslan Fedotenko
, who played with Richards in Tampa Bay and could be a candidate to play on the top line, is coming off a 10-goal season.
The forwards will be rounded out by Rupp, Sean Avery
and Erik Christensen
There's not much changing along the blue line, with perhaps just one spot in question during training camp.
and Dan Girardi
are the unquestioned top pair. Staal had a career-high 29 points as he started to become more comfortable joining the rush. Girardi's 31 points were also the most he's had in a season, and he's the rock defensively. He led the NHL with 236 blocked shots.
The second pairing likely will consist of Ryan McDonagh
and Michael Sauer
. There were few moments last season when they played like rookies, instead showing the skill and poise of a duo that could be a No. 1 tandem in the future.
at 27 is the veteran of the group and is back for a second season. He'll likely flank Tim Erixon
, who the Rangers acquired from the Calgary Flames
this offseason. Erixon acquitted himself well at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament earlier this month, making him a strong candidate to win the final blue-line spot.
Don't count out Michael Del Zotto
from the running for that spot, though. The 21-year-old had a rough second season, so it's easy to forget he had nine goals and 28 assists as a rookie in 2009-10. He could push Erixon for that sixth defenseman spot.
It's a young blue line -- a young team, for that matter -- but that's not something that bothers Lundqvist.
"I'm really excited about our team right now. We kept the core from last year -- almost everybody is still here," Lundqvist said. "And then we add a player like Brad (Richards), who's a top guy, high skill level. I think he will play a really big role for us, especially on the power play. But also in a leadership role and we have a pretty young team -- he's one of the veterans even though he's not that old."
It's the same cast as last season, with Lundqvist the starter and Biron the backup. Lundqvist played in 68 games last season, his fewest since his rookie season of 2005-06. That number might have been reduced further if not for Biron's injury in February and the fact the Rangers spent the final two months desperately fighting for the final playoff spot in the East.
Lundqvist arguably had his best season in 2010-11, going 36-27-5 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
Richards had a lot of reasons to sign with New York, and the team's goaltender was one of them.
"That was part of the lure of New York, knowing you're going to have a goalie like that for the next 4-5 years he's signed, and hopefully longer," Richards said. "It goes without saying how huge it is. You can't rely on it, but it's pretty nice. I've watched him over the years. He's one of the top goalies in the League for sure."
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