It's go time for the Rangers
Revitalized Blueshirts are experiencing a moment of opportunity -- can they seize it?
The window to win a Stanley Cup is now open in New York.
The offseason work of GM Glen Sather and the rest of the front office has brought the Blueshirts both high-end talent and long-term stability. With the signing of Brad Richards and the extension of restricted free agents Brian Boyle, Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, the Rangers' core roster will be locked in place for the next three seasons. The Rangers should be, and likely will be, considered Stanley Cup contenders this fall. But the clock will now be ticking.
Simply put, New York's time is now.
Cup-caliber optimism is not misplaced for this current collection of Blueshirts. Consider that an underachieving offense (2.73 goals per game, 16th in the NHL) still carried the Rangers all the way to the playoffs in 2010-11. Moreover, its output actually increased from 2009-10 despite a 20-goal drop from Gaborik and a quarter-season absence by Callahan due to injury.
The addition of Richards alone (28 goals, 77 points) will be a sizable boost. But with another year of experience for some of the Rangers' younger skaters, like Artem Anisimov and Derek Stepan, it seems likely New York can support its stalwart defense and unflinching netminder far better beginning this fall.
Despite the common talk of "sophomore slumps," the cliché is a myth, as discussed by Hockey Prospectus author Tom Awad a few seasons back. According to Awad's article, from 1968 through the 2008-09 season, rookies usually produced at a clip of .39 points per game. Meanwhile, second-year players often produced around .45 points per game, an improvement of around 15 percent. In fact, it's the biggest jump in production players experience during their careers.
Apply this thinking to Stepan, who was already above average with .55 points per game during an impressive rookie year, and you can expect a leap to .63 points per game in 2011-12. Across 82 games, that's a 52-point season from a No. 3 center. Only nine NHL teams even had two centers with 52-plus points last season. With Richards, Anisimov (44 points in 2010-11) and Stepan down the middle, the Rangers might have the ability to match that feat. A glaring weakness from the past season could actually become a position of strength.
While Richards will almost certainly help right an underproductive top line, the attention he and Gaborik command should have a trickle-down effect, as well. With Richards and Gaborik likely facing the opposition's top defensive pairing and checking line and the Dubinksy-Anisimov-Callahan or Boyle line tasked with shutting down opponents' top offensive threats, Stepan should be free to capitalize on soft minutes against second or fourth lines, which helped him last season, as well. Among the Rangers' regular centers, only Erik Christensen skated against weaker players on a regular basis, according to Gabriel Desjardin's Quality of Competition (QualComp) ratings. An improved Stepan enjoying the same soft minutes, and likely advantageous starting position (he took 64.1 percent of his non-neutral zone faceoffs in the offensive zone), should be a nice boon for the Blueshirts.
Marc Staal entered the Rangers' lineup in 2007-08. In every season since, New York has never fallen out of the NHL's top 10 for fewest goals allowed. And Staal has successfully checked the best the Blueshirts' adversaries have to offer. Last season was the first since his rookie year that he didn't lead the Rangers' D in QualComp -- Girardi just barely edged him out.
Behind the prime defensive tandem, Henrik Lundqvist is coming off his finest season on Broadway, setting career-best marks in save percentage (.923) and shutouts (11) en route to a 36-win campaign -- just two shy of his high of 38.
But what's perhaps most impressive about Lundqvist is his consistency. Since 2005-06 the league-average save percentage for NHL netminders has been .910. Not even Lundqvist's worst mark (.912 in 2007-08) has dropped below that figure. That's particularly notable since goaltending performances tend to fluctuate a bit from season to season. For example, Martin Brodeur, Ilya Bryzgalov, Tim Thomas, Mikka Kiprusoff, Cam Ward and Ryan Miller have all suffered through a season below .910 since the lockout.
Add in Hank the Tank's endurance and you get a picture-perfect cornerstone upon which the Rangers can rest their Cup hopes. Among goaltenders who have averaged 60-plus games per season since 2005-06 -- a feat accomplished by only five crease dwellers -- Lundqvist's cumulative save percentage (.918) is second only to that of Roberto Luongo (.919).
With that stable foundation, don't expect the Rangers to fall off at all on the defensive end. If anything -- with the possible addition of blue-chip prospect Tim Erixon and perhaps some progress from Michael Del Zotto and hulking farmhand Pavel Valentenko -- the blue line could be even better.
Short of poor luck on the injury front, the biggest obstacle between the Rangers and their ultimate goal will be some seriously strong competition in the Eastern Conference. The Washington Capitals have retooled their role players and added stud stopper Tomas Vokoun. The Pittsburgh Penguins nearly won the East without either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. The Tampa Bay Lightning don't seem likely to back it up and the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins return virtually all of their important pieces. Add the underachieving New Jersey Devils as a possible dark horse and the road to the Cup will be anything but an easy one. As much as the Blueshirts have helped themselves, the East's elite are not going away.
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But unlike past seasons, the Rangers now have all the elements to fight those foes on fair footing. And the roster will remain flexible over the next three seasons to replace any departing players with new talent -- both from within and without the organization.
Upcoming prospects like Chris Kreider and Christian Thomas help head a pipeline ranked seventh among NHL franchises according to Hockey's Future. Moreover, the cheap contracts attached to such prospects will allow the Rangers to fill the periphery of their roster with more than just scrap-heap, bargain pick-ups. The projected $13 million-plus coming off the books in 2012 could even help add another big piece to a potential Cup-winning mix. Zach Parise, Alexander Semin and Ryan Suter could all be on the market by then. If Richards isn't the missing piece to the puzzle, perhaps one of those players is.
All of this guarantees precisely nothing. But the Rangers' roster is now in a position to challenge the league's best for the Cup for the next three years. The championship window is now wide open. And the view from it seems quite bright.