New York Rangers season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:30 PM ET
ESPN.com

New York Rangers

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

Despite their woeful turn down the stretch and their meek exit from the playoffs -- a first-round sweep at the hands of the not-so-neighborly New Jersey Devils -- the New York Rangers are for real. How do we know this? Because unlike Rangers teams of the past, whose future was only as good as the next aging free-agent signing, this team is building on its foundation rather than tearing it down. Instead of remaking itself in the offseason, the Rangers have added parts that complement coach Tom Renney's hardworking squad that recaptured the imagination of fans who watched their team become a caricature after winning a championship in 1994.

Offense: There was a 44-point gap between Jaromir Jagr and Michael Nylander at the top of the Rangers' scoring list last season, and that kind of disparity is not the stuff of championships. That gap should narrow significantly with the addition of free agents Brendan Shanahan (40 goals last season in Detroit) and Matt Cullen, a talented, versatile forward who comes over from Carolina with his brand-new Stanley Cup ring. Assuming prolific Petr Prucha continues to build on a sensational rookie campaign (30 goals in 68 games, although his production did drop off with the rest of the Rangers in the last month of the season), the Rangers won't have to rely as much on the heroics of The King, netminder Henrik Lundqvist, to put W's on the board. Jagr, who is being treated with kid gloves in training camp after offseason surgery to repair a dislocated left shoulder, should be at or near the top of the NHL scoring parade after finishing second behind MVP Joe Thornton last year.

Defense: The Rangers' blue line won't give opponents nightmares, but it is a decent enough crew that was made a little tougher with the acquisition of Aaron Ward, a three-time Cup winner who, like Cullen, comes over from a championship turn in Carolina. No Rangers defenseman scored more than six goals last season, and that will have to change if the team is to take another step forward. Renney would like to see more production, and in general, a more complete game from talented Fedor Tyutin. There remains hope Brian Leetch will return to the fold to play out the string, but the Rangers, bless their souls, have been reluctant to fall into old patterns, so the chances of such a homecoming are remote. Marc Staal of the ubiquitous Staal clan is likely another year away from joining the big club, but a strong training camp could change that. It will be interesting to see what becomes of the troubled but talented Sandis Ozolinsh, who continues to battle personal problems while recovering from reconstructive knee surgery but remains under contract at $2.75 million.

Goaltending: Few young goaltenders showed the poise and grace under pressure that Lundqvist showed last season in compiling a 30-12-9 record under the hot lights of Madison Square Garden. The rookie led the Rangers to the fourth-best goals-against in the NHL and backstopped the Swedes to an Olympic gold medal in Torino. A hip injury along with migraine headaches bothered Lundqvist down the stretch, and one had to wonder about the fatigue factor as he looked out of place in the Rangers' short series against the Devils. Lundqvist said he's figured out the migraine problem (it was apparently related to grinding his teeth in his sleep) and appears in good health. Now, it's merely a question of whether Lundqvist can recapture that form this season. It says here he will. Kevin Weekes is a more-than-capable backup even though he was unfairly treated by the Madison Square Garden faithful last season.

Coaching: Although few imagined the Rangers would be a playoff team a year ago, Renney managed to get complete buy-in from his players last season, and that buy-in was reflected in the Rangers' strong team play through the first three quarters of the season. There aren't quite as many Czechs in the lineup with the departure of Martin Rucinsky and Petr Sykora, but Renney should still be able to count on Jagr to be on board, a crucial element to the team's continued success.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
3rd The Rangers had the division and home-ice within their grasp until a late-season swoon. This season, they won't sneak up on anyone, but that shouldn't matter as they finish first in the Atlantic and third in the East.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Up
Stock up. It's hard to imagine a more positive feeling surrounding the boys from Manhattan after last year's critic-defying successes (we had them finishing 14th before the start of last season!), but it could happen with what should be an encore performance.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
Jaromir Jagr will lead an even deeper offensive corps as fantasy favorite Brendan Shanahan is on board to offer his point-per-game, 100-PIM numbers. Putting Shanny on a line with the up-and-coming Petr Prucha could inspire a huge step forward from the sophomore. The only worry is a somewhat shaky defense, meaning goalie Henrik Lundqvist might be hard-pressed to repeat his huge rookie numbers. He's still a potential top-10 fantasy goalie, though. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Rangers:
1. Mark Staal, 19, D, Sudbury (OHL)
Statline: 57 GP, 11 G, 38 A, 60 PIM
2. Al Montoya, 21, G, Hartford (AHL)
Statline: 23-9-1 record, 2.61 GAA, .907 SV%
3. Lauri Korpikoski, 20, RW, Turku (Finland)
Statline: 51 GP, 3 G, 4 A, 16 PIM
4. Ivan Baranka, 21, D, Hartford (AHL)
Statline: 59 GP, 5 G, 16 A, 87 PIM
5. Jarko Immonen, 24, C, Hartford (AHL)
Statline: 74 GP, 30 G, 40 A, 34 PIM
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New York Rangers
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record44-26-12 (100 points)
DivisionFinished third in Atlantic
ConferenceFinished sixth in East
PlayoffsSwept by Devils in first round

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Matt Cullen
Cullen can play any of the forward positions and can also man the point on the power play. He is terrific in the dressing room and should be able to top his career best of 25 goals (established last season with the Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes).
Winger: Brendan Shanahan
Shanahan will be counted on to reproduce his 40-goal effort of last season as proof that he's not in New York to audition for a post-career broadcasting job. Last season, he had 40 goals and 41 assists in 82 games with the Red Wings.
Defense: Fedor Tyutin
Fedor Tyutin has all the tools to be an impact defenseman in the new NHL. Now all he has to do is get them out of the toolbox. He had six goals and 19 assists last season.
Goalie: Henrik Lundqvist
Lundqvist had so much success so quickly last season, the key will be in not trying to do too much as an encore. He finished with a 30-12 record and a 2.24 goals-against average.

Key Moves
TOP TRIO
The addition of free agents Brendan Shanahan, Matt Cullen and Aaron Ward make the Rangers' dressing room a better place for teammates and for those covering the team.

SportsNation
Rating the Rangers
The Rangers finished sixth in the Eastern Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Rangers in scoring? What's your take on the man behind the bench, Tom Renney?
Vote now, SportsNation!