Just one look at the screen shot above, taken during last night’s game between the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers, and you can tell it just has not been an easy season for the Broadway Blueshirts. Decimated by injuries ever since it was reported in September that Vinny Prospal, coming off knee surgery, would be out indefinitely, the wound has kept on getting wider. Chris Drury also injured himself during training camp, missed several weeks, came back for one game, and got injured again. Marian Gaborik has missed 14 games so far due to two separate injuries, and leading scorer Brandon Dubinsky has missed the last five with a stress fracture; the list goes on and on.
Through all of this, though, has bit a been of a blessing, because like it or not, the Rangers are rebuilding without having to actually rebuild. What is the definition of a rebuild? To get rid of all the veterans and those not hacking it in favor of giving the promising youth in the system an extended look, so that in the next season, management will know who should remain in the NHL, who will be sent to the AHL, and who will be cut all together. If you notice the eight currently injured Rangers, you will see that all of them are veterans, and all have been replaced by rookies or those not far from being rookies. Essentially, the Rangers are rebuilding because they are getting a look at all of their top youth, the only difference is, the veterans will be returning this season, oh, and they are actually playing competitively.
To think, that a team that has had six players make their NHL debut, another four join with under fifty games of NHL experience, and the “old man” on defense be 27-year-old Steve Eminger, sit in 6th place in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star Break, is not only mind-boggling, but tremendously encouraging. The rookies the Rangers are sporting are not being carefully inserted into the lineup for a glimpse, but thrust into games with a regular role because this team cannot afford to waste time analyzing.
The Rangers needed the help desperately, and they have gotten key contributions from Mats Zuccarello, who, since his call-up, has three goals and eight assists for 11 points in 17 games, including going four-for -four in shoot-out attempts. Derek Stepan, who has been with the team since the beginning of the season, has 14 goals and 16 assists for 30 points, and has become the team’s most reliable center, next to Brian Boyle who could vie for Comeback Player of the year. Boyle is looked at as a veteran, and may be on this crop, but before this season he had only 107 NHL games experience spread out over three seasons, with only 12 goals and four assists. This season, he has come up clutch time and time again, with a team-leading 18 goals, more than both teammate Marian Gaborik, and Washington Capital star Alex Ovechkin.
Dale Weise has also been a pleasant surprise because of his willingness to fight, and newcomers Kris Newbury and Chad Kolarik, who have spent a lot of time in different systems in the minors, have fit in well, but will most likely not stay once the injured players make their return.
And how about toughness? This team has never been more eager to drop the gloves and stick up for teammates until after Derek Boogaard was injured. At any given time, the Rangers can throw someone out there who will fight, even if none are “enforcer”-type material. Brandon Prust continues to have an amazing season doing a little bit of everything, while Sean Avery, Newbury, and Weise also hold their own rather well.
Last night’s loss to the Panthers was disappointing, but it was part of the learning curve for this Rangers team that just will not die. They lead the league in games on back-to-back nights, yet always prove to be a tough foe when they play. They have been excellent in third periods when trailing, which they showed last night in rallying to tie the game at three after trailing 3-1 heading into the final frame, despite losing 4-3. Resilient would be the perfect word, because as soon as someone gets injured, the call-up comes right in and plays well.
These rookies have made it difficult for the coaching staff to decide who stays and who goes. When Dan Girardi returns after the break, will it be Ryan McDonaugh or Michael Del Zotto that gets sent back to Connecticut? Ryan Callahan is also close to returning, who goes when he gets back? I think it is safe to say that Zuccarello has won his spot on the team this season because of his outstanding play and speedy footwork, so I guess the first candidates to go back down will be DuPont and Weise, with Newbury and Kolarik remaining until Fedotenko and Dubinsky return.
The Rangers finally have a young, homegrown team that we have all been clamoring for years to get. Would it be a success? That is the question we have been wondering about for all this time. I think with this recent stretch of play, the Rangers will have a bright future ahead of them. The old saying holds true, the best discoveries are made, sometimes, entirely by accident.