2013/2014 Season


New York Rangers fans should thank Gary Bettman and the new NHL playoff structure for a couple of reasons. First off if the NHL were using last year’s playoff system, the Rangers would be matched up with the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference’s four-five matchup. Given how much of a nightmare the Bell Centre has been for Henrik Lundqvist that is a good thing – no matter how successful the Blueshirts have been on the road this season.

The second reason for being thankful is that the Rangers don’t play the Washington Capitals. Of course, a large part of the thanks for that has to go Alex Ovechkin and his teammates who were shut out of the playoffs – thus preventing a potential fifth playoff series in the last six seasons.

Instead, the Rangers get the opportunity to renew their hostilities with the hated Philadelphia Flyers. While there is hatred for the Devils and Islanders, it is strictly business. When it comes to the Flyers, it is all personal.

This season’s matchup marks the 11th time the Rangers and Flyers will do battle in the playoffs – tying them for the 10th most common playoff matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues who are renewing their playoff rivalry for the 11th time.

The Broadstreet Bullies lead the all-time series 6-4; including winning the last meeting between the two teams in 1997 when the Flyers won the Eastern Conference Finals in five games. That series marked the final playoff appearances for Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mike Richter and it marked the final Rangers playoff appearance for Brian Leetch.

It was also a series that featured a banged up Rangers team that turned to the likes of Ken Gernander and Dallas Eakins in order to fill out a lineup that featured 12 players who were at least 30-years-old.

The Rangers won Game 2 behind Wayne Gretzky’s hat trick to even the series, but the Flyers swept Games 3 and 4 before finishing off the Rangers in Game 5.

The playoff victory in 1997 was the Flyers third consecutive playoff victory over the Rangers. The last time the Blueshirts defeated the Flyers in the playoffs was during the team’s improbable run to the 1986 Eastern Conference Finals as a fourth placed Rangers team (78 points) defeated the first place Flyers (110 points) in a fifth and deciding game in Philadelphia.

Normally having home ice in a playoff series would be cause for celebration. At first glance, that appears to hold true with the Rangers and Flyers considering the Blueshirts have won eight in a row against Philly at MSG. However, a closer look at the two teams’ season records tell a little different story.

Among playoff teams, only the Detroit Red Wings (18) had fewer homes wins that the Rangers (20). While the Rangers accumulated 44 of their 96 points at home, the Flyers gained 51 of their 94 points at home.

The Rangers big advantage is that they have been road warriors this season as only Colorado (56 points) and Anaheim (54) racked up more road points than the Rangers (52, tied with Boston). The Rangers road record of 25-14-2 is made even more impressive when you consider they started the season with a 2-6 record in their first eight road games – thus finishing up with a sizzling 23-8-2 road record.

Brad Richards was at a loss for a concrete answer to the Rangers road-home swing.

“I’ve never been on a team with the best road record and this kind of home record,” Richards admitted to Jeff Z. Klein of the NY Times.

“Sometimes, there’s no rhyme or reason. There’s no real great answer for you — I’d love to make one up. But we don’t prepare any differently at home than we do on the road.”

Richards understands that certain parts of a team’s game can be swayed by the home crowd and offered Klein the following explanation.

“Certain things, like the power play, I understand how that sometimes can be better on the road than at home,” he said. “You’re not hearing the fans, you’re not trying to score in the first 10 seconds. You don’t consciously shoot because people are saying, ‘Shoot,’ but you just hear them get on you. But as far as the overall team game, I don’t have an answer.”

Marc Staal put home ice advantage in its proper context while speaking with Steve Zipay of Newsday on Tuesday, April 8.

“Home ice is big especially if you get later in the series, Game 7 is an advantage if you have that home ice,” Staal opined.

One wouldn’t think that it is imperative that the Rangers win Game 1, but I believe it is important for the Blueshirts to draw first blood. The last thing you want to do is give the Flyers even the slightest glimpse of having any advantage in the series. The longer the Flyers troubles at MSG last, the deeper the losing streak cements itself into Philly’s psyche.

It is a belief that the Flyers are bringing into this series.

“We’re obviously going to go there and try to get a split,” Scott Hartnell said to Sarah Baicker of csnphilly.com. “But if you get the first one, then you can go for two. We’re really going to put all our eggs in the one basket the first game and put it all on the line. I think that’s got to be the mindset of the game.”

In order for the Rangers to even contemplate making a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs, they need to stop playing seven game series. You want to “grab and go” in terms of the playoff series, in other words, you want to get in and out as quickly as possible – and most especially in this series.

You can expect the Flyers to come out hitting from the opening faceoff and through the final whistle – and beyond. I don’t think the Rangers will have a problem with the Flyers in terms of “regular physical play”, but I do think they will have a problem with extracurricular activities that happen after every whistle – the type of play that turns every stoppage into a scrum.

It doesn’t matter who the player is or what kind of style he played before he joined the Flyers, but it seems that once someone puts on the orange and black they all take on the Broad Street Bully persona.

The longer the series goes, the more and more that will play a part in this series. With Games 6 and 7 being played on back-to-back nights, it might be a lot to ask the Rangers to go seven and then turn around and be ready to play against a Pittsburgh Penguins team that should make short work of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

It is this potential for Flyers shenanigans that would tempt me to play Daniel Carcillo over Jesper Fast. Given Alain Vigneault’s style of play, I expect that he will opt to go with Fast’s speed and hockey abilities until circumstances dictate Carcillo’s style of play.

The Rangers recall of J.T. Miller might signify that the team is looking for a bit more jam in the lineup than Fast provides and a bit more finesse than Carcillo provides.

It is too bad that Chris Kreider’s status for the Philly series is unknown. He brings the best of what Fast and Carcillo can bring in terms of finesse, speed, scoring with just the right amount of chip on his shoulder. Unfortunately, at this time of year all teams are facing their own injury problems. At least the Rangers are assured of the return of Ryan McDonagh.

The question will be how far out of the way with the Flyers go to punish McDonagh’s shoulder and just how many liberties will they take – and you know the Flyers are going to take some liberties. This is just another reason why I would insert Carcillo instead of Fast/Miller.

The Flyers are not without their worries, chief among the health of goaltender Steve Mason who suffered an upper body injury (possible concussion) in Philly’s game against the Penguins on Saturday.

Mason will not be travelling with the Flyers when they make their way to New York. Ray Emery will get the start as rookie Cal Heeter serving as the backup. If Mason is healthy enough to play in Game 2, he could join the team for the Easter matinee.

While Emery did lead the Ottawa senators to the Stanley Cup Finals, that was seven years ago and I am sure the Flyers do not necessarily want to find out if Emery can recapture his 2007 playoff form.

That is not to say that the Rangers have iced away the series. Emery’s lifetime record against the Rangers is 7-2-0 with a 1.87 GAA and a .936 SV%. One of those two losses occurred in a 4-1 Rangers victory in January.

Interestingly enough, despite the spotty goaltending of the Flyers, there is one Philly reporter who thinks Henrik Lundqvist has not been a clutch goaltender in the playoffs.

Tim Panaccio of csnphilly.com is quick to point out Lundqvist’s 30-37 playoff record and only one appearance in an Eastern Conference Final.

What Panaccio conveniently forgot was the work The King put in against Ottawa in the 2012 Conference Quarterfinals, defeating the Senators in Games 6 and 7. Lundqvist duplicated this feat in the 2012 Conference Semifinals as the Rangers eliminated the Capitals.

Lundqvist repeated his performance last year by not only winning Games 6 and 7 against the Capitals, but he shut Washington out in both games.

I guess in Panaccio’s world, only goalies who win Stanley Cups can be deemed “clutch”.

Looking ahead to this series, I see the Rangers path to victory coming down to four keys.

1. Come playoff time, scoring goals becomes an even bigger imperative because all teams (unless you are the 2012 Flyers or Penguins) tend to become more aware of their defensive zone. As a result, the need to increase goal scoring becomes more important in the playoffs.

2. Hand-in-hand is the need to elevate special teams. The Rangers have demonstrated the ability to not only have one of the NHL’s best penalty killing units, but they have developed a knack for creating offense when shorthanded. The problem has been their power play which has shown signs of reverting to its pre-AV habits. The more the Rangers power play struggles, the more liberties the Flyers will take with the Rangers. The quickest way to neutralize the Broadstreet Bullies is to make them pay for taking penalties.

3. Keeping with the Broadstreet Bullies theme, the Blueshirts will have to learn to “walk the line”. That is the fine line of knowing when to “turn the other cheek” and when to retaliate. There is no iron clad rule on when to retaliate or not, but a simple solution might just be in it is a one-one battle – let it go. When the Flyers get into their pack mentality, it will be time for the Rangers to retaliate.

4. The last key is one that will ultimately determine how far the Rangers go in the 2014 playoffs. It has been great to see the likes of Benoit Pouliot, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello develop into productive players. However, the Rangers need their best players to be their best players. That means the likes of Lundqvist, McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, and Derek Stepan have to be the players who lead the way. When push comes to shove, this is the most important key to the Rangers playoff success. It is time for the stars to start playing up to the numbers on the backs of their hockey cards.

Before I give my prediction, I want to share an interesting side note that was written by Tim Wharnsby of CBC sports. Wharnsby noted that in 2004, Richards, St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier were leading the Tampa Bay Lightning to a Stanley Cup victory. Now 10 years later, Richards and St. Louis do battle against their former teammate.

By the way, Richards led the playoffs in scoring that year with 26 points and St. Louis finished second with 24 points.

In the end, the Rangers goaltending and ability to win games on the road lead the Blueshirts to hard fought victory in six games.

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I don’t mind the New York Rangers acquiring Martin St. Louis.

I don’t mind the Rangers trading Ryan Callahan.

I sort of don’t mind giving up the draft picks – although I am usually against trading away first round draft picks.

However, what I do mind is that all of this happened in one trade.

Glen Sather had Steve Yzerman by the short and curlies because St. Louis would only waive his no-trade clause to come to the Rangers. Yes, Yzerman could have held to him but the Lightning would run the risk of holding on to a disgruntled player who wanted out of Tampa Bay.

The Lightning could have waited until the summer or even into next season before trading their captain, but at what point would St. Louis have become a diminishing return?

If one accepts the old adage that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results” then we have proof that Glen Sather is insane. No, not because he traded a 28-year-old Ryan Callahan for 38-year-old Martin St. Louis in yet another “not-so-old player for old player” trade. Rather, the insanity comes when you make that type of trade AND potentially include two first round draft picks for a player who has a no-trade clause and demanded to be traded to your team in the first place.

It seems that, to Sather, Leverage is merely a TV show that was cancelled by TNT.

Sather justified the deal with the Lightning (and thus the inclusion of the draft picks) over a deal for future help (ESPN reported that San Jose offered such a deal) because the septuagenarian did not see any “guarantee” in the draft class.

Considering the way the Rangers usually draft, Sather has a point because there are no “guarantees” with this organization when it comes to draft picks.

With Yzerman in a Catch-22 situation, Sather needed to apply the heat to the younger GM. Slats needed to stare down Yzerman and make a deal without including Callahan – possibly substituting a prospect like a Jesper Fast or Danny Kristo. The Rangers GM needed to take advantage of the situation much like he when he turned Anson Carter into an in-his-prime Jaromir Jagr in January 2003.

Speaking of Jagr, the last time a team traded the defending Art Ross Trophy winner was in 2001 when Pittsburgh dealt Jagr to Washington.

If Sather managed to keep Callahan out of the deal, I did not expect the Rangers to re-sign their former captain. Callahan’s contract demands – even after he backed off his desire for a seven-year deal – were too rich for the Rangers’ blood.

One more than one occasion, Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News pointed out the first 3/4 years of the Callahan contract would be to the Rangers’ favor while the remaining ¾ years of the contract would be an albatross given Callahan’s style of play which leaves him vulnerable to injuries.

What Sather should have done is kept Callahan out of the St. Louis deal and look to move him in another deal. While it was a buyer’s market on deadline day – just ask Garth Snow about that – Sather could have accepted San Jose’s offer. Sather then could have used the draft picks and/or prospects in a deal during the summer to continue the “renovation” of the Rangers.

Sather could also have dialed up new Buffalo GM Tim Murray to see of the Sabres wanted to bring the Rochester, NY native into the fold. Some have asked why would the Sabres do that when they could sign him as an Unrestricted Free Agent?

First off, given all of the grief Buffalo ownership is facing over the “resignation” of Pat LaFontaine, Terry Pegula could use any positive public relations help.

Secondly, it is not necessarily a fait accompli that Callahan signs with the Sabres. All it takes is one crazy team with cap space to spoil the Sabres plans.

And finally, Callahan might be willing to give his home town Sabres a hometown discount after being traded “home”.

The Sabres were rumored to be shopping recently acquired Chris Stewart and were willing to move defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Tyler Myers. One has to wonder if there would/could have been a deal to be made.

I do admit this plan does feature a lot of moving parts – probably too many for deals like this to be done on Deadline Day – which is why Sather needed to act sooner rather than later.

However, Sather’s delay in getting an extension done with Henrik Lundqvist then delayed getting an extension done with Dan Girardi which then delayed the Callahan decision.

The seeds of the Callahan trade, at least from the Blueshirts’ standpoint, were probably sowed back during the summer. Yesterday, TSN’s Darren Dreger tweeted that Cally’s original request during the summer was for an eight-year deal at $7.5 million per season. Combine that request with John Tortorella’s firing and the hiring of Alain Vigneault and you get the idea the Callahan Saga was not going to end well for the pro-Cally fans.

Former Rangers defenseman Chris Kotsopoulos summed up the situation the best in a recent Facebook entry: “However when it came down to placing one’s value on yourself, he overreached. Too many years, too much money and a No trade stipulation? Those demands were the demands of superstar status. He was never ever in that category. I personally liked Cally and the way he played and approached the game, but the game itself has production standards and he simply never achieved those standards needed for the high demands he and his agent were asking. Unfortunately, not all, but some forget that the NHL is a business.”

As for St. Louis’ standpoint, people point to his original Olympic snub as the catalyst for the trade request. While MSL did say the snub played a part in asking for a trade, it was not the first time the former Lightning captain made that request. Former Lightning GM/former Ranger Brian Lawton said that St. Louis had requested a trade to the Rangers as far back as 2009.

There are a couple of schools of thought when it comes to figuring out who got the best of any trade. The first way is the easy way – who got the best player in the deal. Without any question, the Rangers got the best player.

The second way is to look a couple of years down the road – especially when draft picks and/or prospects are included in a trade. We won’t know who is the winner on this end until after Tampa Bay makes their selections or trades their picks – and even then it will take a couple of years.

There is still one more factor that has to be considered – how does this trade play into future salary caps?

In her March 6, 2014 Los Angeles Times article, Helene Elliott wrote that Kings GM Dean Lombardi said the salary cap for next year is not going to be as high as first thought – thanks to the weakness of the Canadian dollar. Instead of the much-rumored $71 million cap, Lombardi told Elliott that “the cap could be as low as $68 [million].”

The acquisition of St. Louis muddles the Rangers cap situation next year. While the MSL has one year remaining at less than what Callahan would have gotten, the 38-year-old’s presence might spell the return of former Lightning teammate Brad Richards – as the veteran center could avoid being bought out for a second consecutive year.

This muddled situation got even more muddled when the NHL announced that they are rescinding part of the New Jersey Devils’ punishment for circumventing the salary cap when they re-signed Ilya Kovalchuk in 2010.

While the Devils will not get back THEIR first round pick this year, the NHL has awarded them the 30th overall pick – no matter where they finish. In addition, the league also reduced the original $3 million fine. The only “punishment” the Devils face is a $250,000 recapture hit to next year’s salary cap.

New Jersey argued that their circumstances changed when Kovalchuk left during the summer to play in the KHL.

The following tweet from Dreger pretty much sums up what the NHL did: “Teams that didn’t break rules punished retroactively on cap recapture. Team that did, is not punished.”

The general reaction is that Gary Bettman and the NHL did the Devils new ownership a solid. You can pretty much bet every other NHL team is going to want a similar solid as well. At least now we know why the Devils did not pitch much of a fit when Kovalchuk ran out on his contract or why President/GM Lou Lamoriello did not give up his pick (29th) overall when the Devils went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2012.

In the final postscript, the last time the Rangers traded their captain was June 2003 when they sent UFA-to-be Mark Messier to the Sharks for a conditional draft pick – which became San Jose’s fourth round draft pick in 2004. The player the Rangers selected with that pick was Ryan Callahan.

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As we sit less than 48 hours away from the NHL’s March 5 trade deadline, the New York Rangers are facing some of their most important decisions since Neil Smith went all in for the Stanley Cup run some 20 years ago.

President/GM Glen Sather biggest decision does not center on what direction his team will take in preparation for its run to a playoff spot in 2014. Rather, Sather has to decide what direction the franchise will take following this season as he contemplates the future of Ryan Callahan.

In a perfect world where salary caps are as real as unicorns, the Rangers would do what they always used to do – throw money at a problem and hope all that is right with the world.

Since we do not live in a perfect world, Sather has to do what is best for the franchise. Slats can’t afford to let Callahan remain unsigned and remain with the Rangers beyond the trade deadline – thus running the risk of losing Callahan for nothing.

For those fans who question how could the Rangers trade their captain, this is the same GM who traded Brian Leetch to Toronto and this is the same franchise that let Mark Messier skate out the door because MSG President Dave Checketts asked “How long do I have to keep paying for the Stanley Cup?”

Ironically enough, today (March 3) is the 10th anniversary of Sather dealing Leetch to the Maple Leafs.

Fans demand to know what happened to loyalty – and they do have a point. However, loyalty is also a two-way street.

Early reports have Callahan and his agent Steve Bartlett looking for a seven-year deal in the neighborhood of $6.5-$7.0 million per season – a figure that Bartlett calls a “discount” compared to what Cally could get on the open market as an UFA.

Don’t get me wrong, there is no harder worker on the Rangers than Ryan Callahan. It is obvious that he squeezes every last bit of talent he can, but if he were to get the deal that Bartlett calls a “discount”, Callahan would be making as much as – and in some cases more than – Jeff Carter, Ryan Getzlaf, Martin St. Louis, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Thomas Vanek, the Sedin twins, and Claude Giroux.

Put aside that it is Ryan Callahan we are talking about and ask yourself this question. How would you react if the Rangers signed a 29-year-old two-way forward to a seven-year $49 million deal who has a history of injuries because of his style of play – and said forward had never scored 30 goals?

With the Rangers originally looking at a deal in the five-year/$30 million range, the Blueshirts and Team Callahan aren’t even on the same floor of the library, never mind being on the same page.

The first thaw in the nuclear winter arose when the Rangers appeared willing to go to a sixth-year on a package that would total $36 million.

It seems that the Callahan Camp has backed off their “seven-and-seven” stance and is willing to sign a six-year deal in the neighborhood of $37-$39 million according to Kevin Oklobzija of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

For his part Callahan has been saying all the right things.

“[The deadline] has obviously been on my mind, that’s no secret, but I didn’t look at it like that,” Callahan told Larry Brooks of the NY Post. “My heart is here.”

Given that Dustin Brown, a similar type player to Callahan, signed an eight-year deal that kicks in next year that represents an annual Salary Cap hit of $5.875 million, it appears that the Rangers offer is more in line with comparable NHL contracts.

There should be enough room to get a six-year deal at an average annual value of $6.25 million per season with a no-trade clause for the first couple of years.

While Callahan might join Girardi in the six-year contract club, I am not so sure he will get a similar no-trade/no-movement deal. Rick Carpiniello of the Journal News has long contended that the first 3-4 years of a multi-year deal with Callahan would be a plus for the Rangers, but the final 3-4 years would be a problem. Odds are the Blueshirts would want some flexibility to move Callahan should his hard-charging ways erode the captain’s skills.

The reactions from Ranger fans vary from person to person. They go from one extreme of trade them both to do anything you can to sign their captain – with all sorts of options in between. One option that is espoused is one that is not really an option – ride out the rest of the season and if he doesn’t sign use the salary savings to bring in replacements. That option also includes the Rangers buying out the remainder of Brad Richards’ contract.

There are two problems with that course of action. The first problem of keeping the status quo and letting the Callahan situation play out is that the Rangers are not strong enough Stanley Cup contenders this year to roll the dice and run the risk of losing a valuable player for nothing. Go ask the New Jersey Devils how easy is to have to continue to rebound from losing players to free agency.

The second problem is that people assume the Rangers will be able to bring in replacements for Callahan and Richards at similar contract figures. Besides, it always seems that the Rangers have to overpay free agents because they are the New York Rangers and they can afford to do so. After all, it only takes one team to make one crazy contract offer (see Toronto and David Clarkson) to wreak havoc with free agency.

Joe Micheletti spoke with WFAN’s Mike Francesa and outlined his take on the general feeling among NHL.

“I think it’s what we are seeing around the NHL. The different GMs I have talked to regarding their free agents, it’s almost become common place that GMs do not want to let players walk, especially top players without getting something in return,” Micheletti explained.

“You look at the Devils, they lose Zach Parise to free agency and get nothing and then David Clarkson. Most of the people I am talking to, unless they feel they can win the Stanley Cup this year, throughout the leagues want to get something in return.”

Of course the question is what would/could the Rangers get in return if they decide to move Callahan. You would have to figure the Rangers would want more than just draft picks and/or prospects. Sather would need NHL proven players in addition to picks and/or prospects because he is not about to punt the rest of the season.

We have all seen the rumors involving a swap of captains with Tampa Bay. While replacing a 28-year-old with a 38-year-old seems akin to trading for Marcel Dionne, there are some differences. St. Louis is still playing a high level of hockey and should have had a bigger part (from the beginning) on the Canadian Olympic Team. Also while Callahan might be 28, he is also an old 28 based on his kamikaze-like style of play.

Quite frankly, the Rangers might be able to steal the Lightning’s thunder and get St. Louis for less than market value. St. Louis, who has a home in Greenwich, has a no-trade clause and pretty much has told Lightning GM Steve Yzerman that he will only accept a deal to the Rangers.

While Yzerman is under no pressure to trade St. Louis at this time, the GM will be in the same position as Sather come next year as St. Louis enters the final year of his contract.

The question then becomes would Sather be willing to move some prospects and/or draft picks to bring in St. Louis? If he does, how deep into the prospect pool does Slats go? Is J.T. Miller’s recall an audition for the Lightning?

If the Rangers and Lightning agreed to a deal, the Blueshirts have enough cap space to take on St. Louis’ contract ($5.625 million), but it does raise the specter of something Ranger fans fear. If Sather does acquire St. Louis does that mean Richards survives the buyout purge for another year?

As much as I would love to add St. Louis, I am not so sure I want to do it at the price of the cap hell the Rangers could face if Richards is not bought out.

Recent rumors out of the Pacific Northwest could factor into the Callahan saga. Conflicting reports out of Vancouver say that Ryan Kesler has asked to be traded – a request that GM Mike Gillis says is false.

Bob McKenzie of TSN said Vancouver is not “aggressively shopping” Kesler, but they are “aggressively listening” to offers. Since Kesler has a no-movement clause, he is in control of where he might go.

A swap of Ryans would solve a lot of problems. Both are similar type of hard-nosed players who do what it takes to win – and suffer injuries as a result. The edge goes to Kesler because of his size (6-2/202), ability to play wing as well as center and he his ability to win faceoffs.

My concern is that if the Rangers don’t look into acquiring Kesler, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins might.

However, it is unlikely Vancouver would want to bring in Callahan – despite what John Tortorella thinks. McKenzie stated that the Canucks want a center in his mid-20s – someone like Columbus’ Ryan Johansson or the Rangers Derek Stepan.

Interestingly enough, any discussion of Kesler might be moot because of conflicting reports that Kesler and Alain Vigneault weren’t on the best of terms. Brooks did write that two sources told him that their differences would not preclude Kesler from agreeing to a deal with the Rangers. The biggest hurdle is the possible two broken fingers Kesler received as a souvenir from his time in Sochi.

Glen Sather has no one to blame but himself for the predicament he is in. He was correct in getting Henrik Lundqvist’s deal done first because The King is the face and the backbone of the franchise.

The problem is that he wasted too much time getting that deal done. As a result, he delayed settling the contract talks with Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi. Toss in the uncertainty over future salary caps and the looming decision on Brad Richards and you have a New York Rangers team in flux as we re-start the NHL season.

Rather than trying to capitalize on the team’s strong finish prior to the Olympic break, the post-Olympic Rangers are faced with an unsettling situation of the unknown. It is also a situation that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later because the Rangers run the risk of having any potential deal for Callahan blow up in their faces if either player gets hurt – and knowing the Blueshirts luck – you know that would be the case.

It made sense for the Rangers to get Girardi’s deal done first because finding right-handed shooting defensemen, especially those who can play Girardi-like minutes, are harder to find than solid two-way second line RWs.

Sather needs to make a decision on Callahan sooner rather than later. The contract talks can’t linger on until Wednesday because Slats will need that time to focus on making deals to strengthen the Rangers potential playoff run.

The lost weekend shows that the Blueshirts could still use some players who have what Tortorella referred to as “jam”. The Rangers don’t have to make a splash and bring in St. Louis. Rather, Sather might be better off following Smith’s example in 1994 and bring “foot soldiers” like Craig MacTavish, Stephane Matteau and Brian Noonan.

The main difference is that Sather can’t gamble like Smith did twenty years ago because the Rangers are not as close to a Cup now as they were then and to mortgage the future would be insane.

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Just when you think the New York Rangers luck might be changing for the better, karma rears its ugly head and bites the Blueshirts in their collective arses. The fans celebration wasn’t even 24 hours old when news of Ryan Callahan’s broken thumb will keep the captain out of the lineup for the next three-four weeks.

Rather than looking forward at the possibility of feasting on some Eastern Conference teams, Rangers nation looks forward to carrying on without their two top offensive weapons for the near future.

While we have an idea of how long Callahan is out, we have no idea how long Rick Nash will remain sidelined. The only thing that is certain is that the team and its fans will have to hold their collective breaths every time Nash takes a high hit.

Probably the most frustrating thing about the Callahan injury was how/when it happened. With about two minutes remaining in the game, Callahan blocked a shot by John Carlson following the captain’s turnover. The fact that Callahan was the one who turned the puck over most likely made him even more focused on blocking the shot.

It is that never-say-die/never-give-up attitude that is Callahan’s best – and worst feature. The drive that makes him such a crucial part of the Rangers is also the one thing that causes him to get so often. Short of encasing him in bubble wrap, there is nothing the Rangers can do because Callahan is not going to change his style of play.

It is a situation that could become sticky as the Rangers and Callahan move forward on contract talks. At what point, in terms of years and dollars, does a Callahan contract become prohibitive? It is not a discussion anyone wants to have, but it is one that the organization might have to have. Then again, I am guessing that is why they pay Glen Sather the big fishnagles.

Callahan’s contract is not the focal point at this time – finding a way to replace his offense is. In the short term, Darroll Powe has been recalled from Hartford and will take the captain’s roster spot against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night.

In addition, Jason Missiaen will serve as Henrik Lundqvist’s backup as Cam Talbot was reassigned to Hartford.

Odds are both moves stem from the same the reason.

After Saturday night’s game, the Rangers do not play again until Thursday night in Philadelphia. Conversely, the Wolf Pack have a pair of games this weekend. In fact, between October 18 and October 26 Hartford plays five games while the Rangers play just three.

As a result, it makes more sense for Talbot to get regular playing time in Hartford as opposed to serving as a target in practice.

In a similar situation, the Rangers might be using this weekend as a “tryout” among the Wolf Pack’s scoring wingers. Coach Alain Vigneault has threatened lineup changes if some of the Rangers forwards do not increase their offensive production.

It is possible that, as early as this weekend or as late as next weekend, the likes of Chris Kreider, Danny Kristo, Oscar Lindberg, or Marek Hrivik could be recalled.

The Rangers could be holding off recalling any other forwards because of salary cap implications. Cap Geek lists the Rangers as having no projected cap space outside of Carl Hagelin being placed on the Long-Term Injured Reserve list. Once Hagelin is ready to return to action (as early as October 29), the Blueshirts will have to make roster moves to accommodate his cap hit.

If Callahan is going to be out beyond November 7, then the Rangers could place him on LTIR because that means he will miss 10 games. The other solution is if Nash is going to be out at least another couple of weeks then the team could place him on LTIR if needed.

The only problem is the Rangers would be delaying the inevitable in terms of clearing cap space.

The bottom line is players like Brian Boyle, Benoit Pouliot, Taylor Pyatt, Mats Zuccarello and even Michael Del Zotto have to start producing or they face the possibility of being cap casualties.

Sather is going to have to be creative if he wants to add scoring while clearing out some cap space. It can be done, but the Rangers might have to part with prospects and/or draft picks in order to so.

As I was writing, a couple of other possibilities came to mind in reference to why the Rangers recalled Powe instead of Kreider and/or Kristo. The one knock on Vigneault is he is a coach that does not like to play rookies. Given that he has spent a limited time watching Kreider and Kristo, AV might just be more comfortable with veteran players he knows as opposed to rookie he doesn’t.

The other possibility is one that has been rattling around my brain for some time. It is my contention that Glen Sather is a Lou Lamoriello plant within the Rangers organization and the Devils GM has been pulling Sather’s strings from day one.

With the Devils desperate for their first win, Lamoriello has Slats recall Powe so that New Jersey can get their first win of the season against the Rangers.

Laugh if you must, but think about it. My theory explains a lot of the doings around Madison Square Garden the last dozen or so years.

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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.”

Special Teams

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.”

Patience

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.

No Distractions

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.

The Prediction

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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The start of the 2013-2014 NHL season can’t come soon enough for hockey fans after losing nearly half of last season. It marks an important anniversary in New York Rangers history – the 20th anniversary of the slaying of the dragon at MSG. The new season also marks the debut of Alain Vigneault as the 35th head coach in Blueshirts history. Only time will tell if Rangers fans will refer to AV’s stint in the Big Apple as the Vigneault Era or the Vigneault Error.

In a season that features realignment, new goal nets and the potential for a new hybrid icing system, one intriguing subplot to this season is finding out who will win the “coaches’ trade” between the Rangers and Vancouver Canucks as former Rangers bench boss John Tortorella heads to the Pacific Northwest as the 17th coach in Canucks history.

While coaches are “hired to be fired”, the swapping of Alain Vigneault and John Tortorella as coaches would sure make a 1994 Stanley Cup rematch even more riveting – especially when you consider both coaches were used as scapegoats for their General Managers inability to produce a winner.

While both GMs fired their coaches to deflect attention off of themselves, they each had different reasons for utilizing the same game plan.

Rangers GM Glen Sather is no danger of losing his job any time soon. He is as close to having a job for life as any GM in sports. His reasoning for turning to a scapegoat is to protect/rebuild his reputation. Sather has not been the architect of a Stanley Cup champion since 1988. His bout with prostate cancer helped lend urgency to protecting/rebuilding his legacy.

Canucks GM Mike Gillis has to consider himself in survival mode. Although Vancouver is five-for-five in winning the Northwest Division during Gillis’ tenure, the team has been knocked out in the Conference Quarterfinals (aka the first round) the last two years in five games (2012 to Los Angeles) and in four games (2013 to San Jose) while posting a pedestrain28-28 record in the playoffs.

Sather is looking to change the Rangers style of play for the third time in nine months. Leading up to last season, Sather dealt away some of the “jam” that Torts often praised as the Rangers GM attempted to correct the Blueshirts offensive woes. In doing so he never really increased the Rangers offense, rather he depleted the Rangers depth.

As a result, Slats traded away Marian Gaborik in order to fill the depth holes that Sather had created as part of the Rick Nash trade and never filled via free agency or trade.

With salary cap constraints dictating policy, Sather is once again looking to boost offense in the form of a new style of play – thus the hiring of Vigneault. Of course, the Rangers would have had maneuverability within the salary cap had Sather simply bought out Brad Richards.

Given the potential bargain basement free agents that were available after the initial free agent frenzy, the Rangers could have added depth at a reasonable price, signed Derek Stepan to a longer deal rather than a bridge deal and used some of that Rangers depth to be more active in the trade market.

Mike Gillis has had a trying off-season as well. Vancouver’s GM faced the same dilemma that Neil Smith did at the end of the 1992-1993 season. Both Gillis and Smith had championship-caliber teams that languished in the playoffs and were facing major decision in terms of goaltending.

Smith had to make a decision between Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck. While the VanRichterbrouck tandem worked well in the regular season, it was a playoff failure. Smith decided on the younger Richter as he shipped Beezer to Vancouver prior to the 1993 Expansion Draft in exchange for future considerations.

Vancouver made the deal in order to expose Vanbiesbrouck in the Expansion Draft as a means of protecting their prospects – which worked as the goalie was the first player selected by Florida. In return, the Rangers acquired Doug Lidster who would go on to play an important role late in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Smith then replaced Vanbiesbrouck by acquiring Glenn Healy from Tampa Bay in exchange for a 1993 third round draft pick.

It was pretty much an expected done deal that Roberto Luongo’s time in Vancouver was done – so much so that the veteran netminder put his townhouse up for sale. In a pre-cap NHL, Gillis would have followed Smith’s example and moved the veteran goalie. However, despite Luongo’s resume, trading the 34-year-old became less and less an option when you factor in that he has nine years left on his 12-years, $64-million contract at an annual cap hit of $5.3 million.

As you might imagine, Luongo was stunned at the news that it was Cory Schneider who was dealt on draft day in exchange for New Jersey’s first round draft pick (Center Bo Horvat 9th overall).

On August 23, Luongo spoke with TSN’s James Duthie and talked about the aftermath of the Schneider trade and his relationship with the Canucks. In that interview Duthie asked Luongo if he felt “divorced” from the Canucks following another playoff loss.

“Well I use that analogy all the time. That’s what it felt like and I accepted it and I was fine with it and I had moved on personally,” Luongo admitted. “I mean, the only problem is, she didn’t, and she wanted me back (laughs).”

In the interview Luongo says that he hoped e deal could be worked out with Florida or Tampa Bay because of his desire to return to the Sunshine State because his wife and her family are from Florida.

Luongo had grown so disenchanted by the end of last season that he even explored the possibility of voiding his contract.

So rather than have a younger goalie with a veteran backup like Smith’s Rangers had in 1994, Gillis and his Canucks have a veteran goaltender who may or may not be disgruntled and his backup is 25-year-old Swedish goalie Eddie Lack who has yet to play an NHL game (99 AHL games during the last two seasons).

In 1994, Neil Smith did not take the safe route when he hired Mike Keenan as coach. Smith had to know that he would bump heads with the fiery Keenan sooner rather than later – I just don’t think he expected their relationship to hit full boil as fast as it did.

Gillis is facing the same situation in Vancouver. While Tortorella doesn’t have the same GM aspirations that Keenan had, his baggage does make Torts a risky hire – especially for a GM like Gillis who is hiring his first NHL coach. Gillis inherited a coach in Vigneault who had a Northwest Division title (2006-07) and a fifth place finish (2007-08) under his belt in Vancouver.

ON THE FLY –

The Rangers tryout offer to goaltender Johan “Moose” Hedberg is an interesting development. While it was announced at the same time Martin Biron was away from camp tending to personal matters, could the Rangers be looking to make a switch in Henrik Lundqvist’s backup?

If the Rangers were to go with Hedberg, the Blueshirts could look to trade Biron and save some much-needed space under the salary cap.

Since Hedberg was bought out by the Devils, he might be very satisfied with a deal near the NHL minimum salary. If if he signed a deal worth $650,000, that is still half of what Biron will make this season. While it doesn’t seem like a lot, $650,000 is enough of a reason to make a switch – esepcially depending on how Derek Stepan’s contract eventually plays out.

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