Last season the New York Rangers found themselves time and time again being hit and tossed around like a bunch of rag dolls, lacking toughness and a firebrand mentality bent on seeking revenge against those who ran into their goaltender countless times, gave their captain a concussion, or challenged the team’s only offensive superstar to a fight where he was then handily defeated.
To be more specific on the above events, and to refresh one’s memory on an all but forgettable 2009/10 season, how many times was Henrik Lundqvist bumped into and knocked over while the defense just stood there and did nothing? Where were the team’s pugilists who chose to not get even for the duration of a game after Chris Drury was knocked out after a dirty hit against the Calgary Flames? And furthermore, when Marian Gaborik was getting his face pounded by Daniel Carcillo in Philadelphia, why did Dan Girardi not come rushing in to his aid, choosing instead to be a spectator from a mere ten feet away?
The answers to these questions are unknown. The Rangers have been a team soft enough to soothe your face like a moisturized Kleenex since 1999 when Jeff Beukeboom, the last feared hitter that called New York his home, retired after he had a concussion and the ensuing symptoms. The Rangers were never able to properly replace him, though they did bring in a boundless amount of physical impostors who did more harm than good. Darius Kasparaitus, Dale Purinton, Ryan Hollweg and Erik Reitz (I actually laughed as I was typing that last one) all had potential to defend and protect the Rangers top stars and goaltenders, all of which had their own faults.
The Rangers, since the lockout, have lacked any kind of physicality or intimidation, sorely missed when playing the scrappy and corporeal Flyers. Tom Renney’s vision of a physical team included Ryan Hollweg running around taking hit-from-behind penalties, Colton Orr losing his breath climbing over the bench to go out on the ice, and Aaron Voros rivaling his face to an Everlast punching bag.
When John Tortorella first took over, one could have assumed that the team’s identity would change, and the Rangers style of play would mimic the personality of their head coach– feisty and determined. For the first season and change since taking over, we saw absolutely nothing that even came close to that inclination. Donald Brashear was brought in to enforce, but it was clear he would be no answer, as an early season injury and no forgiveness from the Garden Faithful prompted an end to Brashear’s Blueshirt career before it even began.
But now, at the start of John Tortorella’s second full campaign as Rangers coach, the team’s personality is changing. Could it be the youth finally getting a chance to show itself? Could it be that the players here last season are simply down to their last straw with opponents taking liberties against them? Or could it be the simple acquisition of Derek Boogaard?
This preseason, the Rangers have shown more heart and hitting than they did for most of last season. Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko are making Tortorella’s choice a tough one, as the final roster cuts that were supposed to be coming before tomorrow nights game have been put off until Sunday. Personally, after watching the last game, Valentenko would have the edge. He has a better shot than McDonagh, but also did something very subtle that drew my attention– he actually cleared the crease.
Towards the end of the Rangers last game at home against the Red Wings, Valentenko could be seen pushing Justin Abdelkader away from Henrik Lundqvist as his sat crouched down in the crease, trying to see where the next shot was coming from. The last defenseman the Rangers had that truly showed any ability to guard the net was Jason Strudwick, but unfortunately, his off-ice coaching skills were better than his playing skills, and he now has a job in Edmonton.
It is not really fair placing the blame for this on the shoulders of Rozsival, Gilroy, Del Zotto, and Girardi, when it comes to hitting and crease clearing, because that is not their game. However, when Lundqvist gets knocked over, or one of the team’s players knocked out, that does not require something learned in order to gets oneself involved, it is simple reflex-action. A teammate gets hit, and the teammate closest by is supposed to be there.
We have already seen this in the preseason as Derek Boogaard can be seen calmly patrolling the waters like a Coast Guard cutter. He has yet to drop the gloves, but his job is not to fight, it is for protection. At the end of last season, with Brashear gone, the Rangers “enforcer” was Brandon Prust and later Jody Shelley, but let me pose the question; would you knock into Lundqvist if you knew you were going to hear from Boogaard later on, or Brandon Prust? The answer is obvious. There is not a player, who in their right mind, would look to fight the six-foot, eight-inch “Boogie Man” unless they absolutely had to.
Boogaard’s presence will be more than enough, and the Rangers have players like Prust and Avery to drop the gloves on a regular basis, or if need be, Brandon Dubinsky. Perhaps Valentenko fights too, but I have yet to see him drop the gloves.
The Rangers finally lived up to their word this season when they gave the kids a chance to make the team and sent the veterans and unworthy’s packing. What this can do for a young player’s confidence level is immeasurable, and now they see sticking up for one another as not something they have to do, but something they want to do. When the Rangers played the Flyers and other tough teams last season, it was the opponent that set the physical pace. This season, though, the Rangers have the chance to set the tone for themselves.
A little bit of toughness can go along way. It not only inspires fellow teammates and propels them to play better, but it makes for very entertaining hockey. I do believe the Rangers will be better this season than what I originally predicted, and the team’s new mentality has contributed a lot to this change of heart.