2008-09 Team Preview: New York Rangers
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OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Pierre LeBrunIt's not every day a team that reaches the second round of the playoffs has the kind of makeover the Rangers opted for. But it shows you how high expectations are for this team. The second round is not good enough.
More than a third of the roster has been overturned.
"I'm happy to still be on the team," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist told ESPN.com with a laugh. "No, it's exciting though. We recruited a lot of good players. I think everybody is excited. Obviously, it's going to take a couple of weeks before everyone finds their spot. It takes a while with a lot of new guys." And that's really the key with a team that looks pretty good on paper. Can the Rangers become a team?
Gone from last season are forwards Sean Avery, Martin Straka and, of course, captain Jaromir Jagr -- replaced by Markus Naslund, Nikolai Zherdev, Dan Fritsche, Patrick Rissmiller, Fredrik Sjostrom and Aaron Voros.
Even if Zherdev and Naslund combine to supplement the 112 points Jagr and Straka brought with them overseas, this is still a team that didn't score enough goals last season. Hence, the interest in free-agent center Mats Sundin. If and when the longtime Toronto captain decides to resume his career and chooses Broadway for his next act, the Rangers could put Sundin and fellow Swede Naslund together on one line and shift Drury to wing on a line with Gomez. Now you're talking. But that's a lot of ifs when it comes to Sundin's future.
Brendan Shanahan's status with the Rangers is still up in the air. He recently refused a tryout invite from the team, and cap space continues to be an issue for GM Glen Sather.
Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman were shown the door, replaced with Wade Redden and Dmitri Kalinin. Redden needed a fresh start after spending his entire career in Ottawa and, in New York, he must prove he remains among the NHL's elite. Redden is a quality guy and will be a popular player in the Rangers' dressing room. Kalinin is an underrated player, one whose stock will rise in a bigger market (he previously played in Buffalo). They join a group that already includes Michal Rozsival, Paul Mara, Daniel Girardi and Marc Staal. The latter took huge strides in the second half of last season; by this time next year, he may be regarded as the top defenseman on his team. All in all, a deep group, but it may lose a part if the Rangers decide to make a move up front.
Lundqvist hasn't missed a beat since coming over from Sweden after the lockout. Three seasons, three Vezina Trophy nominations and legions of believers at Madison Square Garden. He's a consistent performer who has logged 70-plus games the past two seasons and, at 26, may still be getting better. Stephen Valiquette is the 31-year-old backup who doesn't get to play much but fared well with a 2.19 goals-against average and .916 save percentage in 13 games last season.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterFor the Rangers, the biggest improvement may be the residual benefit of addition by subtraction. While Jagr was larger than life on Broadway, the white-hot spotlight on one player can sometimes make it difficult for the ensemble to find its way. With Jagr now playing in Omsk, Russia, the Rangers are free to follow high-profile 2007 acquisitions Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. I believe both players will rise to the challenge and have outstanding seasons.
Naslund and Fritsche will help up front, with Naslund providing skill and veteran leadership. Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Marc Staal are solid youngsters who are only going to get better. Dmitri Kalinin may prove to be one of the best free-agent acquisitions of the summer. Wade Redden has a long way to go to regain the form that enabled him to build the reputation that allowed him to break the bank this past summer, and, unless he commits to working hard every shift, newcomer Nikolai Zherdev should fear the upper reaches of the Garden faithful who inhabit the cheap seats.
The difference-maker is Henrik Lundqvist. Is there a better goaltender in the East at the present time? Not for me.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from the 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
NEW YORK RANGERS
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• Record: 42-27-13
• Division: Third in the Atlantic
• Conference: Fifth in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted in second round vs. PIT
• Right off the bat, the Rangers must overcome their jet lag from opening the season in Prague; they'll play seven games in only 11 days, Oct. 10-20, against Chicago, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Buffalo, Toronto, Detroit and Dallas.
Experience: 4 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Quick -- name the only two head coaches in the Eastern Conference to guide their teams to the playoffs all three seasons since the lockout? That would be Tom Renney and Bryan Murray. (And the latter had to fire John Paddock and take over behind the Ottawa bench last season to qualify.)
Renney coached the Blueshirts to their first postseason appearance in 10 years after the lockout -- and has made it an annual occurrence. Getting his team to buy into his defensive philosophies was a huge accomplishment. Now, he faces another challenge: getting a revamped lineup to mesh into a cohesive unit. It won't be easy.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Markus Naslund
• Arrived from Vancouver via free agency. Can he avoid seeing his point production fall for a fifth consecutive season?
F -- Scott Gomez
• Entering second season with Rangers. Strong second half last season after struggling early on. He looks at home now.
F -- Chris Drury
• Entering second season with Rangers. Preseason experiment has natural center playing wing on big line.
D -- Wade Redden
• Arrived from Ottawa via free agency. Hungry to prove many wrong (especially in Ottawa) that he's still among NHL's top blue-liners.
D -- Michal Rozsival
• Entering fourth season with Rangers. Will he be as happy without Czech buddies Straka and Jagr around?
Answer: Like many Rangers teams in the past, because of their active pursuit of free agents, it depends greatly on how this team comes together. If it takes too long for new faces to mesh with the old, the East is too tight to fall too far behind. Perhaps the trip to Prague will help bring the dressing room together faster than it would have otherwise. Another key is Zherdev. He has oodles of talent, but it's not a great sign when a great coach like Ken Hitchcock in Columbus decides you're no longer worth the effort. The Russian sniper must realize he's going to need to show up every night, or else. Otherwise, our friends in the New York media will be quick to remind him. It could be a great story if he relishes the challenge and scores 40 goals on such a big stage, or it could get ugly.
Outlook: This team lost valuable veteran leadership with the offseason departures of Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka and Sean Avery (and possibly Brendan Shanahan, as well). Though the Rangers have a reputation as an offense-first franchise, the statistics last season didn't back it up; they ranked 25th in goals per game (2.50) and 22nd on the power play (16.5 percent). Adding Naslund, Zherdev and Redden helps, but this team will need youngsters to step up their games if it's to improve upon last season's performance. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft