by Drew Sarver
The New York Rangers fanbase is one of the most loyal and most frustrated of any sports franchise’in history. Fans waited all or part of 54 years to watch the Rangers hoist the Stanley Cup after a drought that lasted from 1940 to 1994. When the playoffs arrive this Spring, it will have been 21 years since the Rangers won their last Cup, and their window of opportunity is running out.
The Rangers reached the Stanley Cup finals last season, where they ultimately lost to the Los Angeles Kings in five games, due in large part to their goalie, Henrik Lundqvist. The two-time Olympic medalist. is one of the top five ranked goalies in the world, arguably one of the top three. The Swedish native will turn 33-years old one month before the playoffs begin in 2015. If you check the history books you won’t find too many goaltenders past the age of 35 that won the Stanley Cup as the “go to guy” in the nets. (The Boston Bruins’ Tim Thomas was 37 when he kicked and gloved his way to the 2011 Stanley Cup.)
It’s remarkable to think back and realize that the Rangers really did not know what they had when they took Lundqvist in the 7th round of the 2000 entry draft. Al Montaya was thought to be the Rangers goalie of the future. In the year prior to his rookie season with New York, Lundqvist played for Frolunda HC Goteborg in the Sweden Elitserien League. (Now, the Swedish Hockey League.) He finished with a 33-8-2 record with a 1.79 Goals-Against-Average (GAA) in 44 games. (With the NHL season wiped out by a strike/players’ lockout, teammates included his twin brother Joel, Sami Salo, Daniel Alfredsson, and Loui Eriksson.) Lundqvist recorded a 1.05 GAA in the playoffs as Frolunda captured the league championship. By then the Rangers knew they had a head turning goalie.
The Rangers made the playoffs in eight of Lundqvist’s nine seasons in the NHL, no small coincidence for a team that missed the playoffs for seven straight seasons before “The King” arrived in New York. In 2012, the Rangers lost to one of their chief rivals, the New Jersey Devils, in a six-game Eastern Conference finals. Last season the Rangers seemed dead in the water in the conference semi-finals, but rallied from a 3-1 deficit in games to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins and then advanced to the Cup finals with a six-game defeat of the Montreal Canadiens.
The Rangers lost the cup in five games to a faster, harder hitting, nastier, better scoring team in the Kings. LA also had the 2012 Cup MVP in goal, in the person of Jonathan Quick. The off-season apeared to severely damage the chances for a return to the Cup finals due to the free agent departure of defenseman Anton Stralman and forwards Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot.
To supplant the losses, Rangers’ President and General Manager Glen Sather signed forwards Lee Stempniak, Ryan Malone and Tanner Glass, offensive-minded defenseman Dan Boyle, and defenseman Matt Hunwick. The Rangers will need to lean on their young core even more – Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, and rookies Anthony Duclair and Kevin Hayes.
Wingers Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash must fill opponent’s nets with pucks like they did in Tampa Bay and Columbus, respectively. The Rangers ranked in the lower half (18th) in the league in scoring goals last season and were 15th on the power play. The latter is the main reason that Dan Boyle was brought in. The Rangers also need a breakout season from Kreider, whose speed, puck handling, strength and tenacity should produce more than the 17 goals and 37 points he scored in 66 games last season.
But what will make the Rangers tick first and foremost is Lundqvist and their group of solid to stellar defenseman. Newly appointed team captain Ryan McDonagh, and fellow veterans (an assistant captains) Dan Girardi and Marc Staal need to stay healthy and productive, and be more aggressive on the power play.
Did You Know?
Lundqvist, who got his nickname from the Rangers’ fans was the recipient of two of Sweden’s most prestigous hockey awards, the Golden Helmet and the Golden Puck. Guldhjälmen (Golden Helmet) is the Swedish League’s MVP Award, which Lundqvist won for his extraordinary 2005 season. He also captured Guldpucken (Golden Puck) that same season as the league’s ice hockey player of the year.
Goalie Cam Talbot made his NHL debut last season at 26-years of age. His timing was perfect; Lundqvist went through a stretch when he struggled and was actually benched in favor of Talbot. The rookie’s play was so good, some fans called for him to be the #1 goalie. Lundqvist returned to normal and those fans had their sanity restored.
Talbot stuck with the team though and provided a solid and dependable backup goaltender. He recorded a 1.64 GAA in 21 games and finished with a 12-6-1 regular season record. Talbot will need to be sharp from the start of the current season with the first five games scheduled in eight nights.
When the Rangers found out that center Derek Stepan would miss a minimum of 10 games with a broken leg, St. Louis volunteered to move from his usual wing spot to center. Coach Alain Vigneault agreed and St. Louis will be the top center on opening night against, you guessed it, the St. Louis Blues. Kreider and Nash will be his wingmen.
Media pundits have wide ranging opinions as to the status of the Rangers this season, from not making the playoffs to finally capturing the Stanley Cup again (the NY Post’s Larry Brooks endeared himself to his readers with that prediction.) The Rangers certainly have the manpower on paper to return to the league finals, but they need scoring from their first three lines.
They will need Stepan to not miss much more time than expected, for Matt Zuccarello to work his stick handling magic, for the power play to improve drastically, to remain one of the top penalty killing teams (third in the NHL last year at 85.3%), for Nash to remember how to score in the playoffs, and of course, for the King to be his outstanding himself.
The Rangers get a break at the start of the season with 11 of the first 16 games scheduled at home. They need to take advantage of that situation and get off to a good start. Look for the Rangers to once again finish second in the Metropolitan division to Pittsburgh.
Will they win the Cup? We’ll find out come Springtime.
Drew Sarver is the founder, publisher, managing editor, and a contributor for Designated For Assignment. He can be followed on twitter at @mypinstripes and @d4assignment or contacted by email at email@example.com.