Originally Published: September 24, 2013

New York Rangers: Back in the hunt

By Katie Strang | ESPN.com

Already you get the sense that the New York Rangers are breathing a little easier without former coach John Tortorella's abrasive, grating persona around, barking at every chance. That's not to say the group is carefree or lax around Alain Vigneault, but the whole "clean-slate" mantra emblazoned on their training camp T-shirts is a good indication they needed a change in message and tone from years past. With the change in morale already apparent, the contrast in play remains to be seen. Vigneault is regarded as a coach who might loosen the reins, so expect to see a system that might inspire more creativity. That could be vital for veteran Brad Richards, whose game and confidence took a massive blow last season, or youngster Chris Kreider, who struggled to put his speed and skill to good use.

The Rangers will likely start the season without captain Ryan Callahan and talented young winger Carl Hagelin, both of whom underwent shoulder surgery this summer, but they have intriguing prospects in the pipeline such as Oscar Lindberg, Jesper Fast and Danny Kristo knocking on the door during camp. An infusion of youth might not be a bad thing while depth is a concern. That energy and enthusiasm seemed sapped at points during the Rangers' disappointing playoff run in 2013. After a second-round exit last spring that left the team both disheartened and weary, the Rangers can begin anew under Vigneault and challenge for the Metropolitan Division title.

CHANGES
One of the most coveted forwards acquired at the trade deadline last April, in the offseason Ryane Clowe cashed in across the Hudson River, signing a five-year, $24.25 million deal with the Devils. The Rangers passed on re-signing the well-respected veteran, which might prove to be a shrewd move given that he suffered two concussions in a short span during his brief tenure as a Ranger. The Rangers will be without the offensive output of Marian Gaborik as well. Though the 31-year-old sniper was a streaky, inconsistent contributor, his wicked shot and point production will be missed. Gaborik, who was traded to Columbus at the trade deadline in the deal that brought Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett and John Moore to New York, had 105 goals in his first three season as a Ranger.

The Rangers have some solid additions at forward, however. GM Glen Sather signed veteran forwards Dominic Moore and Benoit Pouliot in free agency, the latter of whom has shown good chemistry with Brassard and Mats Zuccarello in camp. Moore also gives the team depth and experience down the middle, an asset that might be of increasing value as Derek Stepan has to make up for lost time while sitting out during his contract stalemate. The biggest change will likely be behind the bench, though. Associate head coach Scott Arniel and assistants Ulf Samuelsson and Dan Lacroix will round out the coaching staff, with Arniel (power play) and Samuelsson (penalty killing) helping out on special teams. That's a stark change from the previous regime, when Tortorella relied on only one assistant coach, Mike Sullivan.

STRENGTHS
Beyond the obvious in former Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers have plenty of talent to boast on their back end. Assuming that Marc Staal returns to form following two seasons with extended absences (36 games in 2011-12 with a concussion, 27 games in 2013 with an eye injury), the Rangers will have one of the best defensive units in the entire league. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi will likely comprise the top pairing again, as they did while Staal was out, and it's hard to find many duos steadier than these two. In ESPN.com's #NHLrank, the Rangers were the only team besides Chicago (Duncan Keith, No. 4; Brent Seabrook, No. 12) with two defensemen in the top 15 (McDonagh, No. 10,; Girardi, No. 15), and that's without Staal being included. The Rangers also have talented young blueliner Michael Del Zotto to chip in offensively and steady Swede Anton Stralman, both of whom can man the points on the power play. Rounding out the defensive corps is John Moore, 22, a first-round draft pick who finished with six points in 13 regular-season games after being traded by the Blue Jackets. The team's seventh defenseman will likely be an upgrade as well, with rugged, physical types Justin Falk and Stu Bickel and the offensive-minded Danny Syvret vying for the job.

WEAKNESSES
With Stepan's hold out and Richards' regression last season, there really is no clear-cut first-line center. Stepan played as the team's No. 1 pivot for much of last season, and he can reclaim that spot, but the time he missed while awaiting a contract resolution didn't help. After avoiding a buyout last summer, Richards is hell-bent on proving he's still an elite player who can help the team, but pace might be an issue for the 33-year-old. Brassard was one of the sole bright spots of the team's otherwise underachieving playoff run, so he is a prime candidate, but figuring he can sustain the level of production he did in the 2013 preseason (12 points in 12 games) is a long shot.

Now, let's consider the team's other options down the middle. Brian Boyle might thrive under Vigneault's system, which stresses the importance of driving to the net, but the hulking centerman struggled to do that last season and was, at times, ineffective and inconsistent. Dominic Moore showed nice flashes in preseason, but his lengthy layoff from the NHL -- he missed all of last season following the death of his wife, Katie -- might be an issue. Darroll Powe adds versatility but durability could be a concern; the 28-year-old sustained multiple concussions last season.

Depth in general might be an issue for Rangers' forwards, not just centers. With Callahan and Hagelin presumably out to start the season, the Rangers are left with significant holes to fill and, considering their lack of flexibility under the salary cap, might not have a ton of great options. The Rangers' power play, which finished last season ranked 23rd with a dismal 15.7 percent success rate, seems to be a perennial concern too, though Arniel will try to breathe new life into the ailing unit.

REALIGNMENT EFFECT
Mathematically, the Rangers are at a slight disadvantage at making the playoffs compared with the fewer teams in the Western Conference. Besides adding Columbus to the schedule (a treat considering all the trades that have transpired between the two teams), their travel is still relatively humane.

PREDICTIONS
Strang: The Rangers will finish second in the Metropolitan Division.

Burnside: Third in the Metropolitan Division.

Custance: Second in the Metropolitan Division.

LeBrun: Third in the Metropolitan Division.

Melrose: Third in the Metropolitan Division.

Katie Strang covers the NHL for ESPN.com. She is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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