Raise your hand if, even at the Olympic break last season, you had the New York Rangers playing for the Cup in the Finals. I know I didn't. But, after the trade for Martin St. Louis and the ensuing run through the Eastern Conference Playoffs, the Rangers fell just three games short of hoisting Lord Stanley for the first time in 20 years.
That said, their off-season seemed to progress with an air of indifference, as opposed to gearing up to get over the top. I reached out to Evan Sporer, one of the great writers over at Blueshirt Banter, to see how the Rangers are looking heading into this new season.
1) After getting so close to the Cup, was the lack of a big off-season "push them over the top" move a bit of a disappointment for the Rangers?
The Rangers offseason was definitely disappointing, although I don’t know if there was one move that really could have put them over the top. The roster, for the most part, was going to be the same for 2014-15. There were some murmurs the team would try to bring on a big-name center like a Joe Thornton, or a Paul Stastny, but what they would have had to give up to strike that kind of deal didn’t really make it worth it. No reason to completely mortgage your future for a move that may or may not pan out.
The disappointment more comes from a bunch of smaller moves that could have larger ramifications. Letting Benoit Pouliot walk was made easy by the truck full of cash Edmonton threw at him. But in terms of letting Anton Stralman and Brian Boyle walk—especially with both players ending up in the Eastern Conference—it's a bit harder to swallow. Stralman’s AAV on his new deal in Tampa is the same the Rangers will be paying Dan Boyle on his new deal. Dan Boyle will help revitalize the Rangers power play, but it would have been very nice to keep Stralman. Brian Boyle added a ton of intangibles, from his ability to take faceoffs, to zone starts, to playing tough minutes against top competition. So when Brian Boyle comes in roughly $500,000 annually above Tanner Glass, it really stumps you.
2) On paper, it looks like the Rangers lost a lot of depth, but not much in the way of their "top end" scoring and defense. How big an impact will this have on the team?
Kind of just got into this a bit, and this is where you become a little nervous in terms of what the Rangers lost. It was their depth after all that really buoyed them during the playoffs last season. The bottom six, and the Derick Brassard and Dominic Moore lines were paramount to their success. Now many (including myself) felt the Rangers third line of Brassard, Mats Zuccarello, and Pouliot was really their top or second line, but in terms of depth, and the ability for the Rangers to play that group against watered down competition, it was pretty big.
To the team’s credit, they made some moves to make up for said losses. Brassard on paper should be able to fill in for Brad Richards just fine. With a bit of a logjam in terms of top six guys, Carl Hagelin will likely get bumped down to line three, where he’ll certainly help that depth factor. Otherwise, there are a lot of names, and a lot of unanswered questions. Lee Stempniak was a nice addition, and I’d all but guarantee is Sharpied into the bottom six. But then there’s a big group of guys, like J.T. Miller, Matthew Lombardi, Kevin Hayes, Jesper Fast, Oscar Lindberg, and Glass and it’s unclear how they’ll be deployed. Hayes was a major coup this summer, and a player I think makes the opening night team. There’s enough talent in that group to make up for what the Rangers lost this summer, but that’s all equaled by overall inexperience. If some of those guys can figure it out, though, depth again will become a strength for the Rangers.
3) How well prepared is the Rangers' system for a big-time injury, if such a thing occurs? Did they let too much depth walk out the door?
One of the major things the team addressed this offseason was organizational goaltending depth. Early last year, when Henrik Lundqvist was struggling, and then injured, and Martin Biron retired, and it was a bit of a doomsday in the crease. The Rangers were forced to call on 26-year-old, undrafted rookie free agent Cam Talbot. Thankfully, Talbot was incredibly good, but it was an eye-opener in terms of what the organization was lacking.
So the team went out and drafted two goalies this year. Those guys aren’t going to be with the organization right yet, but I figured I’d start out this answer with that story, while Talbot has obviously proved he can step in. In terms of other depth that will effect the NHL club, Glen Sather certainly made sure there are guys ready to step up. That group of forwards I listed above will probably only yield two or three NHL starters. And then there’s that Ryan Malone guy, who’s a bit of a wild card, but is on a two-way deal. There’s going to be plenty of depth in terms of a "next-man-up" if someone goes down. Defensively, the Rangers added Matt Hunwick and Michael Kostka, two guys with a ton of NHL experience that can be a gap-plugger if need be. On top of that, Conor Allen, Mat Bodie, and Dylan McIlrath are all younger guys who will start out in the minors and are hungry to crack the NHL ranks.
Depth is not an issue for this team if an injury comes up, as I see it.
4) How many more years is the Rangers' "Cup Window" open? How closely is it tied to Henrik Lundqvist and his ability to stay at such a high level?
It’s sort of a weird situation. I wrote this piece earlier in the summer about how I really think 2015-16 could be the perfect storm in terms of the team’s Cup chances. But the team has a bunch of difficult free agent decisions to make again this year, with Marc Staal, Zuccarello, Hagelin, and Martin St. Louis all up. It does seem like as long as the team is competitive to a point and Lundqvist is still Lundqvist, they’ll have a window of sorts. Right now, the window seems to be open a bit wider than it was a few years ago when if Ludnqvist didn’t stand on his head in the playoffs, they’d get run out of a building. Make no mistake: Lundqvist is and will continue to be the team’s best player, and because it’s configured that way, their chances will always hinge on his performance. But it does very much seem like this year, and maybe the next upcoming year or two, the team’s chances are a bit better at making a deep postseason run.
That being said, I don’t expect the team to make it back to the Cup this year.
5) How does Rick Nash continue to get a pass for being a scoring ghost in the playoffs?
A lot of this depends on how you define the word "pass." He’s been crucified by some of the New York media, while I’ve long said he’s been playing just fine in the playoffs. Now obviously, Nash is the team’s best goal scorer, and when he doesn’t find the back of the net, there are going to be critics. But Nash was taking as many shots as any player in the postseason, and by only scoring three times last postseason, he had a criminally low sh%. That’s a number you’d expect to regress over time, so all I learned last season was Nash probably had a bit of bad luck, and began to grip the stick too tight, but was still incredibly active. I guess it’s tough for me to say anyone is giving him a pass because of how many people completely ignore every other good thing he does. He was killing penalties, and very solid in his own and the neutral zone in 5v5 situations. It’s certainly not those elements of his game that make him a nearly $8 million a year player, but I think it’s kind of silly to outright ignore them.
Another factor in this whole story is how bad the Rangers power play has been. You’d assume a player of Nash’s caliber would be able to tack on a few goals there, but it’s been so bad systemically and from a results standpoint there’s nothing Nash could have done. Now will Boyle fix that? He certainly can’t hurt. So as to Nash getting a pass, I’d say he’s not really getting one, while he’s being criticized unfairly, or more in an uneducated fashion.
Thanks again to Evan for answering our questions - go check out BSB for an in depth look at the Rangers as we get ready for the 2014-2015 season!