It’s been 126 days since Patrick Kane’s overtime goal in Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals gave Chicago their first Finals win in 49 years, and as the clock struck midnight on Wednesday, it was finally here: the first day of hockey season.

We’ve been waiting even longer to see the Blueshirts, who – after their almost yearly late March-April surge – lost to eventual Eastern Conference champ Philadelphia…on the last day of the season, with a playoff seed on the line, in a shootout. It was the first time in five years that the Rangers failed to qualify for the postseason. Even though Gaborik performed up to his star label, rookies like Michael Del Zotto stepped up past expectations, and King Henrik was still the King, the Rangers were on the outside of Lord Stanley’s Playoffs looking in and wondering what could have happened. So, with last season in the rearview, what’s possibly in store for the Blueshirts this season?

AP



Last Season: 38-33-11, 87 points; Fourth in the Atlantic; Ninth in the Eastern Conference

The word that describes the Rangers’ 2009-10 campaign in a nutshell is “inconsistent”. Jumping out of the gate 8-3-1 through their first twelve games, the Rangers lost ten of their next 15. Later, from December 17 to January 12, they went on a 8-1-3 tear, which was of course followed by a 3-10 tear. Toward the end of March, the Rangers finished strong, setting up a home and home series with Philly in what would determine the last couple seeds in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Despite going 7-1-2 down the stretch, the Rangers finished 1 point out of the playoffs.

Key Losses

Olli Jokinen left the Rangers as a free agent and returned north to Calgary, who traded him to the Rangers at the deadline last season. In 26 games last year with the Blueshirts, The Joker scored 4 goals and had 11 assists. I didn’t want him back, and neither did you. Backup goalie Alex Auld, who played in just three games as a part of the Rangers’ carousel of backup goalies, signed with the Candiens. Right wing P.A. Parteneau is now playing for the Islanders, and enforcer Jody Shelley signed with the Flyers. Donald Brashear was traded with Patrick Rissmiller to Atlanta for veteran center Todd White; White was waived as of two days ago (clearly a salary dump/dead weight dump for both teams). Winger Evner Lisin and goalie Stephen Valiquette went unsigned. Forward Aaron Voros was traded to Anaheim for defenseman Steve Eminger.

Not huge blows to this team, although I would have liked to see Shelley back in a Ranger uniform.

Key Additons

Left wing Alex Frolov, formerly of the LA Kings, agreed to a 1-year, $3 million deal on July 27. Frolov is a two-time 30-goal scorer, the most recent occurrence being two seasons ago, and has eclipsed 20 goals in a season five times. While he regressed last season to the tune of 19 goals – just five coming with the man adavantage – he is a seasoned goal-scorer and a welcome addition on the wing alongside Gaborik. Another 30-goal season is not out of the question for Frolov. Former Buffalo Sabres forward Tim Kennedy was signed to a 1-year deal, but later was placed on waivers along with Todd White. Then enforcer Derek Boogaard was signed to a 4 year deal, worth $1.625 million per season. Not necessary. Needless to say, it didn’t go over so well, and it probably won’t improve too much.

Frolov was a good signing. He’ll come in immediately as a top-line winger and make an impact offensively. He won’t net 40 goals; he’ll be between 20 and 30 when the season is all said and done. But, considering no Ranger scored greater than 20 last season, 25 goals from Frolov would be just spectacular.

Another key addition was signing backup goaltender Martin Biron. Lundqvist started 73 games last season, including the last 17 games and 25 out of the last 26 (that’s why he’s the King). That won’t be necassary this year. Lundqvist happily welcomes a (finally) good backup goalie to Broadway, giving Lundqvist – who has played in 70+ games every year except for his rookie season – a much deserved break.

Training Camp Notes And Cuts

First, thank the good Lord, Wade Redden was sent to Hartford.

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh and Pavol Valentenko were both sent down to Hartford earlier this week. McDonagh, the blue-chip defenseman acquired from Montreal in the Scott Gomez trade, will only improve each day by getting 20+ minutes down in Hartford. Good move.

To get down to the 23-man roster restriction, the Rangers placed Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal on injured reserve to begin the year. Drury is recovering from a broken left index finger which caused him to miss the entire preseason. That’s a good thing, as Derek Stepan was able to see extended minutes against somewhat-NHL-level competition. Drury is expected to return to the lineup within the next two or three weeks, and when he’s healed up he could see an expanded offensive role.

The 35-year-old Prospal, however, is in a worse spot. Prospal, who potted an even 20 goals last year, has experienced soreness and inflammation in his surgically repaired right knee, and has been told not to skate until at least the middle of October. Prospal’s an enthusiastic guy, and one of the leaders on this team. The Rangers will need to find a way to play without him for a little while.

LW Ruslan Fedotenko and the Rangers agreed to a one-year, $1 million contract. Fedotenko, 31, had 11 goals and 19 assists for the Penguins last season, and was on a tryout contract with New York. After leading the Rangers in scoring during the preseason, the Rangers figured he’s a pretty good player. Fedotenko is reunited with the coach he won the Cup with in 2004.

The Rangers released defensemen Alexei Semenov and Garnet Exelby from their tryout contracts. Defenseman Dylan McIlrath, the Rangers’ first-round pick in this year’s draft, got his first taste of the NHL in his first pro training camp. But, the 18-year-old (that makes me feel older than I am) blueliner will be back playing for his junior team, WHL Moose Jaw this year. It’s a long road for him and he needs to through the whole development process, but the Rangers are excited about what type of player McIlrath can be down the road.

Tortorella said early during training camp that he has “a good feeling” in his gut. Let’s see how Torts feels in a couple weeks.

Forwards:

When the Rangers brought in Gaborik last year, every statement made about him seemed to end in “…when he’s healthy.” Gaborik is one of the most skilled forwards in the NHL…when he’s healthy. Gaborik will flat-out embarrass goalies…when he’s healthy. Gaborik is a Jedi…when he’s healthy. He played through some injuries last season, but managed to suit up for 76 games – and he proved that he’s one of the NHL’s best forwards. Gabby netted 42 goals last season, and assisted on 44, as he was everything the Rangers expected and more. Now, it’s time for an encore. Gaborik played mostly with Prospal (20 G, 38 A) last year, but it’s unknown whether Prospal will return to playing as a center. With the Rangers signing Frolov, however, a first line pairing of Gaborik and Frolov will do more damage than Gaborik and Prospal did.

After Gaborik and Prospal, the Rangers third-leading scorer was Brandon Dubinsky who had 20 goals last season. Tortorella plans to use Dubinsky as a left wing rather than a center this year because, I mean, look at the Rangers’ depth down the middle: Prospal, Drury, Artem Anisimov, Erik Christensen, Brian Boyle, and Stepan all have the ability to play center.

Ryan Callahan had 37 points in 77 games last year, but was also a minus-12. Cally is a hard-nosed player, who is a monster on the penalty kill and does all the little things right. Sean Avery is still the player we know and love.

Defense:

The Rangers locked up Dan Girardi and Marc Staal to multi-year deals this summer, the Rangers have a solid top-2 pairing on defense to build around for the next few years. Both appeared in all 82 games last season, were numbers one and two in ice time (Staal was No. 1 at 23:07 per game), and also are vital to the success of the Rangers penalty kill.

Michael Del Zotto was spectacular as a rookie, scoring 37 points and finishing fourth among defenseman in ice time (18:58). His minus-20 though was the worst on the whole team. Even with a minus-20, it was a strong debut from MDZ. Fellow rookie player Matt Gilroy had more of a roller-coaster season – he finished with 15 points but had a demotion to Hartford and was occasionally a healthy scratch. Michal Rozsival continues to decline offensively and continues to prove he’s not worth a $5 million cap hit. Competing for the final two defensive spots are Steve Eminger, Michael Sauer, and Ryan McDonagh.

Goaltending:

It just doesn’t much better than King Henrik. Lundqvist had a 2.38 GAA and a .921 save percentage with 4 shutouts for the Rangers last season, but went 35-27-10 because of the Rangers’ phobia of goal scoring. He is a yearly contender for the Vezina and one of the top three goalies in the NHL.

The plan is for Lundqvist to see less time this season, with Marty Biron picking up as many as 15 starts.

Special Teams:

The Rangers were 13th overall on the power play last season, converting at a rate of 18.3-percent – powered by Gaborik’s 14 goals. The Rangers ranked seventh in the NHL on the kill (84.3 percent) thanks to Staal, Girardi, Drury, Callahan, and Lundqvist.

Coach:

The reputation surrounding John Tortorella is that he’s an egotistical temper throwing coach who gets off by alienating the media. The fact is, though, that he’s a good coach. He’s coached his teams to the postseason in five of the last seven seasons, and just barely missed the playoffs last year. His coaching and management abilities make him more than “just a loudmouth”.

Prediction:

The Blueshirts didn’t make any drastic changes in the offseason, which puts them right on the playoff bubble again this season – on paper they are better than last season, but not by much. The offense added much needed firepower with the addition of Frolov to the top-line, and thanks to the Biron signing Lundqvist probably won’t have to put the team on his back for long stretches during the season, which would keep him rested for the playoffs. The defense will be better now that Redden doesn’t gift-wrap pucks for opponents in the defensive zone; minus Rozsival, who should be the next to go, it’s a nice mix of youth and veterans. There are a ton of talented prospects knocking on the door, some of them (Stepan, McDonagh to name two) could see a ton action early this season. The Rangers will battle it out for the seventh/eighth spot again this year, and perhaps make a jump to sixth if the young guys step up and the offense puts a few more pucks in the net. There are slight improvements everywhere, but no considerable improvements anywhere.

Worst-case scenario, I’d say the Blueshirts finish eighth in the East; best-case, sixth. They’ll constantly teeter between the top-eight and bottom-seven throughout the season. The biggest problem is you can’t win it all without a top-line center and unless Stepan fills that void right away, the Rangers don’t have one. This is a good team, though, and Lundqvist alone (as we saw last year) makes them playoff contenders. The Rangers will be back in the playoffs this year.