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By Scott BurnsideAnother season, another dramatic makeover for the New York Rangers. Like a child that grows tired with a toy and quickly discards it for another, GM Glen Sather can't seem to decide what he wants his team to look or act like. The Scott Gomez experiment didn't work out, so Sather shipped Gomez and his whopper contract off to Montreal to make room for another high-risk, high-reward player in Marian Gaborik. The assumption is a healthy Gaborik will alleviate some of the scoring problems that have plagued the Rangers the past couple of seasons. The problem is, the Rangers' problems are more than one person deep.
"Since I got here, it felt like we took a step in the right direction all the time," netminder Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers' most important player, told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "First round, second round, second round, and then last year, we felt like it was time to step it up another level. Instead, we felt like we took a step backwards, so that was disappointing. Hopefully this year we can turn it around and move it in the right direction. It would be so much fun to have a great spring and go for it.
"We've done a lot of changes. It's hard when you sit here right now to know how it's all going to look. It takes a while for everyone to find their spot and there'll be a different style of play this year. But I look forward to the start."
1. Marian in the house
Who can tell from sitting around a hotel room doing interviews, but we must admit we were impressed with Gaborik's physical presence during a recent chat with ESPN.com. He insisted he is fully recovered from hip surgery that cost him most of last season, but within days of the start of training camp, he was held out of scrimmages to deal with tightness. Yikes.
Still, if Gaborik is healthy, the Rangers should be in the hunt for an Atlantic Division crown; that's the level of impact the Blueshirts can expect from a healthy Gaborik. In just 17 games at the end of last season, Gaborik delivered 23 points for the defensive-minded Minnesota Wild. In a more up-tempo system, he could challenge for a scoring title. Gaborik admitted it's been taxing not being able to stay healthy for long stretches over the past couple of seasons.
"You get frustrated. Physically and mentally, it's been difficult," Gaborik said. "I think I made the right decision to have surgery [last season], pretty much I had no choice. I'm glad I came back at the end of the year just for my confidence, for my body, my play and definitely for the Wild; we needed to get in the playoffs.
"It was a difficult year. I was hurt and all these trade talks, contract talks. I learned from that and now it's a fresh new start and it's going to be a good challenge and opportunity so I'm looking forward to it."
Still, until Gaborik can prove he can stick around for an entire season, Rangers fans will be holding their breath every time the big Slovak winger goes down, something that began before the first puck dropped on this season.
2. The albatross twins
Poor Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden. It's not their fault Sather lavished the two defensemen with overblown contracts. While Redden did play better later in the regular season and in the playoffs, the bottom line still remains he managed just three goals and 26 points (his lowest points total in more than a decade) after signing a ludicrous, six-year, $39 million deal. With both players virtually untradeable thanks to their weighty contracts, they'll both need to pull more weight, especially with the departure of regular blueliners Paul Mara and Derek Morris. Yikes.
3. Donald Brashear
Not to keep harping on Sather's seeming tenuous grasp on reality, but who on earth thought it would be a good idea to sign thuggish Donald Brashear after he sucker-punched former Ranger Blair Betts, fracturing Betts' orbital bone and ending his playoff season? What, there wasn't another behemoth around that could have done exactly what Brashear will do, which is virtually nothing of any regard that doesn't involve mayhem? When the Rangers have difficulty coming together as a team, remember this signing.
4. Whither a power-play QB?
One of the reasons the Rangers' power play tanked (it ranked 29th) was the fact there was no bona-fide power-play quarterback, no one who could consistently and accurately distribute the puck from the blue line or half wall. It was hoped Redden would fill that role but he did not, as his one lone power-play marker will attest. Until that individual presents himself to coach John Tortorella, it won't matter what kind of skill the Rangers have up front.
5. Remains of the PK
On the other side of the special-teams fence, the Rangers did, however, boast the NHL's best penalty-killing unit. Still, key components of that unit, including the useful Betts and Fredrik Sjostrom, are gone, which begs the question: Who will fill that void? It's not likely going to be Gaborik or Vaclav Prospal, who also joined the Rangers in the offseason. Hmm.
6. Long live "The King"
The Rangers' first-round playoff loss to Washington was a microcosm of the Rangers' entire existence. When Lundqvist is on, all things are possible. If not, well, you saw what happened when he turned human after the Rangers gave up a 3-1 series lead against the Caps in the first round. That simple equation may be even truer this season with troubling questions about the team's defensive depth and lack of depth down the middle.
"It was very frustrating and disappointing not to win [that series], absolutely. It took me a couple of weeks to get over it," Lundqvist told ESPN.com. "It felt like they were the better team, but the way things played out, it felt like we should have won. We had a 3-1 lead and we couldn't pull it off. That was a frustrating feeling."
7. The other Staal
With so much negative attention focused on Redden and Rozsival last season, the evolution of Marc Staal from "Oh, another Staal" to "emerging defensive star" has gone largely unnoticed. Yet, Staal was among those invited to Canada's Olympic orientation camp and it wasn't just because Hockey Canada got a group rate on flights from the Staal's hometown of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Staal isn't likely to make the team, but watch for his minutes to jump this season from the 21:07 he logged in 2008-09. And if Redden and Rozsival continue to struggle, Staal and young defense partner Dan Girardi will suddenly become the two most important defensive pieces for the Rangers.
8. Out of breath
One area that Tortorella hopes to improve upon is the team's conditioning. It stunk last season, according to Tortorella, and he has been pushing his team from the outset of training camp to be in better shape.
9. A scheduling note
The Rangers, a tepid 17-19-5 on the road last season, do not play more than three games in a row on the road until late in the season. Then, starting on March 25, they play six in a row away from Madison Square Garden and end up with seven of nine on the road to close out the campaign. That's not great if the Rangers are in a life-and-death struggle to make the playoffs like last season.
10. Olympic exposure
The Rangers don't look to be overly taxed when it comes to Olympic participation, which is good news especially given how their schedule wraps up. There will be Lundqvist as he hopes to repeat as a gold-medal winner with the Swedes; Gaborik will be a mainstay for the Slovak team assuming he's healthy, while Chris Drury is a lock to make the U.S. squad. But the rest of the Olympic hopefuls, including Ryan Callahan, Staal and Prospal, who started the preseason as the team's No. 1 center with Brandon Dubinsky holding out, aren't sure bets to make their respective rosters.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 43-30-9
• Division: Fourth in the Atlantic
• Conference: Seventh in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted by Caps in first round
• The Rangers should be a playoff team again, but they will lag behind the top dogs in the division from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, meaning they will once again open the playoffs against one of the top teams in the conference.
• We admit right off the hop to having a soft spot for coach John Tortorella.
We watched him breathe life into a Tampa Bay Lightning organization that knew nothing about winning. His contributions to that franchise's overall health cannot be understated. He'll now have the Rangers for an entire season and look for more tough talk from Tortorella regardless of whether he's discussing Gaborik or the stick boy.
He wears his heart on his sleeve -- witness his blasting of holdout Brandon Dubinsky's agent at the start of training camp -- and the Rangers should be better for it.
F -- Marian Gaborik
• Fun to watch except when he's hobbling around with an ice pack on his groin.
F -- Vaclav Prospal
• As streaky as they come.
F -- Ryan Callahan
• Hard not to love this guy's determination.
D -- Marc Staal
• He is quietly becoming a top-end NHL defenseman.
D -- Dan Girardi
• The pride of Welland, Ontario, will take on even more responsibility this season.
Best Bet: Sean Avery, F: Avery is clearly more comfortable in a Rangers uniform these days, and after the whole Stars/Dion Phaneuf debacle was put behind him, he actually finished the season in New York on a high note with 12 points and 34 penalty minutes in 18 games. We, obviously, think coach John Tortorella is the right medicine for Avery and expect another solid fantasy season out of him as a source of penalty minutes with decent points mixed in.
Risky Move: Marian Gaborik, F: Gaborik is going to represent the ultimate gamble in fantasy hockey this season. Let's assume his history with injuries is familiar to everyone, and you know about the risk involved there. Now, coach John Tortorella plans to play a run-and-gun offense that lets loose his offensive stars. The speedy Gaborik has been better than a point-per-game player in Minnesota under the stringent defensive style of Jacques Lemaire. A healthy Gaborik set free could turn out to be a scary prospect for opposing defenses. He may be projected as a No. 5 forward because of his past, but the reward is so tantalizing he can be drafted much sooner by those who like to embrace high-risk, sky-high-reward players.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Some projections seem strange at first glance, which forces us to take a deeper look and to challenge our beliefs. For example, the VUKOTA system projects a spike in goal scoring against teams in the Atlantic Division this season, like the New York Rangers. Why?
Henrik Lundqvist was remarkable in 2008-09, earning a fifth-best GVT of 18.8 in 69.2 games. It's easy to react with surprise when you see his VUKOTA projection for 2009-10 is a GVT of "only" 12.2 in 59.3 games. Even if we normalize that to the same number of games, it's still a drop of over 20 percent, which is certainly more than merely a "return to Earth" adjustment. Even though he'll still be ranked as the No. 6 goalie in the league, how can we explain such a big plunge for a 27-year-old perpetual Vezina finalist?
Will the New York Rangers be able to rebound in the Atlantic Division this season?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.