- Scott Burnside, NHL
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PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Last season, a distinct buzz surrounded the New York Rangers as training camp ended. Management had boldly added top free-agent centers Scott Gomez and Chris Drury, and there was heady talk of a possible Stanley Cup parade, or at least a return to the Cup finals for the first time since 1994.
Fast-forward to this preseason and the buzz has definitely been muted, at least outside the Rangers' dressing room, as the team struggles to integrate a number of key personnel and its personality remains unclear.
On the eve of the team's first regular-season game against a Tampa Bay Lightning team that underwent even more dramatic changes this past offseason, it is the Rangers who seem unsettled, uncertain about how to incorporate the changes into their lineup and what the outcome might be.
Coach Tom Renney acknowledged it's been a challenge to put things into position with their schedule.
"It's going to take some regular-season games to determine even that much more," Renney said Friday.
One thing is clear: This team will be looking to Gomez and Drury to set the tone and tempo on and off the ice. Last season, they were more complementary personalities on a team dominated by Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan and, to a lesser degree, Martin Straka. All three wore letters on their jerseys last season, and all of them are gone. Now, Drury is captain, while Gomez and newcomer Markus Naslund will be assistant captains for 2008-09.
After a slow start to the preseason, Drury, a natural center, was moved onto the wing with Gomez, while Naslund played the other wing. Nikolai Zherdev, acquired from Columbus for everyday defensemen Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman, was dropped to the second line with Brandon Dubinsky and Nigel Dawes after playing with Gomez.
The new top line was a catalyst as the team overcame a three-goal deficit in an exhibition game against Metallurg Magnitogorsk on Wednesday night in Switzerland. The Rangers won 4-3, and Drury scored twice.
"It's certainly coming," Renney said of Drury's and Gomez's leadership efforts. "Exhibit A is the third period the other night, but even prior to that, they've certainly shown flashes. What I like about our team is that it won't fall on these two people only."
Clearly, Renney is counting on former Vancouver captain Naslund and longtime Ottawa defenseman Wade Redden to shoulder some of that load. Naslund, used to shouldering the responsibility of speaking for a team in a hockey-mad Canadian market, said he's hoping to do what he can to help.
"It's a lot different environment, both in the locker room and on the ice," said veteran defenseman Paul Mara, who is coming off a strong training camp.
Gomez said he's impressed with the team's depth. Now, the Rangers just have to figure out how to use it. When they get going, though, "we're going to be tough to beat every night," he said.
The Rangers were stopped in the second round of the past two postseasons. After losing to a youthful Pittsburgh team in five games this past spring, the Rangers went about trying to become faster and deeper offensively.
Mara said that the players in the dressing room believe the changes to the roster are the changes needed "to get us over that hump."
Still, with a 1-5 preseason record before recording two wins in Switzerland, the Rangers are hoping they can gain some traction with these opening two games in Prague. Mara said they're treating these two games as a mini-playoff series.
"We want to go home with four points," Mara said.
Despite the arrival of Drury and Gomez, the Rangers were slow out of the gate in 2007-08. In a few hours, they'll look to see what kind of start they can enjoy with yet another batch of new faces and new expectations.
"We're not worried about whether or not we're making a good impression," Renney said. "What we're concerned with is whether we're playing well and that we provide ourselves a springboard to even get better.
"For us, it's all about being the New York Rangers and showing our work the way we want to throughout the course of the year with a good, solid effort that gets us two points. Whether or not we are impressing people or providing the proper first impression, I don't really care too much about. What I want to do is win a hockey game however the heck we can do. I want to do it twice, if it's possible."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
The New York Rangers had plenty of hope before last season after making a big free-agent splash. This season? Well, more new faces are in town, but the feeling in the air is more skeptical.