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2013-14 New York Rangers Preview
By Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
(Sports Network) - John Tortorella served the New York Rangers well for five seasons, but in 2013 the fiery head coach finally wore out his welcome in the Big Apple.
After making the playoffs in four of Tortorella's five seasons behind the bench, the Rangers opted to part ways with the head coach following a second- round postseason loss to the Boston Bruins last spring.
Although the Rangers entertained the idea of replacing Tortorella with former Ranger captain Mark Messier, general manager Glen Sather opted for the more prudent hire by bringing the experienced Alain Vigneault into the fold. Messier, who has never coached at the junior or AHL levels, let alone in the NHL, responded by leaving the organization after spending four years as a special assistant to Sather.
In Vigneault, the Rangers get a head coach who led the Vancouver Canucks to the playoffs in six of his seven years with the team. That run included six division titles, back-to-back Presidents Trophies in 2010-11 and 2011-12, and a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011.
Coincidentally, the fired Tortorella replaced Vigneault in Vancouver, giving the 2013-14 season an interesting storyline to follow as both coaches try to repeat their previous success in new cities.
Like the rest of the NHL, the Rangers will play among new divisional foes under the league's realignment plan for the upcoming season. New York will play in the Metropolitan Division along with its four former combatants in the old Atlantic Division, while Washington, Carolina and Columbus will also compete for the Metro's three automatic playoff bids.
FORWARDS - While Vigneault's approach with his players is expected to be much quieter than Tortorella's, that's hardly where the differences between these coaches end.
The Rangers played a defense-first style under Tortorella, who demanded his players sacrifice their bodies to block shots. Vigneault, meanwhile, expects to bring an up-tempo style to the Blueshirts and that could benefit some of the club's offensive players, including star winger Rick Nash.
Nash was acquired in a trade with Columbus in the summer of 2012 and he had a solid first season in NYC, leading the Rangers with 21 goals and finishing second on the club with 42 total points. The playoffs, however, told a different story, as Nash was held to one goal and four assists in 12 postseason contests.
It seems likely that Nash will be paired on a line with centerman Brad Richards, who fell out of favor with Tortorella during last season's playoffs when he was made a healthy scratch for a few games. Oddly enough, Richards, who previously played a starring role for Torts when he coached Tampa Bay to a Stanley Cup title in 2004, was supposed to be the one guy who wouldn't clash with the former coach.
Richards had a decent regular season, scoring 11 goals and adding 23 assists over 46 games. In the playoffs, however, he had only goal over 10 games and was demoted to the fourth line by Tortorella before being scratched for the club's final two games against the Bruins.
While many people thought the Rangers would use a compliance buyout to rid themselves of Richards' annual cap hit of $6.7 million this summer, they obviously believe he can rebound under Vigneault.
Richards' production is a topic of conversation heading into this season, but Derek Stepan's contract dispute could loom even larger. Stepan, who led the Rangers with 44 points (18G, 26A) in 48 regular-season games and also paced the club with four playoff goals, cost New York just $875,000 against the cap hit in 2013, but the 23-year-old restricted free agent is holding out for a much bigger number this time around.
Like last season's holdouts from Montreal's P.K. Subban and Dallas' Jamie Benn, it seems unlikely Stepan's dispute will linger too deep into the season, but there is a strong chance he could miss the start of the 2013-14 campaign.
Stepan, who could battle Richards for the right to center Nash's top line, isn't the only Ranger forward who could be missing come opening night, as captain Ryan Callahan and speedster Carl Hagelin are expected to miss the first 1-to-2 months of the season after both underwent offseason shoulder surgery.
Hagelin could be an option to play the left wing on the top line and is coming off a 10-goal, 24-point season in 2013. He was one of New York's better offensive players in the postseason, recording three goals and three assists in 12 games.
Callahan, meanwhile, is the heart and soul of the Rangers and a solid two-way winger. He had 16 goals and 31 points in 45 games with New York last year, finishing fourth on the team in scoring. Callahan also led all Rangers forwards in average ice time during the regular season and playoffs.
With New York's offense expected to be short-handed at the start of the season, the club hope guys like Derick Brassard and Chris Kreider can help pick up the slack.
Brassard was acquired at last season's trade deadline in the deal that sent Marian Gaborik to Columbus and he managed to turn some heads in his two months with the Rangers. The centerman played in 25 games for the Rangers in the regular season and playoffs combined and had an impressive 23 points (7G, 16A) during that stretch.
Kreider, meanwhile, is another speedy player who may have been held back by Tortorella's style. After bursting on the scene with five goals in 18 playoff games with New York in the spring of 2012, the 22-year-old had only two goals and one assists in 23 games with the Blueshirts during the 2013 regular season and spent half the season playing for the club's AHL affiliate in Hartford.
If Kreider is able to flourish under a new system, his combination of size (6- foot-3, 226 pounds) and speed could help make up for the early-season absences on the offensive side.
The Rangers didn't make any big splashes in free agency this summer, but they did add a pair of role players in veteran forwards Dominic Moore and Benoit Pouliot. Moore missed all of last season while spending time with his wife, who tragically died of cancer at the age of 32 in January.
DEFENSE - The strength of the Rangers is in its defense and goaltending, and if Vigneault can somehow manage to get the offense to contribute more while keeping things on the back end the same, New York could be the team to beat in the East.
While Vigneault is expected to tinker with the offense to find the right combinations, he shouldn't have to change much on the blue line where the Rangers have the makings of a superb top-four with the presence of Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto.
McDonagh and Girardi will form the top group, with the former player taking on an offensive role while Girardi focuses primarily on his shutting down the opposition. The 24-year-old McDonagh had four goals and 15 assists in 47 games last season and was rewarded with a six-year, $28.2 million extension over the summer.
Girardi, the team leader in ice time last year, had two goals and 12 assists in 46 games.
The second pairing of Del Zotto and Staal also expects to be a reliable pairing, although, unfortunately, Staal's scary eye injury from last year could still be a factor.
Staal was hit in the right eye with a deflected puck in March and missed the rest of the regular season. He returned for one playoff game in May, but was forced to cut the comeback short due to the eye injury. However, Staal said recently his vision is "way better" now than it was back then.
Staal's health is also a concern for Del Zotto, who struggled a bit without his usual defensive partner in the lineup. Of the two, Del Zotto has the bigger offensive upside and led all New York blueliners with 21 points (3G, 18A) during the 2013 regular season.
The final pairing should consist of Anton Stralman and John Moore. Stralman led New York's defense with a plus-14 rating last season and Moore, who also came to the Rangers in the Gaborik deal, had a solid run with the team in 2013.
Justin Falk and Aaron Johnson were brought in via trade and free agent signing, respectively, and offer depth in case of injuries.
GOALTENDING - In Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers boast one of the finest goaltenders in the world, but New York hopes the promise of a better offense can take some of the pressure off its perennial MVP.
Lundqvist, a five-time Vezina Trophy finalist and one-time winner, went 24-16-3 with a 2.05 goals against average and .926 save percentage in 2013. He was excellent in the postseason as well, sporting a 2.14 GAA and .934 save percentage as the Rangers went 5-7 over their 12 playoff games.
At 31 years of age, Lundqvist is heading into the final year of a six-year, $41.25 million contract. Although it's a little surprising the Rangers and Lundqvist haven't already agreed on an extension, it seems highly unlikely New York, a team with deep pockets, would allow "King Henrik" to walk via free agency in the prime of his career.
Lundqvist's backup, Martin Biron, is also heading into a contract season after doing a solid job as New York's No. 2 netminder over the last three seasons. The 36-year-old Biron saw action in six games -- five starts -- in 2013 and was 2-2-1 with a 2.32 GAA.
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Rangers clearly are a team built from the crease on out and the arrival of Vigneault shouldn't necessarily change that formula. Lundqvist is still the team's best player and defensive depth is the club's next-best strength. The hope is an offensive-minded coach can hold onto the positives on defense while coaxing better performances from a forward group that always seemed to underachieve under the hard-nosed Tortorella. Adding offense without sacrificing defense seems like a tricky proposition, but if Vigneault can pull it off this could be the year Lundqvist and the Blueshirts make the transition from perennial playoff participant to legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
09/25 13:00:49 ET