New Season, Same Goal

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Dinur.

Hello fellow Rangers fans! It’s been a while and boy do we have a lot to get to. With that said, welcome back to Blueshirts Blueline, let’s get started.

Last season the Rangers were hoping that they would, as it said on their training camp shirts last fall, “Change the ending.” Unfortunatley they didn’t and got shutout by the Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final at Madison Square Garden and got to celebrate on the Rangers’ ice.

The feeling after that game … goaltender Henrik Lundqvist bent over in sadness with Cam Talbot having to comfort him, the rest of the players looking absolutely dejected and the air being completely sucked out of the Garden … it made for one horrible scene, Rangers fans. But if there was any silver lining with that game, it’s this: The Rangers have more motivation now than they ever have to get back to the Stanley Cup Final.

During the offseason, it was clear moves needed to be made and the look of the team has changed quite a bit since last spring: Gone are Carl Hagelin, Martin St. Louis, Matt Hunwick and Cam Talbot. In their places, the Rangers welcomed Emerson Etem, Jarret Stoll, Viktor Stalberg, Antti Raanta, Oscar Lindberg and Dylan McIlrath to the team. Lindberg was one of the Rangers’ top prospects for the past few seasons and made the team out of training camp and McIlrath, who was the Rangers’ first-round pick in 2010, made the team out of camp as well.

Stoll, who the Rangers signed to a one-year deal, has immediately helped the Rangers in the faceoff circle. He has a career average of over 50 percent in the dot and along with Dominic Moore, the Rangers now have two solid centermen who they can trust to win a faceoff if they need it, especially in the defensive zone. Stoll has performed admirably in his role on the team and has become a vocal leader. He has scored one goal and assisted on two others this season.

Etem, who was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for Carl Hagelin, has shown flashes of the player many thought he could be when the Ducks drafted him in the first round in 2010. He hasn’t produced many highlights for the Rangers yet, but in recent games when he has been inserted into the lineup, he has started to show the consistency Head Coach Alain Vigneault has been looking for. If he develops into the player that tore up major juniors or some resemblance of it, the Rangers will be that much better. Etem has assisted on two goals this season.

Stalberg, was signed this offseason after playing the past few years with the Nashville Predators. He previously won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013. Stalberg has great speed and while not exactly top-six forward material, he makes for a very good third-line guy with an impressive shot. He has scored one goal and assisted on three others this season.

Raanta, who was previously a member of the Chicago Blackhawks, was brought in to replace the departed Cam Talbot, who is now a member of the Edmonton Oilers. Raanta previously won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks. The Rangers traded prospect Ryan Haggerty to Chicago to get Raanta and he has proven that he is more than a capable backup to Lundqvist. In three appearances so far this season, Raanta has a .976 save percentage and a 0.67 goals against average (GAA) with one shutout. That’s pretty good.

McIlrath, has finally shown signs of the defenseman the Rangers had in mind when they drafted him. He hasn’t played in every game this season but when he has he has looked solid and is providing solid third pair minutes. McIlrath is a huge player at 6’5” and 230 pounds, so when he delivers hits they are bone-crushing. If McIlrath can improve his defensive play further, I believe he will be starting games over the elder statesmen Dan Boyle as the team’s sixth defenseman. After having an absolutely solid preseason and after performing admirably when called upon during the regular season, McIlrath has a good future ahead with the organization.

Finally, we get to Oscar Lindberg — and boy has this kid been a revelation this season. In the 15 games the Rangers have played so far, Lindberg has seven goals and four assists which is good for second on the team in points. He has performed better than anyone could have hoped to this point and has looked like the star prospect the Rangers wanted when they traded for him a few years back. Lindberg was originally a draft pick of the Arizona Coyotes. In his third-line center role, Lindberg, along with Stalberg and J.T. Miller who are usually flanking him on the wings, has flourished and given the Rangers a great defensive and an unexpected offensive punch.

Now that we’ve talked about the new faces, let’s get up to speed on how the team has been doing this season.

During the offseason, many hockey analysts were saying that the Rangers would slow down this year and that they wouldn’t win the division after moves made by the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets to improve their teams. Well, 15 games into the season and which team is on top of the division again? That’s right, the Rangers. The Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and were the best regular season team and it seems many analysts forgot that when your team is coming off one of the best seasons in franchise history, you don’t exactly need to make a blockbuster trade or signing. Let it be known that the Rangers are and will continue to be the best team in the Metropolitan Division despite the moves made by the other teams.

This season the Rangers are 11-2-2 so far and have come out of the gate with fire in their eyes. Lundqvist is on top of his game and is having one of the best stretches of his career. The Rangers are getting contributions from up and down their lineup. Rick Nash is just beginning to score now, which is a great sign for the team, but the fact that they have found ways to win without their top goal scorer contributing is huge. Chris Kreider, who many thought would breakout even further this season has been relatively quiet but he has all the tools to catch fire soon.

One of the Rangers strengths the past few seasons has been their defense but this season, their defense is going through a bit of a, for lack of a better word, rough patch. This is not to say they haven’t been good and haven’t been helping the team win hockey games but Dan Girardi and Marc Staal haven’t been playing up to their usual standards. The play of Kevin Klein, and Keith Yandle have been exceptionally good but the Rangers’ defense as a whole can be much better. Dan Boyle needs to be taken out of the sixth defenseman spot and Dylan McIlrath should consistently start over him from now on. He is younger, and his physical presence on the ice will help the team. I believe over the course of the season the defense will get back to it’s usual top-notch standard.

Another great storyline of the Rangers season so far is the comeback of Mats Zuccarello. “Zucc” was injured during the first round of the playoffs last season after getting hit in the head with a slapshot by captain Ryan McDonagh. His injury was so severe that he briefly lost the ability to speak. Fast forward to this season and Zucc is leading the team in points and has looked like the dynamic playmaker he has consistently been for the Rangers.

This early in the season the Rangers are looking every bit like a team on the warpath. That elusive Stanley Cup title, that for the last few seasons has been oh-so-close, may finally head back to New York this year if the Rangers keep up their play and remember that sinking feeling of being so close yet far away. Two years ago the Kings celebrated on Staples Center ice with the Cup while the Rangers headed back to the locker room. Last year, the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrated on Madison Square Garden ice after advancing to the final while the Rangers headed back to the locker room. This season, it’s time for the Rangers to truly “Change the ending” and make that other team walk back to the locker room while they celebrate with the chalice known as the Stanley Cup. Let’s Go Rangers!