On Saturday afternoon, the New York Rangers were knocked out of contention for Lord Stanley’s Cup by the Washington Capitals, the second time in the past three years. Now, the focus is on the future and it’s as bright as it’s been in a long time. This team is being built the right way after years of high priced free agent busts and trades that didn’t work out.
Let’s first remember that the Rangers weren’t even supposed to be in a spot to get into the playoffs in the first place. Many hockey outlets had the Blueshirts missing the playoffs, some even picking the lowly rival Islanders ahead of them. Heck, I picked this team 14th in the Eastern Conference at the beginning of the year out of 15 squads. Injuries derailed this team the entire year, with players like Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, and Vaclav Prospal missing several games. Not to mention Marian Gaborik missed some contests and so did captain Chris Drury, but he wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. But is it possible that these tough times benefited the Rangers by throwing many rookies into the fire in tough situations? A resounding yes!
Rookie forward Derek Stepan was one of four players on the team to play in all 82 regular season games, this coming from a former Wisconsin Badger that played zero minor league games in his professional career. He responded with 21 goals and 24 assists while showing the versatility to play both center and wing. Stepan is one of those players that the coaching staff can rely on to play a solid game and pick up the slack if others aren’t performing. His college teammate, defenseman Ryan McDonagh, played in nearly half of the games in his first year and showed flashes of brilliance at times as a good defender, but his skating ability has scouts marveling on his offensive potential. He is really the only offensive d-man this team has (besides Bryan McCabe, who probably won’t be back next year) and him being a possible threat on the ice would be huge.
Artem Anisimov, Brandon Prust, and Brian Boyle all made huge strides in 2010-11 and have all become integral parts of this squad here in New York. They all set career highs in points this year and all showed tons of heart on the ice and gave it their all. Anisimov had a few games that stood out, like that four assist input in a thrashing of the Leafs. Prust won the Extra Effort award this year and was near the top of the league in short-handed points. He’ll fight anyone, anytime, anywhere, despite being only 5’11. Heck, Prust would gladly drop the gloves against a guy like Zdeno Chara, who is a foot taller and weighs about 70 pounds more. I honestly laughed at the beginning of the year when Boyle said that he felt great and was ready to make a big impact and boy did he prove me wrong. He scored clutch goals, won face-offs, and provided energy.
Michael Sauer had a surprising campaign as well on defense and has made himself a strong, dependable 2nd pair blue-liner that the Rangers need. He won’t give much offense, but steady defensive play by playing smart gives this team a boost. It’s a long time coming for the former 2nd round pick, as he was drafted in 2005 and was a good player for awhile, but in the AHL. Michael Del Zotto had a terrible year after a strong entrance to the league in 2009-10. The Rangers really messed up with this kid because he has the talent, but the mental state of a kid that’s younger than me may have gotten to the youngster. He was sent to the AHL and back several times and when he was with the Rangers, was a healthy scratch some games. He is a huge threat on the power-play with good puck movement, but he rode the pine because he was a liability on defense. Again, he’s 20 years old, so give him some time.
Erik Christensen and Mats Zuccarello emerged as shootout aces for the Blueshirts, as they only trailed the Kings and Pens with 9 victories in the skater v. goalie challenge. It’s a shame there aren’t shootouts in the playoffs because it is possible this team would still be alive had there been that rule change. Two of the Rangers’ losses were in extra time. These two guys will definitely get a shot at making the club again come September, but they need to expand their game a little more to become more valuable, so to speak. Zuccarello was one of those rookies that made the most of injuries to other players and quickly became a fan favorite with his clutch moves and superb stick handling. Christensen missed time in December and January with a broken bone.
We all know what Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky bring to the table in regards to being young, talented forwards, so I won’t write much about them. Cally was out for two long stints from blocking shots, showing the courage of a lion out on the ice. The future captain of this team, he also topped his season highs in goals, assists, and points while being great on defense and one of the few players who could convert on the power-play. Dubinsky could be a great player if he could stop taking silly penalties. I feel like he lets emotion get the best of him, leading to rash decisions that result to a mistake. The skill set is there and the trend of his point total increasing every year should continue.
Marc Staal and Dan Girardi may be the best defensive pair of defenseman the NHL has to offer. Staal was an All-Star for the first time and Girardi led the league in blocked shots in the regular season and as of right now, leads the playoffs in blocked shots. They too set career highs in points, which is odd considering how much this entire team struggled offensively to find consistency. The only knock I have on Staal is that he is very slow and elite players will get past him. Girardi is a player any coach would love to have on their side.
The main questions surrounding this team though with the skaters is two of the highest paid forwards in the league, Gaborik and Drury. Gaborik was the goat of these playoffs for virtually being invisible on offense and throwing Game 4 away on a blunder that will be remembered here in the Big Apple forever. He scored 22 goals, which was third on the team, but many of them came in only a handful of games. Gaby is always an injury risk and his defense drives fans crazy. His no-trade clause and huge contract makes him practically a lock for next year unless he is waived or released. Drury on the other hand, scored his only goal of the year in the team’s last regular season game. He won’t give you offense and his secondary skills to me, are declining. Again, a huge contract, so not much the team could do.
Henrik Lundqvist is a lock in net, as he continued his league record for 30+ win seasons to start a career. After breaking out in 2005-06, he’s been as solid as a rock as the netminder and is a likely Vezina finalist again this year. He expects to make every save and has a desire to win that is tough to match. Lundy also has a few years left on his deal and is faring much better than that other goalie in New York (no, not Ryan Miller). This year, he won his 200th career game in only his sixth season. Management wanted him more fresh for the playoffs, but a freak injury to Marty Biron in practice forced the Swede to start the final 30+ games.
A pair of Michigan Wolverines could help this team next year, one of them who played a few games this year. Chad Kolarik was a favorite of coach John Tortorella and was praised for his effort during the four games, recording an assist. As a U-M hockey fan, I saw this kid play for four years and he has what it takes offensively to play at hockey’s highest level. He helped teammate Kevin Porter (now with the Colorado Avalanche) win the Hobey Baker Award their senior years, hockey’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Carl Hagelin just finished out his career in Ann Arbor with a loss in the National Championship game and the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, the Connecticut Whale, gave him a tryout. Hagelin is a coach’s favorite because he can do it all. He’s great on the power-play, even more dangerous while short-handed, and is one of the fastest players Michigan has had in years. Only a sixth round pick, he’ll be NHL-ready really quick and he’ll become a fan favorite right away. 2nd round pick Christian Thomas lit up the OHL with 54 goals and 45 assists in just 66 games. Evgeny Grachev is there in the minors too, but he’s been underachieving
The reason why the Rangers are so stocked up for the years to come is because they’ve built this team through the draft. Guys like Dubinsky, Staal, Callahan, Stepan, etc, were all drafted by the Rangers and came through the minor league system. We’re not seeing the Bobby Holiks of the world anyone by this team, huge free agent signings (save Gaborik) that tie up salary space. Especially in the salary cap era, having a handful of younger players is important to relieve cap room. And what’s more important is that they are hitting on the picks. For a long time, Hugh Jessiman (2003) was the only player in the 1st round of that draft not to play an NHL game. That changed when he debuted with the Panthers this year, but point taken. Goalie Dan Blackburn had injury trouble and Alexei Cherepanov died in the middle of a game in Russia. The scouts have done a much better job over the past few years and they deserve all the credit in the world.
I said earlier that the Rangers shouldn’t have been happy to just be in the playoffs, but in a way, these young guys got a glimpse of what could happen with this team. With increasing health, the younger players starting to come up, and a possible free agent splash, it may not be out of the realm of possibility that the New York Rangers could be a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference somewhere down the line. And who know? It might not take another 54-year drought for the Stanley Cup to be once again hoisted in New York City.