January 2012

Depending on your point of view, and with all apologies to Charles Dickens, the NHL’s annual All-Star break comes at the best of times or the worst of times for the New York Rangers. For the first time since 1993-94, the Rangers reach the All-Star break in first place in the Eastern Conference and with the best points-per-game ratio in the NHL. Conversely, the Blueshirts plethora of skating wounded and injured players can use the time off to heal up for the grueling stretch run.

That grueling run to the playoffs sees the Rangers playing 35 games in the final 68 days of the regular season – including seven sets of back-to-back games (New Jersey to Buffalo, Philadelphia to NYR, NYI to NYR, Carolina to Tampa Bay, Ottawa to Chicago, NYR to Toronto, and Minnesota to Winnipeg).

In any other season, the All-Star break would end up being the Rangers Kryptonite as all of their momentum would be lost during the week off. However, this season should be different from most.

NBC Sports hockey analyst Pierre McGuire provided some insight into why this season might be different while speaking to Justin Terranova of the NY Post.

“[The Rangers] learned a lot last year by losing to Washington in the playoffs when they had a chance to maybe have more of an advantage in that series, but they dropped the ball late in games,” McGuire said while analyzing how the Rangers went from a life-and-death struggle for the playoffs last year to a first place showdown this year.

“I saw it happen to Chicago when they lost to Detroit in the Western Conference Finals and the next year they steamrolled their way to the Stanley Cup. Teams need to lose in the playoffs as a group and try to understand what went wrong and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The seven-day break is just another obstacle that has found its way in the Rangers path. From the team opening the season in Europe as part of a seven-game road trip to start the season through HBO’s coverage leading up to the Winter Classic, and then finally the Winter Classic itself, the Blueshirts have had quite an eventful first half of the season.

They have handled without major fanfare or excuse making – which is the way Coach John Tortorella approached the season from the very beginning.
“It is imperative that we handle everything properly, including the travel, the schedule, HBO and anything else that comes our way,” Tortorella explained to Larry Brooks of the NY Post in September. “We cannot complain about anything . . . and I’m including myself in that, as much as anybody, and maybe more so.
“With all the stuff that’s going to be swirling around us, our mental approach and ability to keep our focus on the right things is going to a huge, huge part of our season; even more than systems and the X’s and O’s.”

“There’s no doubt that excuses will be out there for anybody who wants to lean on them,” Torts added. “But there will be no excuses with our team.”
The theme of maintaining the focus inward on the team while keeping an “eye on the prize” is one that Tortorella emphasized following the Rangers 3-0 victory over Winnipeg preceding the All-Star break.

“The league is going to get better. The tempo is going to get better. I think it becomes a quicker game, but there’s also a grind to it, too. We cannot stop working on all parts of our game. We spent a lot of time on the details of it. We cannot stop trying to get better at that stuff because teams will pass you,” Tortorella explained.

“You look at the standings and a lot of teams win. If you don’t stay on top of yourselves and worry about the details of how we play and remain true to our identity, there will be some struggles. You never know where it goes from there.”

Rangers captain Ryan Callahan echoed his coach’s mantra following the Jets game.

“We’ve had a good first half now. It’s good going into the break knowing you’re sitting in first place. But at the same time, the hockey only gets harder from here,” Callahan told Josh Thomson of the Journal News. “Everybody picks it up a notch. We have to continue to do the same to have more success.”

The All-Star break gives GMs the opportunity to start laying the groundwork for the eventual trades that will take place in February leading up to the NHL’s trade deadline at 3pm EST on February 27. There is plenty of time for Ranger fans to contemplate possible trade targets. Heck, it is very possible that the Blueshirts might wait until the last minute before swinging a deal – and with good reason.

According to CapGeek.com , as of January 27, 2012, the Rangers have a little more than $3.0 million in cap space. However, CapGeek points out that if the Rangers were to wait until February 27), then their cap space rises to more than $5.4 million.

Outside of getting healthy and staying healthy, the Rangers biggest concern has to be reviving their moribund power play which is ranked 26th in the NHL. Imagine what kind of season the Rangers could be having if they had a Top 10 power play.

Many people have lamented that the Rangers biggest need is a player to QB the power play. The only problem with that thought is that the Rangers have had success without the prototypical power play QB.

During the first two seasons after the lockout (2005-06 and 2006-07), the Blueshirts had the 8th ranked power play with the “immortal” Michal Rozsival as the key man on the point. Yes, they had Jaromir Jagr but they also had a system that saw the team use a system that set up Jagr on his off-wing.

The Edmonton Oilers have the 3rd rated power play (21.3% to the Rangers 14.1%) and they do not feature a Brian Leetch-like player on their roster.

Rather than worrying about what the Rangers don’t have, the team needs to focus on using the players they do have within a simple system.

Without being asked a direct question about the team’s power play, Tortorella indirectly answered one of the power play’s biggest problems.

In the Winnipeg post-game press conference Torts spoke what the Rangers need to focus on in the second half.

“A big part of what I think we have to get better at are rebound goals. And before you get rebound goals, you have to shoot the puck on the net,” Tortorella explained. “We tend to look for the next play where probably the best play is being ready to shoot before it comes to you and to shoot it instead of trying to pass it.”

Factoring in Tortorella’s comments with some of my pet peeves, I have come up with a three-point plan that should improve the Rangers power play.

Point 1 – Movement. Far too often the Rangers power play stagnates as they play the puck around the perimeter looking for that perfect shot – which does not happen too much because puck movement has to be accompanied by player movement. Watch the Rangers power play and you notice that there are a lot of Blueshirts standing around.

Point 2 – Get in front of the net. Unless the Rangers find a way to manufacture the second coming of Al MacInnis and Bobby Hull, the team needs to create more traffic in front of the net. By the way, this point goes beyond the man advantage. The Rangers need to take more advantage of this strategy during five-on-five play as well. More often than not, pucks/rebounds will be sliding through the top of the crease and no Ranger is in front of the net. More often than not, you will see a Ranger at the side of the net along the goal line rather than in front of the net. Watch for this over the space of a couple of games and you will see why I am rapidly getting even balder .

Point 3 – Shoot the puck (On Net). Points two and three go along with Tortorella’s opinion; however, I take it one step further by emphasizing the “On Net” part. Some Rangers (Michael Del Zotto is at the top of the list) need to realize that sometimes less is more when they are shooting. The idea is to put the puck on goal, not through it. Sometimes the best pass is a shot on goal. And much like Point 2, this is a strategy the Rangers can employ during even-strength situations as well.

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Well those grinches at Outdoor Life Network, er Versus, um NBC Sports Network (or whatever they are calling themselves today) cost Ranger fans a chance to relive the movie “Groundhog Day”. No, Glen Sather did not make an appearance (which would be a sure sign of the Apocalypse). Instead, it was Rangers owner James Dolan appearing at the post-game press conference (which was not covered by MSG so that we could watch Boomer & Carton in 60 – oh boy) meaning there are six more weeks left in the Knicks season ?

With the Knicks floundering after spending beaucoup bucks in free agency and trades (sound familiar), Dolan spoke with the media for the first time since the 2005-2006 season – according to both Andrew Gross of The Record and Steve Zipay of Newsday.

As I am sure everyone has heard, Dolan was praising the job Sather has been doing since redoing his strategy in 2004. Jimmy should probably have mentioned something about the Lockout and the Salary Cap in the next breath, but why ruin a good story.

Rather, Dolan invoked the name of the Stanley Cup in reference to something Dolan gave to Sather (insert your own punch line) that was not be returned until the Rangers recapture the Cup.

Of course Dolan’s Stanley Cup statement drew the attention of his coach who responded as only John Tortorella can.

“Thanks a lot, Mr. Dolan,” Torts retorted. “I’m just as shocked as you guys are. We just have to go about our business. I have my owner up here talking about a Stanley Cup. That’s a bunch of bullshit. We need to take one day at a time.”

You have to love the coach for having the cojones for calling out his owner. Then again, having the best record in hockey tends to give you a bit of leeway with your boss.

Tortorella has taken a lot of heat during his tenure with the Rangers and some of it has been deserved. Despite his “safe is death” mantra at the start of second go-round with the Rangers (remember he had a four-game stint at the end of the 1999-200 season), the Blueshirts have not been an offensive juggernaut mainly due to their woefully inconsistent power play.

Whether it is stubbornness on his part in terms of systems or player selection, Torts has not been able to bring any consistency to that part of the team’s game.
Some fans roll their eyes whenever Tortorella starts running out different line combinations – even though every coach in the NHL does it. Those fans see the Rangers struggles as a result of his line juggling , rather than his reacting to the team’s offensive (and defensive) struggles.

You could even get on him for his “treatment” of Sean Avery if you are so inclined.

The one thing that you cannot complain about is the one thing that has the Rangers in the position they are in. He holds his players accountable for their actions.
About a week ago Tortorella sent his team back into their locker room after the team’s sluggish start to a practice following a day and half off.
Michael Rupp, who has been around the block a few times, addressed the coach’s style in an interview with the Blueshirts United web site.

“That’s Torts through and through, I think,” Rupp offered. “You have guys who have strong games, and they have one shift of not being good and it’s addressed. I think that’s important. There’s too many times I played on teams where a guy is in a position on a team or has a niche and is told to just go with it. Maybe over a course of 20 games he’ll be good for us. Well that’s not good enough, and here it’s not like that. So if it’s kicking us off the ice for a minute or sitting one of our top guys for a couple of shifts, everyone is accountable and we understand you have to bring it every time you step on the ice.”

That belief is not one that is held by Rupp alone. Six days prior to Torts pulling his team of the ice, CBC’s Elliotte Friedman touched on a similar belief.

In a January 3, 2012 CBC.ca blog, Friedman wrote, “New York head coach John Tortorella can be very tough, but it’s clear the Rangers respond to him. Why? Several players say it’s because they respect the fact he treats every player the same, no matter where they fit in the lineup. One added that if you have a couple of bad shifts in a row, he makes it clear you may not get many more.”

While speaking to The Record’s Gross about the practice incident, Tortorella provided insight into why the coach was quick to dismiss Dolan’s talk about the Stanley Cup.

In speaking about his team leaders and the trust he has in them Tortorella stated, “It has to be sustained in the room. I trust this group. I just don’t want it to slip. We have so much more work to do with this club. I just don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. We’re heading down the right road. I want to make sure we keep heading down the right road and not detour.”

Things are going well, for now, and the future is looking promising. Both Michael Sauer and Steve Eminger have resumed skating with the team, albeit both are wearing non-contact jerseys. When both are healthy and cleared for game action, it is going to put the coaching staff in a tough, but desirable, position of having to decide who plays, who sits and who ends up in the AHL.

This forthcoming depth on defense will put the Rangers in a position to strengthen their depth at forward. While a top-six scoring winger would be a great addition, it will come at heavy price in terms or prospects, draft picks and future salary cap space.

The Rangers need to tread lightly come the trade deadline. On the plus side, they do have the option of jettisoning Wojtek Wolski’s $3.8 million cap hit to the AHL if the right player is available at the right price.

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