Right Wing Conspiracy is a weekly column about hockey, with the odd hockey-related conspiracy theory thrown in for good measure.
The 2013-14 New York Rangers: What’s the Worst That Could Happen, and Why it Won’t
As the New York Rangers enjoy the last few weeks of summer, fans and pundits alike begin to ponder the possibilities of the upcoming campaign. In these, the so called “dog days” of August, let us examine the Rangers’ worst-case scenario and, so we can all sleep soundly tonight, why it won’t happen.
As the Blueshirt Faithful are aware, team captain Ryan Callahan and speedy winger Carl Hagelin both had shoulder surgery at the conclusion of the 2013 season. Barring a miracle, both will be out until (at least) November. Their absence for the first 4-8 weeks of the season leaves two gaping holes in the Top Six. If negotiations with top line pivot and RFA Derek Stepan drag on into September (as they did with Brandon Dubinsky in 2009), the centerman will have to play catch-up, both in learning new head coach Alain Vigneault’s system and conditioning-wise. If Stepan holds out longer or suffers a leg/groin injury as is common with players who miss training camp (coughDubinskycough), the Rangers could start the season with lines like these:
If Chris Kreider has a good September, that first line will be feared around the league. As for the second line, well…Zucc is a wonderfully creative player with good hands and vision. If Richards can rediscover his mojo, he’s one of the top centers in the NHL, but he needs a sniper to whom he can dish the puck. Newcomer Benoit Pouliot might fit the bill (with Montreal in 2009-10, he scored 15 goals in 39 games while averaging 16:44 TOI/night), but he and Richards will have to develop chemistry fast.
Derek Dorsett is a heart-and-soul guy and a heavy hitter, perfectly suited for the third line. As long as J.T. Miller’s wrist continues to heal and Brian Boyle clicks with Dorsett like he did with the sorely-missed Brandon Prust, this could be a solid checking line with offensive upside. The fourth line, however, is wobbly (at least on paper): the lumbering Pyatt, a rusty Moore attempting a comeback from personal tragedy after a year away from the game, and in Kristo, a skilled rookie with nine games of pro (AHL) hockey under his belt. The fourth line will have to be protected moreso than normal, at least until Dominic Moore shakes off the rust.
At this point, some of you may be asking, “What about Darroll Powe? Arron Asham? Jesper Fast?” Though Powe and Asham are currently on the roster, they’ll be on waivers/on the way to Hartford as soon as Stepan signs a contract, as the Rangers are just $2.18mil under the salary cap right now and the center’s annual cap hit should fall in the $3-3.5mil range. As for Fast…if he has a better September than Kristo, pencil him in on the fourth line instead. Unless the Rangers are plagued by additional injuries to their forward corps, don’t expect to see both rookies on Broadway this season. Speaking of additional injuries, worst-case scenario would see the Blueshirts begin the season sans Callahan, Hagelin, Stepan, Kreider (if his ankle problem flares up again) and Miller (if he reinjures his not-quite-healed wrist). If that comes to pass, expect a patchwork quilt of forward lines like this:
In a word, UGH. The good news, though, is that both Kreider and Miller expect to be at or near 100% by the start of training camp. The final area of concern among the forward corps is: What if Brad Richards doesn’t bounce back from the disaster that was last season? Though the tandem of Stepan and Brassard has made Richards redundant, what if the Rangers are without Stepan and Richards’ level of play is only worthy of fourth line minutes (or a seat in the press box)? Chew on that for a moment (and maybe chew an antacid or two)…then put it out of your mind, because it’s not going to happen. Brad Richards is a proud professional and last season was an anomaly. He’s got something to prove in 2013-14, and he’ll do it; bank on it.
The biggest question facing the Rangers defensive corps is, of course, Marc Staal’s vision. Will he be 100%, and if not, can he adjust and still be effective? If he can mount a successful comeback, the Blueshirts blueline will again be solid, with probable pairings of:
If Staal is unable to return to an NHL level of play, his ice time will be filled by (pick one) Justin Falk, Aaron Johnson or Stu Bickel. Suddenly, that third d-pair starts to look unsteady, like Bambi on ice. Unless John Moore can fill Staal’s skates in a hurry (and make no mistake, Moore was the biggest surprise of the Gaborik trade), GM Glen Sather will have to start working the phones to find a solid #5 defenseman.
Last, but not least, with a new system/coach to learn and a nine-game road trip to start the season, won’t the Rangers fall behind early in what is expected to be an ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division? Nope. On the contrary, with a new system and coach, a long road trip is an ideal way to kick off the campaign. Away from the distractions of home life and the bright lights of Broadway, the team will have plenty of time to bond and focus on hockey. As a bonus, they get their Pacific Time Zone games out of the way (with the exception of Vancouver) in the first week of the season, while the team is fresh. By early November, the Rangers should be closer to mid-season form than most of their opponents, to their distinct advantage. Consider this: The Blueshirts began the 2011-12 season with a seven-game roadie (including two games in Sweden), stringing together a record of 3-2-2, then played seven of their next ten at MSG, going 7-2-1 over that span. Don’t be surprised if the start of the 2013-14 campaign brings with it a strong sense of deja vu.