Despite a frustrating five-game quarterfinal playoff loss to the Washington Capitals, the New York Rangers had to be pleased with many aspects of its 44-win season in 2011-12. In the last couple of years, the Rangers have rid itself of bad contracts and focused on rebuilding in New York. Most notably, the team demoted Wade Redden, traded Scott Gomez to Montreal and bought out veteran Chris Drury.
Once again, goalie Henrik Lundqvist was the team MVP but the biggest story was the development of New York’s younger players. Ryan Callahan, Marc Staal and Brandon Dubinsky are coming into their own, while Artem Anisimov, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Sauer and Derek Stepan all took big steps forward in their own maturation. The only noteworthy player not to make a positive impact last season was defensemen Michael Del Zotto, who followed up an impressive rookie campaign with a disastrous sophomore season in which he was demoted to the minors only to finish the season early because of a hernia that required surgery.
It was no secret what the Rangers’ biggest needs were – a No. 1 playmaking center and a power-play quarterback. It looks like the Rangers have found the perfect fit for both needs in Brad Richards who, other than being a proven top-line pivot, is very familiar and has had championship success with coach John Tortorella and his system. Richards should have a domino effect on the Rangers offense by helping settle the lines combinations and ending the constant search for a center to play with Marian Gaborik. More importantly, Richards will draw the toughest checkers on opposing teams, which will give the youngsters more room to work against favorable matchups.
One the defensive side of the puck it all starts with Lundqvist, the only netminder in NHL history to start his career with six straight 30-win seasons. Despite youth and inexperience on the blue line, the Rangers defense helped the team give up the fifth fewest goals (195) in the league last year and should only get better.
Leading the Blueshirts on the blue line is an emerging shut-down unit comprised of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. McDonagh's mid-season promotion and pairing with fellow rookie Sauer in 2010-11, has given the Rangers a solid second defensive pair. Del Zotto's poor season should serve as a cautionary tale to the rest of the developing players but the young defensemen himself is expected to rebound and make the team. Expected to join Del Zotto on the third defensive pair is Tim Erixon, who the Rangers acquired from the Calgary Flames last June. Erixon is consider NHL ready by most scouts, and along with Del Zotto is expected to be groomed as power-play defensemen.
THE BIG GUNS
Henrik Lundqvist (G): Since entering the league in 2005-06, Lundqvist has consistently been one of the best goalies in the NHL, usually hovering around the top-five in wins, goals-against average and save percentage each year. Most of that work has either been done with old, average defensemen or the young and inexperienced type working in front of him. Even though the defensive group is still young, gradual improvement can be expected and in turn, Lundqvist will reap the rewards. Despite being lost to injury the final third of the year, last season's addition of Marty Biron, a reliable backup, enables Lundqvist to stay fresh throughout the year. The Rangers should play the King for 60-65 games, rather than the 70-plus appearances he had received from 2006-10.
Brad Richards (C): Richards averaged 71 points over the span of a decade between Tampa Bay and most recently, Dallas. Now, he's in the big market of New York, and all signs point to his continued high level of production. Richards fills a clear need as the No. 1 center and finds himself in an ideal situation with sniper Marian Gaborik on his side. The only cautionary measure to consider with Richards is that he's had concussion issues before. However, he's had no recent problems and should be targeted early on in fantasy drafts.
Marian Gaborik (RW): Even though he is generally considered one of the better snipers in the league, Gaborik has never really played with an elite playmaking center, which he now has in Brad Richards. For those who point to his history of injury problems as a concern, it should be noted that the shoulder injury that sapped his strength and caused him to miss 20 games last season is fully healed. More importantly, his hamstring, the primary source of most of his career injury woes, has been completely healthy in the two years since he has arrived in New York. It also doesn't hurt that in the last three seasons -- starting in an odd number year (2005, 2007, 2009) -- he's scored 38, 42 and 42 goals, respectively. Plus, he always seems to follow a disappointing season with a good one. This should all factor into his return to 35-40 goals this season, along with 75-80 points.
ON THE RISE
Artem Anisimov (C): Anisimov has made steady progress since taken by the Rangers in the second round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. After turning in a modest rookie campaign with 28 points, the Russian took a big step forward in his development by tacking on 16 additional points in his second season to reach 44 for the year. The young Russian has grown into his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame and has started to use his body much more effectively, as well as not deferring to veterans on the offensive end. With Brad Richards’ arrival, he could slide back in between Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan, with whom he played large portions of last season and had good chemistry. If Anisimov can take the next step and find a little more consistency in his game, he'll be a good bet to grab 55-60 points in the new campaign.
Brandon Dubinsky (LW): Last year, Dubinsky really came into his own, not just in scoring but his all-around game evolved as well. He's part of a young core of Rangers (along with Marc Staal, Ryan Callahan and Dan Girardi) who are all reaching the top of their games and have been secured contractually for the next few years. Dubinsky is likely to remain paired on a line with Callahan and Artem Anisimov, with whom he's shared good chemistry. That is, unless the Rangers can't find a left wing to play with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik. Either way, Dubinksy's a good bet to match or surpass his offensive numbers from last year (24 goals, 24 assists). This should make him a stable mid-round fantasy draft selection, particularly in deeper leagues as he should maintain dual position status. For leagues with faceoffs as a category, it should be noted that although Dubinsky predominately plays on the wing, he still took the majority of faceoffs when he was on the ice.
TWO TO AVOID
Erik Christensen (C): No one has ever questioned Christensen's talent, but everywhere he has played he has infuriated his coaches with inconsistent play. Christensen has a laser for shot, yet he tends to go for long stretches without firing the puck at all. He was one of the Rangers' first attempts to find a center for Marian Gaborik, but with Brad Richards’ arrival and the influx good, young talent in New York, Christensen could find himself on the bubble for a roster spot. The Rangers have 14 signed forwards, and the team is likely to carry 13 of them during the regular season.
Mats Zuccarello (RW): Zuccarello is a wizard with the puck and as long as the shootout exists in hockey, a player like him will always be seriously considered to make an NHL team. The 2009-2010 MVP of the Swedish Elite League while playing for Modo, Zuccarello is an offensive sparkplug. However, there are questions about the 5-foot-7 Norwegian's game. Although he improved as the last season progressed, he was a defensive liability and had difficulty finishing his offensive attempts. The Rangers have holes to fill on the first and third lines, but he'll have to show improvement in the aforementioned areas to secure regular playing time in 2011-12.
Tim Erixon (D): Erixon is the son of former Ranger defensive forward Jan Erixon. A first-round choice in the 2009 draft for the Calgary Flames, he was traded over the summer to the Rangers as the Flames weren’t able to sign him. Had he remained unsigned, he could have re-entered this past summer's draft and likely would have been a top-15 pick. But Erixon will operate with an entry-level contract from the Rangers, and is expected to make the team out of training camp as a third pairing defensemen after posting 24 point in 48 games in the Swedish Elite League last season. Even with Brad Richard around to quarterback the power play, the Rangers are still looking for a good defenseman to help out with on the man advantage. If Erixon plays well, there is power-play time to be had for this defenseman.
Dylan McIlrath (D): Every team needs that Ulf Samuelsson/Jeff Beukeboom type; a hulking, defensive-defenseman to clear the net and punish opponents physically in their own end. That's what they have in the 6-foot-5, 215-pound McIlrath. The Rangers first-round pick (10th overall) in 2010, he spent the last three years with the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL. Just 19 years old, he likely needs one more year before making it onto the big club. Look for the young enforcer to play for the Rangers’ affiliate, the Connecticut Whale of the AHL, in 2011-12.
Michael Del Zotto (D): It might seem strange that Del Zotto is listed under prospects after making the team the last two seasons out of training camp, especially after his fairly impressive 37-point rookie campaign. But Del Zotto had a difficult sophomore year as he posted just 11 points in 47 games before getting demoted to the minors and then sustaining a season-ending sports hernia injury. Del Zotto's superior puck-movement eluded him last year, and with the depth of good young defensemen in the organization, his roster spot is anything but assured. Still, word during the offseason is that he looked to be rebounding in terms of health and performance. As a result, he’s expected to fight for a spot on the third defensive pairing.