This weekend has provided me with a new and interesting perspective on the New York Rangers. The wins against the Thrashers and Capitals proved that they have the mettle to be a very tough out against any team in the East. The reason isn't just their toughness in the face of adversity and a hard hat attitude, but the continued improved development of a forechecking system that smothered Atlanta, Washington, and Florida (sans decent goaltending.)
Since the lockout, the Rangers have seduced us. The Rangers had teams good enough to win in the regular season, but their record was often a product of smoke and mirrors created by the brilliance of Jaromir Jagr, Henrik Lundqvist, and an overtime rule which gives a distinct advantage to defensively oriented teams which can keep games close. The Rangers never had depth, and without the prospect of Henrik Lundqvist stealing a series (which he failed to do against Ryan Miller, Marc Andre Fleury, and Semyon Varlamov) they could not advance in the playoffs.
The current edition of the Rangers has two things these older Rangers teams did not have. Blueshirt Banter has countless posts on the "flowering" of the Rangers new organizational depth with the performance of Mike Sauer, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Matt Gilroy and others.I would like to focus on the the other big change: the Rangers will soon get a major influx of talent with the returns of Ryan Callahan, Vinny Prospal, and Brandon Dubinsky without needing to trade assets to improve the team.
Normally, I don't excite myself over players returning from injuries, but as I said, I got a special glimpse "behind the Rangers curtain" before the game against the Capitals on Monday. Being a DC resident, I went to the Capitals pregame skate at Kettler Iceplex to watch them conduct their pregame skate. As my girlfriend and I watched the Capitals skate through drills, the entire Rangers team, along with Dave Maloney and Kenny Albert, walked into Kettler Iceplex (no, the bandwagon Capitals fans in attendance had no idea who they were.) After the Caps fans cleared out, my girlfriend and I got to watch the Rangers pregame skate along with a couple of the beat writers and 3 or 4 kids who missed the Capitals.
At the end of the practice, Ryan Callahan and Vinny Prospal went through drills with Henrik Lundqvist and Assistant Coach Jim Schoenfeld. While Callahan's return has been talked about, Prospal has been a forgotten man as he has recovered from knee problems. Meanwhile, Marian Gaborik has struggled without a playmaker on his line. Well, I am here to tell you that Vinny Prospal will be a HUGE addition to the Rangers once he dresses. His skating was sharp and fast both when striding and changing directions. His hands were sharp during shooting and puck deflection drills, and he was chirping like a guy who was ready to tear down walls to get in the lineup. He looked much healthier than some of the Rangers in the lineup (Marc Staal and Brian Boyle immediately come to mind.) A part of me wonders if the Rangers made the decision to give Prospal ample time to recover, and now will be adding a highly skilled hard working player to a hardhat core that needs that skill. When coupled with the heart and soul guys like Callahan, Dubinsky, and Fedotenko, the Rangers will be getting a huge influx of talent in the coming weeks.
This makes some challenging lineup and personel decisions for the Rangers, as they have a lineup that now looks like 4 #2 lines. Next week I envision something like this:
I think there are three wildcards: Wolski and Zuccarello have been lights out on the forecheck and it seems like Tortorella likes putting Zuccarello on the ice in more and more important situations. And, how do they "demote" Avery, who has played excellent hockey and created space for Gaborik, but who has been unable to bury any of the plethora of chances he has created for himself.
Then you still have the issue of where Dubinsky, Fedotenko, and Christensen play when they return from injury. At this point, they can't sit Zuccarello. Drury played his best game of the season against Florida, yet I don't think any Rangers fan would suggest that Drury play over a healthy Dubinsky and Fedotenko. And, could the Rangers have even less space if they decide to have Michael Del Zotto dress as a 7th D to run the point on the power play? Do the Rangers sacrifice that depth to get an expensive rental? Where does Brian Boyle fit in this lineup? The week after the break will start to answer these questions, and I think the answers will tell us if this team is a contender or a pretender.