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.
First off, congratulations to both the Ottawa Senators and New York Rangers for a thrilling, stress-inducing, and hard-fought seven game series. It truly epitomized what hockey was all about when the playoffs roll around: scoring, toughness, excitement, and timely goaltending. While all of us, I am sure, had a few minutes [or hours] removed from our lives because of how close all the games were, would you have it any other way? Of course not! The Rangers did what they were supposed to do, and it was not easy, but they find themselves advancing to the second round to face the Washington Capitals, a team I did not want to face in the first round at all, because the Rangers’ last two playoff exits have come at their hands. You could look at the situation in one of two ways: 1) The Rangers are due for a playoff win because the law of averages states that Washington cannot continue the success they have had, or 2) The Capitals just have the Rangers’ number and are in their heads, therefore they will win yet again. Either way you want to look at it, there is not time for much thinking, as Game One is tomorrow afternoon. Not having much time off will probably go to benefit the Rangers more than hurt them; after winning such an emotional game, it would be good to get right back out there as soon as possible, rather than sit around.
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:
For the New York Rangers this afternoon, history repeated itself, because the last time they played on a Super Bowl Sunday, they won on the same day that the New York Giants and New England Patriots squared off in one of the most memorable football games in recent history, four years ago. With the atmosphere in New York swelling around the big game on February 3, 2008, the Rangers headed up to Montreal where they got off to a very slow start, falling behind 3-0. But very quickly, the game started to turn around, and the Rangers made sure that the Giants were not the only New York team to win that day. After goals by Michal Rozsival, Brandon Dubinsky, and Scott Gomez to tie the game after two periods, the Rangers then went ahead and steamrolled the Canadiens in their home building (an extreme rarity) with two third period goals, scored by Chris Drury and Martin Straka. The feeling we felt after this game was complete elation, because Montreal’s arena had (and still has) always proved to be a House of Horrors. The happy feeling would only be eclipsed for Giants’ fans later in the day, as they defeated the Patriots, ending their incredible undefeated season.
Even though the NHL season always seems like a long a grueling one (it is), I always find myself in amazement at how fast it actually all goes by. It is January 28th, and the proverbial first half of the season has come to an end with every NHL team skating into the All Star Break for a restful few days before the playoff chase officially begins. Who would have thought at this point, that the New York Rangers would be second in the entire league and in first place in the Eastern Conference? I can guarantee no one had it pegged as such. The highest aspirations I had for the team for the regular season were what they have been for the last few years: battling for a playoff spot the entire year, and going down to the last day.
Obviously, that could still be a possibility depending on which Rangers show up when the second half starts on Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils, but for now, let us look back on a first half that has, overall, been a great one. It seems like a long time ago that the Rangers were literally traveling all over the world to play hockey games and having a bumpy start to the season. But from then until now, Ranger fans have watched a team gel and combine to form a potent force that finds ways to win. If you think about it, it is kind of amazing that the Rangers are where they are when you consider a few things. First, the defensive core has never been healthy for a long period of time. Whether it was Marc Staal starting late, or him coming back and Mike Sauer and Steve Eminger going out, the D-corps has not been at full strength.
Yes, Virginia, he can write a positive article on the Rangers!
The New York Rangers, after starting off with an abysmal record and level of play seem to have reversed themselves in a stunning 360. Perhaps it was overreaction, or maybe a European trip hangover, where recovering from many different changes in time zones while traveling more than 10,000 miles took its toll. Now, 14 games into the season, the Rangers are playing how everyone expected. Okay, so all of these games have not been masterpieces, but they did not have to be—the bottom line is, the Rangers are playing some great hockey, coming through when they need it the most, and all while experiencing some self-examination and quite a few blessings in disguise.
The Rangers needed a center for Marian Gaborik, but unbeknownst to them, he was already on the team when Brad Richards was signed. After starting out the season like almost everyone else, youngster Derek Stepan seems to be blossoming into a force to be reckoned with, after being placed on the team’s first line (one that has gone three games without be juggled by John “The Mixologist” Tortorella). He had only one assist in his first eight games, and he now has three goals and six assists in his last six. Meanwhile, Marian Gaborik continues to be the goal scorer that they signed two seasons ago, when he put up 42 goals in his debut year on Broadway. After experiencing a myriad of injuries last season and never being able to find his game except in a few multi-goal outbursts, he has settled in nicely with his new-found linemates, with nine goals and six assists for 15 points in 14 games. Should he score two more goals, he would have cut last season’s 62 game total in half. In actuality, he only scored in 14 games last season, including two hat tricks and one four-goal game. This season, he has already scored in seven.
The blessing in disguise here, for the Rangers, is the fact that Brad Richards is not centering Marian Gaborik, the exact reason why he was signed to a very expensive, multi-year deal to begin with. This is actually the best thing that could have happened to the Rangers, because now, instead of a first line, two third lines, and a fourth line, they have lines 1a and 1b, followed by a third line and a fourth line. Everybody has found their niche and the role they are supposed to be playing in—no one is being asked to do more, at least offensively. Defensively, poor Dan Girardi is probably going to have a heart attack by Thanksgiving, after averaging nearly a half a game’s worth of playing time every night. Not to jinx him, but his play has been nearly flawless, and his style has been gritty and effective. Throw Ryan McDonagh, and a nice $4 Thank-You card from Hallmark to Bob Gainey, into the mix, and I would say that the Rangers have the best defensive corps in the league, one that additionally sports the solid and physical Mike Sauer and a revitalized Michael Del Zotto, who has matched the amount of goals he scored in 47 games last year already this season.
As much as we Rangers fans like to complain, we sure like to eat crow as well. Who would not want to eat their words as opposed to seeing this team transform right before our very eyes? The development over the last two weeks alone is very encouraging, because they will only get better. As much as I like to rag on Brandon Dubinsky, he is not going to go the entire season without scoring a goal. Hopefully, once he nets one, they will come in bunches. Until then, though, fans do have a right to be on him, especially since he is coming off signing his first really big contract. He reminds me of Chris Higgins, during his short stint in New York. Higgins too did everything right, everything except score— he got plenty of shots on goal and chances, and was good at killing penalties, he just could not get that little black disk into the net. Once he gets going, and Richards actually has wingers to pass to, the Rangers may find themselves as one of the more formidable teams in the eastern conference.
The Rangers can also say they have one of the best goaltending tandems in the league, with perennial Vezina candidate Henrik Lundqvist, and the always dependable Martin Biron. Combined, the two have a 1.96 GAA, which is good for third best in the league. The Rangers have also shown a considerable amount of toughness in and around their own net. As opposed to years past, where opponents had free reign near Henrik Lundqvist in the crease, the defense, namely Ryan McDonagh, have done a good job in promptly setting such people on their rear end.
This may finally be the Rangers team we can be excited about. There is still a long way to go, but this is definitely a step up in the right direction, and if they keep playing this way, we will all be in for a treat on Broadway in this 2011/12 NHL season.
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.
The New York Rangers are on a road trip from hell. First they traveled more than 11,000 miles to Europe, through Scandinavian countries for exhibition matches, and now back to the United States, where they played one game on Long Island, and are now gearing up for yet another road trip, 3,000 miles to western Canada, to play four games against Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg, before finally returning to back New York for their home opener against Toronto. This schedule, made so because of the prolonged renovation underway at Madison Square Garden, and the NHL’s fascination with having the Blueshirts travel to Europe what seems like every season, left the team exhausted for their first two games in Sweden, which they dropped to the Kings and Ducks respectively, in overtime, last weekend. With the way they played, they were lucky to have even gotten the two points. Lundqvist kept the Rangers in both games, while Gaborik and Richards were excellent together. Unfortunately, the list ends there in regards to players who actually impressed.
The Rangers could have blamed those two losses on any number of factors, which also included not having enough time to get in team practices, and playing four exhibition games on large-size hockey rinks. John Tortorella even exclaimed, “We can’t wait to get the hell out of here,” upon completion of last Saturday’s loss to Anaheim. Before last night’s game against the Islanders, he told the press that, “The season starts tonight.” If that is the case, than both starts to the season were disasters. With an entire week off to rest up, practice regularly, and prepare, the Rangers were flat once again, plagued by the same thing that dragged them down in Stockholm: penalties. The Rangers were shorthanded eight times last night, the Islanders cashing in on two of those chances. The most glaring of these undisciplined penalties came at the most inopportune time, with less than five minutes remaining, and the Rangers trailing 3-2. Marian Gaborik took the most obvious hooking penalty, one reminiscent of a pre-lockout defenseman trying to manhandle an opponent. I yelled at the TV, watching incredulously. This is the most undisciplined team I have ever seen in my life, I thought to myself. After eight last night, eight against Anaheim, and five against Los Angeles, this is not rust we are seeing, but an epidemic of laziness and stupidity.
The announcers on MSG last night mentioned just before the game that Tortorella preached better discipline to the team, and then Brandon Dubinsky takes a tripping penalty a little more than a minute in. Dubinsky, whose play has been less than lackluster all throughout the preseason and these first three games, clearly looks lost and devoid of hockey sense, and has managed to have taken 20 minutes in penalties thus far. Never being a big fan of his I-Play-Good-When-I-Want-To style of play, I wonder what will have to be done to wake him up, as with the money he is being paid, he needs to either start scoring or Sather has to start looking for a new team for the egotistical “power forward”. He is the prototypical third line center being paid second line money, who has a head the size of a superstar—not really the recipe for success, is it now?
People have also blamed these losses on the injuries to defense, because of Sauer’s recent shoulder injury and Staal’s long-term concussion problems. Aside from normal nerves and a bit of shakiness in the first two games, the Rangers young defense really has not been the issue. Would I kill to have those two guys back? Of course, but I don’t see the Rangers having any wins even with them in the lineup, with the way the offense has looked so far, and the amount of penalties that have added up.
And so I ask, is it time to start worrying? It may be only three games, but the Rangers, aside from Gaborik (2 goals) and Richards (1 goal, 2 assists), have been offensively challenged. Its not even the fact that they are not scoring, but they look terrible at times. The penalties have a lot to do with that, because a team cannot develop flow when they spend nearly an entire period’s worth of playing time in the penalty box. Though there is no “reffing” conspiracy against the Rangers as some fans may tell you, there were a few calls last night that were atrocious, including a delay of game call to Brian Boyle when the puck was still moving, and a goaltender interference penalty on Callahan, who had no way to avoid hitting the goalie. That aside, the cat is out of the bag regarding the Rangers. Word is, they are undisciplined and will take stupid penalties, so you know the referees are going to watch them even closer now.
Discipline is not something a team can learn, or hopefully, re-learn overnight. This is something scarier than if the Rangers were shutout in these three games. Lundqvist has been brilliant, and is the only reason why these losses are not blowouts. But what happens when he gets a night off or has a clunker himself? Will the team just implode? Under normal circumstances, a team would welcome a four game road trip, to get out west and get away from everything; it could be a chance to refocus. But the Rangers have been on the road for about a month now, and due to their first three games, this trip is going to be anything but fun. The Canucks have always been tough opponents, and the Flames and young Oilers team will be very tough to beat. The other foe on the swing, the Jets, are still looking for their first win—will it come against New York?
The Rangers need to win two of these four games, what could be an early season-saver. Be it as it may, only mid-October, but if the Rangers drop all four games or only win one, the hole dug will be even deeper. To the people who are not alarmed, John Davidson used to say, “The points you get in October are the points you don’t need in April”. If the Rangers keep losing, playoff chances will diminish, and it does not matter what time of the season it is. At 0-1-2, the Rangers could easily be 0-3-0, so you can imagine what a poor trip out west could mean—the future is really not too bright. With the Penguins and Flyers bound to have good seasons, and the Devils and Islanders set to surprise, we may be looking at the worst team in the Atlantic this season, without a quick turnaround.