11 days of camp and 3 games into the pre-season and the Rangers have made two series of roster cuts and have 27 players remaining. So what have we learnt about the state of the Rangers?
Let’s start with the negatives.
Looking at camp it was disappointing to see core players such as Artem Anisimov struggle with the conditioning skates. It was perplexing because it’s been reported that the Russian was training throughout the summer – what gives? Other players who didn’t distinguish themselves during the conditioning included Michael Del Zotto who, like some others, was struggling with cramps and leg pain.
Goaltending beyond that at the NHL level continues to be somewhat of concern. Chad Johnson, who has NHL potential has struggled, letting in soft goals during the exhibition season while Scott Stajcer has let his nerves get to him. Stajcer had a poor first scrimmage including conceding goals on his first three shots faced. Jordan Parise and Cam Talbot didn’t turn heads with their play either. Neither seemed legitimate threats to Johnson for starting/playing time in the AHL.
A sign of a successful NHL team is how a team deals with the opposition’s top lines. The Rangers thus far have struggled to contain the key players during each pre-season contest. The Devils top trio of Parise-Kovalchuk-Zajac scored with ease in both games while the Rangers struggled to keep Zetterberg’s line off the board on Sunday (against Detroit), while Brian Rafalski also did what he wanted offensively in Sunday’s tilt. The Rangers struggled to deal with the puck possession and skill level of the Red Wings. Although the Rangers haven’t iced a full NHL side yet (it is pre-season after all) they will have to deal with opponents top lines much more effectively when the regular season kicks off.
Drury’s injury is a negative. Drury is on this team regardless and additional offense (compared to last year) from the captain would go a long way in helping the Rangers return to the post season. While conditioning shouldn’t be an issue (he can still bike and do cardio) Drury has missed an opportunity to get in on the scrimmages and pre-season games and re-discover his offensive game. A nice run of pre-season success may have helped Drury’s confidence, however thanks to injury he’s already behind the eight-ball.
So what has gone well?
The Kids Are Alright. No, we’re not talking about The Who’s ‘rockumentary’ but the growing list of Rangers prospect’s who may be becoming legitimate NHL candidates. Roman Horak showed his offensive potential during the scrimmages, scoring consistently. Ethan Werek flashed his potential, as did Evgeny Grachev (at times, in the scrimmages) while there was surprising camp contributions from players like Jason Wilson and Pavel Valentenko (who knew he had a cannon of a shot?). Then there was Derek Stepan. The young center immediately showed he could keep up with Gaborik and Frolov both in scrimmages and the pre-season games. An honourable mention goes to Tim Kennedy. Cast aside by Buffalo, Kennedy seems to have genuine upside and has made a real impact during camp. Mats Zuccarello-Aasen; the Norwegian at times has shown a surprising willingness to play physical, flashed both his quickness and skill set and has shown enough that despite his demotion to the AHL – to start the year – his recruitment looks a good decision.
Then there are the defensive prospects. In addition to Pavel Valentenko, Ryan McDonagh, Dylan Mcilrath, Mike Sauer and Matt Gilroy have all impressed, to the point that try-out veterans Semenov and Exelby have been cut loose already. Gilroy has had an impressive camp and transferred that to pre season play while McDonagh looks poised and NHL ready. Mike Sauer, in the last chance saloon, looks good and remains a candidate to start the year in New York. Sauer seems to be really trying hard to crack the line up. It’s an ideal scenario for the Rangers; the competition in camp has pushed the kids to greater heights and it’s not inconceivable that while the Rangers blue line to start the year will be young and green it will also have huge upside – and gaining ‘on the job’ experience.
Have the Rangers found a Top Line? We knew what Marian Gaborik brought to the table. What we didn’t know was what the rest of the top line would look like. Alex Frolov looks (at this early stage) an inspired signing flashing his skill and scoring prowess frequently while Derek Stepan has looked at ease on the top line, playing the role of provider. The three have shown immediate chemistry and Stepan has a genuine chance to start the regular season between the skilled wingers. Should the trio make an offensive impact together the Rangers will have found their first true top line since the Straka-Nylander-Jagr days.
Sean Avery. Again, it’s the pre-season so no need to get too excited but Avery has looked motivated from the very start of camp and has been impressive in the pre season games providing both offense and that sought after ‘edge’ and agitating aspect that makes him so unique. I have said it many times; with a bit more offensive depth (see: Frolov, Stepan, maybe Fedotenko?) and an in-form Avery the Rangers can not only reach the playoffs but make some noise when there. They are a good situation from being a dangerous team.
Chris Drury’s injury is a positive. Can one thing be both a positive and a negative? In this instance, yes. Drury’s absence has allowed other players to step up. Tim Kennedy looks a keeper, Brian Boyle looks both motivated (physically) and more like a legitimate NHL’er than he did last year, while Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov have shown their offensive games at various stages thus far. Dubinsky in particular has been really engaged during camp and looks motivated to find that consistency that has eluded him as an NHL’er. Drury’s absence has shown that while as of right now the Rangers still don’t have a bonafide star center they do have a lot of upside and depth at the position and this isn’t even counting the presence of Christensen and Prospal as center options.
Wade Redden equals Cap space. Wade Redden is gone. Yes it really did happen and yes the Rangers have cap space. The future looks brighter simply for the fact 6.5m dollars have been removed from the cap and a position for a deserving young player has been opened.
So what have we learnt?
Again, all of the above doesn’t mean the Rangers’ season will be a success (so many variables decide that) but what it does mean is that the Rangers future is brighter than it was prior to camp. Players – kids – have emerged. Marc Staal is under contract at a reasonable rate, long term. The Rangers don’t need to stress about the cap quite as much as before camp and the offensive potential of the club seems (potentially) much improved. This is a potential playoff team on its way up, not down. With a few moves, progression from the youth and a bit of luck this is indeed a promising situation. The Rangers still have plenty of question marks but they don’t seem quite as daunting as they did just a few weeks ago.