By: Michael Abitabilo
As the New York Rangers prepare for their pre-season opener Monday night at Madison Square Garden, the Read Zone begins its coverage of the 2015-2016 Blueshirts with 5 key questions facing last year’s Presidents’ Trophy winners.
- Can Henrik Lundqvist lead the Rangers to a Stanley Cup?
Unfortunately, this question will be asked every season from now until such time as Lundqvist either answers it in the affirmative or retires.
With nine 30-win seasons, one Vezina trophy, and a demonstrable history of post-season success, the answer would seem to be “of course!”, but history would suggest otherwise. Lundqvist will turn 34 this season. In the 87 seasons in which the Stanley Cup has been awarded, only four full-time starting goaltenders have led their teams to Stanley Cup championships at an age older than Lundqvist will be by the time the 2016 Stanley Cup winner is determined:
- Patrick Roy, 2001 Avalanche (35)
- Tim Thomas, 2011 Bruins (37)
- Dominic Hasek, 2002 Redwings (37)
- Gump Worsley (2x), 1968 and 1969 Canadiens (38, 39)
While no one doubts number 30’s will to win, sports history has a strange way of repeating itself.
Ideally, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault would attempt to keep Lundqvist fresh for a long post-season run by limiting him to 60-65 starts during the regular season. Since 2002-2003, only Jonathan Quick in 2011-2012 has won a Stanley Cup after appearing in more than 62 games. The last person not named Martin Brodeur to appear in 70 or more games before leading his team to post-season glory? Grant Fuhr in 1987-1988(!) Limiting Lundqvist’s workload may be difficult, though, following the off-season trade of reliable (if not stellar) former backup Cam Talbot. The Rangers likely will enter the season with career minor leaguer Antti Raanta as their backup. If Raanta struggles, Lundqvist will have to shoulder more of the load, which could spell trouble late in the season and into the playoffs.
Bottom line: Lundqvist remains an elite goaltender, but time is running out.
- Did they do enough in the off-season to improve their team?
If you evaluate the Rangers’ off-season transactions on a player for player basis, the simple answer here is no. In fact, on paper, the Rangers may have gotten worse. In addition to the Talbot trade, the Rangers also lost Carl Hagelin and Martin St. Louis via a trade and retirement, respectively. Hagelin was a key contributor in recent years. His speed and tenacity on the forecheck were unrivaled, and he evolved into a key cog in the Rangers’ strong penalty kill unit. Make no mistake: the Hagelin trade was not a hockey move, but rather a business decision necessitated by the Rangers’ salary cap crunch. As for St. Louis, there is no doubt he seemed completely lost in last year’s playoffs. Nonetheless, No. 26 was fourth on the team in scoring last year, and one of only three players to eclipse the 20 goal mark. His production will be missed.
Joining the mix is a collection of role players whose jerseys will be sparse among the Garden Faithful. Emerson Etem was obtained in the Hagelin trade, and is said to be a reasonably similar though cheaper alternative to the player for whom he was traded (with way worse hair). Jarret Stoll is best known for cocaine and dating Erin Andrews, but is a low-risk gamble that could pay off in the form of added grit and improved faceoff performance. Viktor Stalberg is a talented forward, but has never lived up to his potential. Suffice it to say the Rangers are not relying on their off-season acquisitions to push them over the top.
Bottom Line: The Rangers have to hope their existing core will continue to thrive under Vigneault’s system, and that their young players continue to evolve as professionals. Which brings us to our next question…
- Can Miller and Kreider make “the jump”?
This might be the most important question on this list. When St. Louis retired, the Rangers had an immediate need for a top six forward to join Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. A year ago, one would have thought Anthony Duclair would have been the man for the job, but he was sent to Phoenix in the highly questionable Keith Yandle trade. Certainly aware this could happen, the Rangers must have been confident that JT Miller could evolve into an impactful offensive player. In his young professional career, Miller has been inconsistent at times. But at just 22 years old, Miller will get every opportunity to show that the Rangers were right to (in essence) choose him over Duclair.
The 2015-2016 Rangers will be equally reliant on the continued evolution of Chris Kreider. As Vigneault recently acknowledged, now is the time for No. 20. Kreider presents a rare blend of speed, size and skill. Despite these tools, he too has been inconsistent early in his career, and has shown a propensity for taking bad penalties and growing bad facial hair. Now entering his age 25 season, Vigneault has challenged Kreider to become an “elite” player in the NHL. Simply put, if he does, the Rangers should be well positioned for another long playoff run. If not, they might find themselves looking up at teams like the Lightning, Canadiens, Capitals, and Penguins in the Eastern Conference.
Bottom Line: If Kreider and Miller combine to produce 120 or more points this season, the Rangers will remain among the league’s elite teams.
- Will Dylan McIlrath be a factor?
It’s no secret that this is McIlrath’s last chance to stick with the Rangers. In theory, the 2010 first round pick is exactly what the Rangers have lacked for years — a big, mean, right-handed defenseman who will stand up for his teammates and strike fear into any forward wanting to cut across the middle of the ice. But in his limited time with the big club (including pre-season games) McIlrath has looked overmatched by by his opponents’ skating ability. But amid reports that McIlrath played his best hockey at the end of last season, there is some hope that McIlrath is ready for the speed of the NHL game. McIlrath is battling veterans Rafael Diaz and Chris Summers for a spot as the team’s seventh defenseman. In light of his contractual situation, McIlrath is almost certain to make the team if the Rangers can find a way to fit eight defensemen under the salary cap. If not, though, it’s hard to envision Vigneault choosing McIlrath over Summers or Diaz, whose game is a better fit in Vigneault’s first pass-centric system. Either way, expect McIlrath to get a good, long look this pre-season.
Bottom Line: It’s now or never for McIlrath. If he doesn’t project to make the opening day roster, the Rangers may try to move him for one or more future (late round) draft picks.
- What can the Rangers expect from Rick Nash?
The Rangers will once again rely on Nash to be their go-to guy offensively. Despite reports from camp that Nash impressed the coaching staff in his on-ice conditioning drills, it would be unfair to expect an encore performance of his 42 goal season of a year ago. Indeed, 2014-2015 marked only the third time in Nash’s career that he eclipsed the 40 goal mark, and the first time since 2008-2009. Entering his age 31 season, he has reached an age at which his offensive performance is expected to be on the decline. So, the question becomes what can the Rangers reasonably expect? Certainly anything north of 35 goals would be another excellent season. Of course, if Miller, Kreider and/or Zuccarello are able to produce at high levels, the Rangers will be able to afford at least some regression from Nash. If they struggle, though, the pressure will be on Nash to be carry the team on his aging back.
Bottom Line: 61’s point total must exceed the number on his back, or the Rangers will seriously struggle offensively.
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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and is glad Brian hasn’t locked him out of the site!