It finally happened. The trade that everyone has been waiting for just went down, and that was the New York Rangers acquiring Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first blockbuster of the off-season. There were many guesses as to whether or not it would take an overpayment to get him, but I held fast with Glen Sather saying it would either be a robbery, or he would not be acquired at all. The magician has just completed his latest trick, because the Rangers somehow managed to only send Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon, and a first round pick. The Rangers also received a third round pick and a defenseman back from Columbus. All told, the Rangers still have more than $13 million in cap space, with nearly a full roster, as the only two players awaiting to be re-signed are restricted free agents Anton Stralman and Michael Del Zotto. Glen Sather has put himself in a wonderful position here to acquire more, some believing that Shane Doan will be signed shortly. The Rangers are also expected to pursue a defenseman.
With the New York Rangers already pretty much set with depth on their bottom-six, adding Jeff Halpern would seem like a puzzling move, unless there was more to it than meets the eye, of course. By adding Asham and Pyatt last week, they were replacements for previously departed players, but with Halpern, it may be a move to replace someone who is still on the roster. The Rangers are heavily involved with the Columbus Blue Jackets for Rick Nash, and possibly the Anaheim Ducks for Bobby Ryan and Nashville Predators for Shea Weber. A deal for either of these players would most likely include, but is not limited to, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, or Brian Boyle. While Halpern is not as skilled as them, and is much older, it is still a solid pick-up for the fourth line.
This is going to be a two-part series, the second of which will feature some guest writers and their take on the surprising rise and disappointing fall of the New York Rangers in this 2011/2012 season.
The NHL playoffs can be described as one word: relentless. The pace is non-stop, the play is aggressive, and there is never a moment’s peace where one can step back and take a deep breath. On that basis alone, one could argue that the New York Rangers have been in the playoffs for the entire season, starting before the season actually started. Playoffs are full of endless trials and tribulations, elated moments of victory and agonizing moments of defeat. It does not matter how it ends, and people rarely think about how it even begins. For the Rangers, it started with a 10,000 mile trek across Europe for some pre-season match-ups with local teams, culminating with two season-opening games in Stockholm, Sweden against the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. When they returned to North America, they then had to go on an elongated break and even more road games, as Madison Square Garden’s phase one transformation had not yet been completed. It took a while for the Rangers to get going, but once they did, there was never a break. Even with some bumps in the road along the way, the Rangers managed to lose three regulation games in a row only twice in the regular season, and then once in the playoffs. They did all of this while being watched by HBO’s cameras 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the month of December, and then had to prepare for a mini-Stanley Cup game, as I refer to the Winter Classic, against the Philadelphia Flyers in Citizens Bank Ballpark, in front of 50,000 fans, a game which they won with a late comeback and some stellar goaltending.
With the NHL Trade Deadline less than three weeks away, the excitement and speculation is already underway, as we await yet another frenzy of trades and seeing who goes where. There are plenty of names on the block, which only adds to the suspense. I am not going to bother making predictions this year, just suggestions and observations for the New York Rangers, based on what their needs are. For a first place team, they have plenty of dead weight that they could afford to lose, and plenty of places to plug a player here and there. If they want to stay in first place and actually advance past the first round this season, the Rangers are going to have to be active. This does not mean a complete overhaul by any means (since when has Sather ever done that anyway, except for the 2004 fire-sale?) but rather a series of non-blockbusters (I hesitate to use the phrase “small deals”) that will sure up the team’s flimsy offense. Below are some options, as well as some other things we must consider:
Yesterday’s game between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers was the first meeting of the season between the two Eastern Conference powerhouses. For most of the season, these two clubs have just dominated the opposition and have vaulted themselves to the top of the league standings. It is no surprise that the Bruins are where they are, after having won a Stanley Cup this past spring and not having much of a turnover. The Rangers, however, have been a surprise for many who expected they would be battling for the sixth, seventh, or eighth spots in the East. Yes, you can count me as one of the surprised. When Marian Gaborik scored in overtime yesterday with 3.6 seconds to go, I was at work in the break room and yelled. Of course, being that many people were at my job, they were all confused and a few were afraid I think. But now that my emotions have leveled off and I have gotten a chance to watch the highlights a few times, there are a few things that have stood out:
‘Twas the last game before Christmas, and the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers are both surging toward the highly anticipated Winter Classic on January 2nd. Both of these teams, the stars of HBO’s hit series 24/7, have given the network and fans alike plenty of entertainment. From a hockey marketing standpoint, the scenario could not be any better. The Flyers currently sit in first place in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, while the Rangers sit in second in the former, and fourth in the latter, just two points behind. Should the Blueshirts win tonight, they would take over first place, because they would have played one less game with one fewer loss, though both teams would have an identical number of wins.
Seriously, when was the last time the New York Rangers called someone up from the minors during the season and they instantly caused a sensation, not only by succeeding early, but continuing that success for more than just a game or two? It has been a long time, we know that much, and so, it is with open arms that we have watched rookie Carl Hagelin (8 GP; 3 G, 3 A) play in these last eight games. There is much reason to get excited here, and I am not worried about him being a mere flash-in-the-pan, because he has not been getting lucky with his goals, but actually creating them. Last night, against the Buffalo Sabres, he scored two; one at even strength and one shorthanded. Each one was nearly identical: he used his speed to cut down the wing before blasting a shot home. That is the reason why he will succeed in New York this season, because of his speed and determination, and also, his willingness to just shoot the puck (he has 21 shots so far on the season). He even shows signs of backchecking and defensive zone awareness, which is something that rookies often lack mightily.
At just over 13 minutes into the second period, New York Rangers forward Artem Anisimov scored a beautiful goal off some tic-tac-toe passes shorthanded to give his team a 2-1 lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but then, he skated to the top of the circle, turned around, and made a shotgun motion with his stick, aimed towards the net. This celebration, which is called a “sniping”, went on to cause an absolute frenzy as Lightning players proceeded to attack him. This will no doubt be the center of conversation in the NHL for the next few days, and so it deserves additional attention on here.
If you want to hear from John Tortorella his reason for why the New York Rangers lost in a dismal game against the Edmonton Oilers, 2-0 last night, you are going to have to take a rain-check. The head coach, who pulls the stunt of not wanting to talk to the media in a post game press conference a few times a year, coming with more regularity as the season progresses, is not helping his image any, one that is already tarnished because of the way his team has started. Though I suppose it was more mature than dropping F-bombs on Larry Brooks, a clunker like the Rangers had last night is one that comes with many questions, two of which included, “Why was Marian Gaborik playing on a line with Dubinsky and Anisimov?” and “How come Richards was centering Stepan and Callahan?”. I know Johnny Juggles has the compulsion to mix up his lines every two shifts, hindering any formulation of chemistry on his own, but is there much sense in putting the team’s best scorer with two players who can’t pass, and putting the team’s best passer with two players who couldn’t hit the ocean if they were standing on a boat?
Sometimes I can find explanations for questionable moves, but the switching of the team’s two best offensive players to lines with zero skill and hockey sense is mind-boggling. Gaborik and Richards have excelled together, so only on the Rangers are they the pair that is split apart. Tortorella is as much to blame for the sloppy play in all of these six games as anyone else. Has there been one game where the four lines he started with actually remained intact? The fact is, the Rangers have not yet had a game this season where they looked decent from start to finish, and had control of the puck for more than a few shifts in a row. The Rangers, who, thanks to overtime’s ridiculous loser’s point, can claim themselves to be a .500 team, have played two good periods in six games. Yes, you read that right; not two good games in six, two good periods. They played great in the third against Vancouver on Tuesday night, where they scored all four goals in their shutout victory over the Canucks, and they looked pretty good in the first against Calgary on Thursday, even though they left the period tied at two. The Rangers have been a dog chasing its tail in these six games, struggling to even get shots on goal.
The Rangers’ two off-season money-makers, Ryan Callahan and Brandon Dubinsky, have had an abysmal start, combining for a goal and three assists in twelve games. Callahan, newly sporting the Captain’s “C”, has been completely invisible, not throwing his body around and being physical, while Dubinsky has stood out for all the wrong reasons. Callahan is a shell of himself, for no apparent reason, and Dubinsky has played downright stupid hockey, which is worse than if he was just playing bad. Anisimov could be added to the list as well, but at least he isn’t making more than $4 million. Then comes Dubinsky’s mindless and undisciplined penalties, but at the risk of ranting even further, I will leave them alone.
As good as Lundqvist, McDonagh, Gaborik, Richards, and even Prust have looked, is as bad as everyone has been, save for Dan Girardi who is logging so many minutes on defense, he is probably going to pass out by January. There is all this talk about Staal and Sauer being out, but the Rangers would not have a different record even if they were in the lineup. Their problems have not been defense, they have been puck control and getting shots on goal. Callahan has been famous for missing the net, even when close by, but it seems to have rubbed off on everyone else, as shot after shot sailed wide past Nikolai Khabibulin last night, when the Rangers had their best chance of the game on a minute-long 5 on 3 in the second period. Then came Dubinsky with a glorious chance to tie the game, at that point, with the puck on his stick just inches away from the blue paint of the goal crease, and he elected to pass it over to Callahan instead, a play never coming to fruition, and no pucks being put on net. The Rangers looked so bad at times that when Lundqvist left his net and went to the bench in the third, I thought to myself that he must have quit and got tired of playing behind these pylons. Thank goodness it was no serious injury, and just a leg cramp, otherwise this season would have really been over.
Tortorella is going to live and die by this team because these are the players he wanted. Six games in is a little too early to call for the axe, but if they are still playing like this in December, I think Glen Sather will have to be on the lookout for a new coaching staff (is Mike Keenan still wandering around MSG?). This is a team without chemistry or control. Maybe we did overreact after the third game of the season, but then we also over-celebrated after the two wins that followed. An actual good game has been elusive for the Blueshirts here, and they better figure it out before their home opener on Thursday (still one more chance in Winnipeg tomorrow night), or else they will get the usual Broadway treatment: cheers during the introductions, and boos during the first intermission.
I am really looking forward to that new show on MSG called Beginnings, where they will profile a different player in each episode, telling us about their life. I am most curious to see who Ryan Callahan’s first hockey coaches were when he was little, you know, the guys that were supposed to teach him how to actually hit the net with his shots.
As much fuss is made about how young the New York Rangers’ defensive corp is, very rarely do we ever stop and look at just how young they really are. While this is definitely the correct step towards future progress, because the old man on last season’s team was Steve Eminger at a decrepit 27 years old, the Rangers, at times, were affected by the youth on the back-line, which was expected by the coaching staff. While endless glaring errors were avoided—the players seemed to learn from their mistakes very quickly, with the exception of Michael Del Zotto—there was a desperate cry for a veteran defenseman later in the season. The Rangers brought in Bryan McCabe who was a very average acquisition, and while I would have kept him around this season at a cheap price, he will not be returning to Broadway.
So once again, the Rangers find themselves needing that veteran presence on the blueline, one that can be a seventh defenseman to come in and give the younger guys a breather, and to mentor the rookies and other youngsters still in the learning process. Below is a list of defenseman who will/might be on the Rangers next season. The first four are players who are a lock, while the next five players have a chance for those final two spots (I do not consider Gilroy a lock, because I do not think he will be back at all). It also gives their age as of today, and below that is the average age of the defensemen:
- Dan Girardi: 27
- Marc Staal: 24
- Michael Sauer: 23
- Ryan McDonagh: 21
- Matt Gilroy: 26
- Steve Eminger: 27
- Michael Del Zotto: 21
- Tim Erixon: 20
- Pavel Valentenko: 23
- Average age: 23.5 (Holy sh*t!)
After witnessing the amount of old players the Rangers brought in the past, this is refreshing and will even put a smile on your face. However, if the Rangers hope to actually go far in the playoffs, they will need some stability. Not that bringing in a seventh defenseman will guarantee playoff rounds, but it will help guide them for the future. The one player out there that I would bring in for that is someone who we know can do it, because he has done it in the past for this very team, and that is Jason Strudwick. Before you laugh, keep in mind that Marc Staal was his defensive partner for the majority of the 2007/08 season, and I would surmise that his tutelage worked out rather well.
Strudwick would be brought in to play only about 30 games, and he will be even more valuable off the ice than on it. We all remember how good he was with such a young team after the lockout, almost like another coach out there in the middle of a game. He could also wear the alternate captain’s “A” (like he did in 2005/06), because he brings more leadership to the table than anyone else. He also would not be stealing the spot of a rookie. Because he would be only a seventh, the other two spots can be taken by younger defensemen out of camp, which I believe will be Tim Erixon and Michael Del Zotto, who will be given another chance. Gilroy will most likely not be qualified and Eminger will not be brought back.
The Rangers also need to consider cost here, being that they will be strapped for cash trying to lock up Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, and Artem Anisimov, while wanting to bring back Brian Boyle and add one or two upper-tier free agents. Strudwick made only $725,000 last season, and I think that would be a fair price to offer him for this year. We know he loves New York and we know he can handle mentoring young players, so why not bring him back another time?