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Team Previews: A New Set of Blueshirts

Jan Levine

Jan Levine

Levine covers baseball, basketball and hockey for RotoWire. In addition to his column writing, he's the master of the MLB and NHL cheatsheets. In his spare time, he roots for the Mets.

OUTLOOK

Heading into the 2009-10 season, despite the signing of Marian Gaborik, there were strong questions as to where the Rangers were going to get scoring. Those reservations proved to be prophetic as the team's inability to light the lamp ultimately cost the Blueshirts the playoffs. New York averaged just 2.67 goals per game (16th in the league), and scored at 18.3 per cent (13th in league) on the man-advantage, while surrendering 2.61 goals per game, which was 10th in the league.

New York continued their strong finish from 2008-09 into last season, flying out of the gates, 7-1-0. Similar to prior years, the Rangers closed the year, 7-1-2, as their mad scramble to make the postseason finished one goal short as they were beaten in a shootout by Philly in Game 82, and then had to watch the Flyers make a run to the Stanley Cup finals. The middle stretch of the season is what proved to be the death knell on the Rangers' season as they went just 24-31-9, which ultimately kept them home in the spring.

The team had a lack of available cap room and unwilling trade partners. Bob Gainey wasn't available to take a big contract off their hands, so it forced GM Glen Sather to mainly shop at the bargain rack. With Wade Redden and Chris Drury still on the books for several more years, though, there are heavy rumors that Redden may be AHL-bound or bought out. Sather re-signed Erik Christensen and Vaclav Prospal, whom are likely to reprise their roles on one of the top two lines. In addition, they overpaid for Derek Boogaard in an attempt to prevent Gaborik from having to handle Dan Carcillo of the Flyers on his own and serve as a deterrent from running Henrik Lundqvist, which took place with increasing frequency last year. Sather also added Alexander Frolov, who has tremendous talent but wore out his welcome in LA with his questionable work ethic; and the Norwegian Hobbit, Mats Zuccarello-Aasen. In addition, he brought in Martin Biron to hopefully provide Lundqvist with a solid backup who can play 20 or so games, reducing Lundqvist's workload.

By mixing and matching all of these new parts, along with a wide cast invited to training camp to contend for a job including Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers could struggle out of the gate. The increased competition will be a good thing as it forces the players to be accountable daily, knowing they can be benched if they fail to produce. That said, the Rangers will likely struggle again offensively. In order to make the playoffs, they will need Gaborik and Lundqvist to be stellar nightly, Artem Anisimov and Michael Del Zotto to take another step in their development, and someone like Frolov or MZA to exceed expectations. At the end of the year, look for the Rangers to be in the mix for the playoffs and finish anywhere between seventh and 10th in the Eastern Conference.

THE BIG GUNS

Marian Gaborik (LW): The Slovakian speedster was as good as advertised in his first year on Broadway. After receiving a five-year, $37.5 million deal with the Rangers in July of 2009, Gaborik turned in arguably his best season as a pro – he set a career high with 86 points and tied his career-best with 42 goals. Having played in just 17 games for the Wild in the 2008-09 season, Gabby bounced back and played in 76 contests for the Rangers, averaging a career-high 21:14 of ice time per game. While he will continue to be looked at as an injury-prone player, Gaborik has the potential to lead the league in goals if he can stay on the ice for 75-plus games. However, the biggest question mark surrounding Gaborik this season will be who skates on the top line with him. The newly acquired Alex Frolov will be given every opportunity to play on the left wing, while the center position could go to one of several options: Vaclav Prospal, Brandon Dubinsky, Erik Christensen, (who meshed with him late last year) or the latest Rangers acquisition, Todd White. Regardless of what the combination turns out to be, one thing is certain: Gaborik will produce plenty of goals and points. That is, as long as he stays healthy.

Alex Frolov (LW): After posting 32 goals for the Kings in the 2008-09 season, Frolov scored just 19 times in what turned out to be his final season in Los Angeles. Frolov signed a one-year deal with the Rangers with hopes of putting together a productive upcoming season, and then getting rewarded in next year's offseason. Expect good things. The 6'2" Russian forward will likely play alongside Marian Gaborik on the Blueshirts' top line and will almost certainly see regular time on the team's first power play unit. In eight NHL seasons, Frolov has had two 30-goal seasons and he could easily reach that 30-goal plateau again. The only thing that could slow down Frolov is if he doesn't mesh well with coach John Tortorella. Frolov has occasionally been known to "take games off" and often disappears on the ice, but he definitely has natural ability, and the Rangers will give him all the ice team, especially on the power play, to best utilize his talent.

Henrik Lundqvist (G): Lundqvist delivered yet another solid season for the Rangers last year. The three-time Vezina Trophy nominee put up a very respectable 2.38 goals-against average and .921 save percentage, both of which ranked eighth in the NHL, while also chipping in four shutouts. However, King Henrik was again slowed down by the team in front of him – as pointed out earlier, the Rangers ranked 16th in the league in goals per game. Lundqvist was also a victim of a bit of bad luck, taking 10 losses in either overtime or a shootout. Yes, he notched 35 wins, but he also started 72 games between the pipes, second only to New Jersey's Martin Brodeur. This offseason the Rangers brought in veteran Martin Biron, who is expected to get closer to 20 starts in goal. This will enable Lundqvist to be at his best in every game he's called upon. Another thing that should help Hank out is a more experienced defensive core– youngsters Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Del Zotto should all improve defensively as they gain experience each season. If the Rangers are able to score more goals and Lundqvist is able to put up his usual stellar GAA and save percentage, the King has the chance to be an elite netminder.

ON THE RISE

Michael Del Zotto (D): Del Zotto was one of the few bright spots for the Rangers last season. He led all defensemen on the team with nine goals, four power-play markers and 37 points. Not only was Del Zotto productive for the Rangers, but he also finished second among all NHL rookie defensemen in points (only Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers had more). However, one glaring error in Del Zotto's game was his defensive awareness – he was a team-worst minus-20. If MDZ wants to take his game to the next level this season, he'll have to improve his defense and consistency, as he struggled after his hot start. On the plus side, the former first-round draft pick will continue to run the Rangers' top power play unit, where he posted 22 of his 37 points. Del Zotto has a bright future ahead of him and if he continues to utilize his great on-ice vision, he could put up close to 50 points.

Artem Anisimov (C): Anisimov will look to build off a fairly quiet rookie year in which he tallied 12 goals and 16 assists playing in all 82 games for the Rangers. The 6-4 forward plays a solid two-way game, and at age 22, he appears to have a very bright future on Broadway. Anisimov was juggled throughout the lines last season and he has a bunch of centers in town to battle with this year, but it is likely that Arty will find himself centering the third line when the season opens. He possesses great skill, but definitely has to fill out his tall body and become a bit stronger on the puck. Anisimov is coming off right wrist surgery, but he is expected to be ready well before training camp in September. Anisimov closed the season with a flourish, seven points the last 10 games, and should be a decent fantasy pick in the very late rounds. Look for somewhere between 30 and 40 points with another rise in production the following year.

TWO TO AVOID

Vaclav Prospal (C/LW): After posting 58 points in 75 games for the Rangers last year, Prospal was given a one-year-deal to return for his second season in the Big Apple. Vinny will be entering his 14th year in the NHL, so there is some concern that his production will slow down a bit this season. However, Prospal clearly found some chemistry with Gaborik, as he finished second on the team in points. It is uncertain if Prospal will begin the year on the same line as Gabby, but either way, he will still be on one of the top two offensive units. His 58 points last year were the most he's recorded since the 2005-06 season when he had 80 points. Prospal has usually followed a good year with a bad year, which doesn't bode well for his production this season. That said, coach John Tortorella loves Prospal's work ethic, which should enable him to see heavy ice time at least early in the year, but the additional bodies in New York means that he will need to stay hot, or even with the potential cap hit because he was signed at 35, and could easily be dumped since he is only on a one-year deal.

Michael Rozsival (D): Coming up on the third year of a four-year, $20 million deal with the Rangers, Rozsival will look to build off what was arguably his worst year in the NHL. The veteran defenseman chipped in just three goals and 20 assists while playing in all 82 games for the Rangers. Rozsival has been on a steady decline with his point production since the 2006-07 season when he had 10 goals and 30 assists. With youngsters like Michael Del Zotto, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi and Matt Gilroy ahead of him on the depth chart, and prospect Ryan McDonagh a possible option in New York, it will be hard for Rozsival to play a major role for the Rangers on the blue line. The former Pittsburgh Penguin will probably finish with around 30 points and 60-plus PIMs.

TOP PROSPECTS

Mats Zuccarello-Aasen (RW): MZA is taking his game to the bright lights on Broadway after two excellent seasons in the Swedish Elite League. Zuccarello-Aasen was the league MVP after totaling 64 points in 55 games last year. That coming after he put up 12 goals and 40 points in just 35 games as a rookie for MODO. Zuccarello-Aasen also shined playing for Norway in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, and several teams noticed, with the Rangers quickly scooping up the talented youngster. Mats turned 23 years old in September and should be given every opportunity to crack the Rangers' lineup. There is an outside chance he finds himself on the wing of the second line, which could result in a 40-point season. While the Norwegian winger has plenty of skill and great hands, the only potential roadblock seems to be his size. Listed at just 5-foot-7, Zuccarello-Aasen will have to make a major adjustment to play in the much more physical NHL, but he has the skills to excel in the league.

Derek Stepan (C): Stepan, who selected by the Rangers with the 51st overall pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, led the University of Wisconsin in scoring and to national championship game. He displayed his leadership skills and talent in helping Team USA win the World Junior Championships with four goals and 10 assists in the tournament. Stepan is a natural playmaker, who is solid on his skates, though needs to be a bit stronger on his skates and add some quickness through the neutral zone. He bypassed his final two years of college eligibility to turn pro and could contend for a spot in training camp.

Others include: Evgeny Grachev, Ryan McDonagh, Chris Kreider and Dylan McIlrath.

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