Following an underwhelming performance in the playoffs last spring and the subsequent dismissal of John Tortorella, the Rangers enter the 2013-14 season with a “clean slate” under new coach Alain Vigneault. New York opens the season on a nine-game road trip that begins Thursday in Phoenix and with the Blueshirts aiming to get back to the top of the Eastern Conference, here are five questions to ponder before the puck drops:
1. What effect will the new coach have?
The most significant change brought about this offseason is the one behind the bench. Gone is the harsh, grating bark of Tortorella, who has been replaced with the upbeat, genial Vigneault. The players seem to embrace their new coach’s positive presence -- no doubt a welcome change compared to Tortorella’s tough-love approach -- but will it yield results on the ice? For as much as Tortorella’s fiery, unrelenting persona wore players down, he instilled a no-frills, blue-collar work ethic that brought the Rangers success. Vigneault’s system seems to give the players a bit more freedom and creative license, but will that automatically translate into wins?
2. What will happen with Hank?
The Rangers’ franchise goaltender and backbone of the team is entering a contract year without a new deal. Though Henrik Lundqvist's camp and the organization remain in discussions about an extension, the negotiations have not taken on a sense of urgency yet. A fierce competitor, Lundqvist has vowed to cut off talks should they become a distraction. That hasn’t happened, at least not yet. On the eve of the Rangers' season opener, Lundqvist said he would let discussions continue but would remove himself from the equation so as to allow his sole focus to be on winning games.
3. Will it be a bounce-back season for Brad?
If there is any one player who has to be the most encouraged by Vigneault’s arrival, it has to be Brad Richards. The veteran center had an abysmal lockout-shortened 2013 season, during which he was demoted to the fourth line and ultimately benched as his game rapidly regressed. Richards seems re-invigorated by Vigneault’s arrival, however, and eager to begin anew. The 2013-14 season has already brought some changes for the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Vigneault is planning to debut Richards at left wing on the Rangers’ first line with center Derek Stepan and Rick Nash.
4. Can the power play improve?
If the Rangers want to make it back to the playoffs, it better. The power play has been a perennial sore spot for the Rangers; it finished last season 23rd in the NHL with an unsightly 15.7 percent success rate. The Rangers have already devoted ample time to work on special teams and have added to their coaching staff to further bolster the ailing unit. Associate coach Scott Arniel will be tasked with helping the group improve its efficiency, though the Rangers still lack a true power-play quarterback with the big shot to keep opponents honest.
5. Are the Rangers road warriors?
Just like the previous two seasons, the Rangers begin the season with a long, grueling road trip on the schedule. Because of renovations to Madison Square Garden -- the third and final phase of the project -- the Rangers play their first nine games on the road and their first five out of their time zone. Those handful of games include some of the top teams in the Western Conference in the Phoenix Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and St. Louis Blues. The Rangers should be used to it by now after their lengthy jaunt out west this preseason, but they hope to fare better once the games count; the team was 1-5 in exhibition games.