Fri 4 Oct 2013
Since the boys won’t be back in town to play an NHL game until October 28, the New York Rangers mantra to start the season has to be “we got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
While this off-season is nowhere near as long as last season thanks to the Great Lockout of 2012, it sure feels longer. Part of it has to do with the Rangers early exit in last season’s playoffs, and part of it has to do with the Blueshirts and their Magical Mystery Tour as they open the season with nine consecutive road games (as opposed to their seven-game, two-continent opener in 2011/2012).
Rangers fans are already lamenting and fearing the worst for their team. In a way, that is understandable. Fans learn to expect the worst and then adjust accordingly. They fear a slow start will doom them to a non-playoff season in Coach Alain Vigneault’s first season.
It is a sentiment that Hockey News scribe Ronnie Shuker wrote about in their October 14 issue.
In the article Shuker writes that only two teams since the 2000/2001 season (the year the NHL became 30 team league), only two teams that were last in their conference as early as the end of November (07/08 Capitals) and as late as the end of January (08/09 Blues) made the playoffs.
Shuker points out the Columbus Blue Jackets’ slow start last season (5-12-3) put them in such a hole that their remarkable finish (19-5-4) could not make up the difference a point not lost on their coach.
“We learned first-hand about the importance of getting off to a decent start,” coach Todd Richards explained to Shuker. “We got off to a horrible start and it ended up costing us the season.”
While Shuker backed up his contention with stats (like the one about playoff teams since 2000/01) and quotes, the bottom line is that last season was still only a 48-game season. We have no idea how the Blue Jackets start would have played out had last year been a normal season.
A full training camp might have been just the panacea for Columbus’ inability to get out of the gate strongly.
Certainly, no team is going to win or lose the Stanley Cup in October (or even November for that matter). A poor start does not doom a team to a playoff-less season – it just means that said team has added pressure and little-to-no wiggle room towards the end of the season. In other words, it means putting yourself in a position where your playoff life comes down to an Olli Jokinen shootout attempt.
A slow start seems inevitable for a variety of reasons: the road trip from hell to start the season, a new coach who is installing a completely new style of play and the loss of Ryan Callahan (for one game anyway) and Carl Hagelin (for at least games) – especially in light of the Rangers poor pre-season record.
Please note that these are not excuses, they are merely explanations – and that is the way the team has to treat them.
I understand the need for the Rangers playing their pre-season games on the road given the renovation of Madison Square Garden, but I can’t fathom why they had to do all the travelling they did. While their work in helping Banff recover is admirable, the Rangers could have stayed closer to home and done the same in terms of helping the region recover from Hurricane Sandy. I guess Glen Sather’s priorities override his team’s priorities.
The Blueshirts 1-5-0 record is not so much of a concern as was their nine goals for and 22 goals against – including their 5-0 shutout at the hands of the Vancouver Canucks. The problem was not losing to John Tortorella; the problem was the five goals against that were allowed with Henrik Lundqvist in goal to start the game and the Big Six defensemen all in the lineup.
For his part, Vigneault has been wise to downplay the Rangers nine game road odyssey at the start of the season.
“We haven’t done anything different,” AV told WFAN’s Mike Francesa. I don’t want this team to play one way at home and one way on the road. There is one way to play and that is the right way.”
As we look ahead to the 2013/2014 season, there is an old cliché that best describes the Rangers – they are a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. They have the talent to win the Metrosexual (er, Metropolitan) Division and they have enough questions to be an epic fail this season.
Let’s take a look at some of the factors for the Rangers season.
Four and Three
The one thing the Rangers, as an organization, should have taken from their playoff loss to the Boston Bruins is the need to play “four and three” hockey. In other words, the Rangers need to roll four lines and three sets of defensemen – something that Vigneault is well aware of.
“With 82 games, the demands, this year will be challenging because you need to play a home and home everywhere, you need four lines and six d. you need that depth,” AV explained to Francesa. “It’s 82 games and then 4 rounds. You need to play your bench and spread the minutes so that the energy is always there.”
Everyone knows that the Rangers power play has left a lot to be desired since the 2006/2007 season (the last time they had a Top 10 PP). For a team that continually has problems generating a consistent offense, a reasonably successful power play is needed. They cannot repeat last season’s 23rd rated power play.
While the power play has been a sore spot for years, the Rangers penalty killing units were average at best last season – ranking 15th in the NHL. This is a unit that should rebound once everyone is healthy (as long as they stay healthy).
Just how important is the success of the Rangers special teams? Larry Brooks of the NY Post offered this insight: “Five-on-five the Rangers had the third-best differential in the NHL last year behind only Cup winner Chicago and Eastern top-seed Pittsburgh.”
This is meant more for the fans than the team. Let’s face it, patience is not a virtue that most Rangers fans share – myself included.
Some fans grew tired of Tortorella’s constant line shuffling within games and from game-to-game. Well, be ready for more of the same. With Callahan and Hagelin out of the lineup, Vigneault was not able to use the pre-season to experiment with line combinations. As a result, he is going to have do some of that during the regular season once Cally and Hags are back in the lineup. That will require more shuffling of the lines as AV tries to get the right combinations.
The popular belief is that with Tortorella gone and a “Clean Slate” in place all is well in Rangerland. Well, that might not necessarily be the case because of some on-ice and off-ice issues that could creep up during the season.
Management faces some difficult decisions in terms of contract decisions at the end of the season with the most important being the negotiations with UFAs Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi and Henrik Lundqvist. The King has already said he is not going to comment on the situation any more, but that doesn’t mean the media (both local and national) won’t continually bring it up.
The contract decisions are not just limited to the Big Three. The Rangers have to make decisions on fellow RFAs Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman as well as RFAs Derrick Brassard, Michael Del Zotto, John Moore and Mats Zuccarello.
While the salary cap is expected to increase about $6 million or so, they just may not be enough funds to go around.
That brings us to The Brad Richards Saga – and it is one that is sure to drag on all season. If there is ever one Ranger who needs fast start more than life itself, it is Richards. A slow start will only continue to fuel the fires of the controversial decision GM Glen Sather made not to jettison the veteran center. Depending on how bad he is playing, there will be calls to bench him towards the end of the season, not because of his poor play, but because the team can’t afford to have get hurt and thus not be able to buy him out during the Summer of 2014.
The End Justifies The Season
While much has been written and debated about the Rangers, what with their nine game road trip to the start the season and the concern about getting off to a poor start, not as much has been written and debated about the Blueshirts need to finish the season strongly in light of the Olympic break.
The Rangers will have 23 games left in the regular season when they return on February 27. The team could have anywhere from 7-10 players participating in Sochi with Lundqvist being front and center of the Olympians. Vigneault is going to have to work hard at balancing their need for rest and the Rangers need to finish strongly.
Given AV’s dealings with the travel issues in Vancouver, he is well versed at juggling all of the issues that play into rest versus practice. Hopefully, that experience comes in handy during the Rangers first five games of the season as they spend time on the West Coast and St. Louis.
Making the Move
The Garden’s renovation, combined with all of the travel made possible with the NHL’s realignment and new scheduling format, makes for a rollercoaster of a season in terms of the Rangers schedule. Starting off with nine straight road games (and 10 of 11), the Blueshirts also face a pair of five game road trips in late November and then again at the end of December/beginning of January.
However, those sets of five game road trips bookend a stretch that will see the Rangers play 11 of 12 games at the Garden with their lone trip seeing them shuffle off to Buffalo. Ironically, that stretch begins with Tortorella’s return to MSG on November 30.
The Rangers will be 26 games into the AV Era and poised to show just how well they have adapted to his system. The Rangers must capitalize on this home stretch or it will not matter how they started the season, nor will it matter how they finish it.
If the Rangers can return home with nine points from their nine game road trip, then I would call the start a success. As for the season, I see the Rangers finishing second in the Division and fifth in the Conference. After that, my crystal ball becomes a little cloudy based on just how healthy the Rangers are at the end of the season.
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