Editor note: "X Factors" is a new series that I will be starting on Blueshirt Banter that will run until training camp starts. Basically, I am going to be looking and examining some of the biggest X factors for the New York Rangers this upcoming season.
We will start with the biggest X factor of all: Sean Avery.
It's difficult to explain to someone who isn't a Rangers fan, and doesn't see the team much, the type of value that Avery brings to the team. On the surface his numbers are average, with him usually being a lock for 15 goals and somewhere around 35 points. But it's what he does off the score sheet that makes him so valuable.
I remember when the Rangers first got Avery, my freshman year of college. I was in JRN 161, not paying attention, and surfing the web. I stumbled upon the Avery trade, and was generally uninterested; I figured it was another head-case that the Rangers didn't need, how wrong I was.
Avery instantly became a fan favorite. His style of play fits Rangers fans (and the teams) wants and needs perfectly. He is one of those rare players that can fight, agitate, hit and do all the dirty work for your team; and yet he has soft enough hands to be dangerous on the ice. You can hate him all you want, but you have to respect his skill as a hockey player. That's something you can't say about the Matt Cooke's or Donald Brashear's of the world.
While not a true enforcer, Avery has no issues with dropping the gloves. And although he wouldn't handle himself well with the few serious heavyweights left in the NHL, he does just fine with most everyone else. Avery is a "protector" of the team, but not necessarily an enforcer.
One of my favorite memories of Avery was back in 2007 when the New York Islanders had acquired Ryan Smyth. I was in class watching that "game tracker" on Yahoo, when I got a text from my Devils fan friend Andrew. "Avery just f***ed up Smyth." Needless to say, after class I ran back to my dorm, and watch replays. I've embedded the video here for you all to see. They don't show a great replay of it, but it was a pretty devastating crush that knocked Smyth's helmet off.
When Avery is kicking, he is one of the most invaluable players in the league. When he is on his game he throws other teams off their game, and gets their star players to worry more about him than the game itself. He goes after star players, he trash-talks all game and he seems to have this uncanny ability to hit all the right buttons to drive a man insane.
One of the best examples of this was in the 2007 playoffs when the Rangers swept the Atlanta Thrashers. Avery rode Ilya Kovalchuk all series, and it became apparent that Kovalchuk was more interested in getting back at Avery rather than worrying about the game. Eventually it boiled over and Kovalchuk finally snapped and tried to fight Avery.
The best part of all this? Just when critics start talking crap, saying that Avery is a punk who has no hockey sense, he bangs home two and adds an assist. He hustles, he is full of heart and he even played most of a playoff game against the Pittsburgh Penguins with a lacerated spleen.
Anyway, enough about memories, let's look towards what the Rangers need him to do this upcoming season. In a recent interview John Tortorella claimed that he "wasn't holding Avery back." And you know what? I can believe it. I think that everyone in the world -- especially Avery -- knows that he has exhausted all of his strikes with the NHL, and maybe that contributed to his tame style of play. There was also probably the initial "getting to know each other" period between a noted hard-ass coach in Tortorella, and a guy who constantly toes in the line in Avery.
The Rangers need that Avery back. And while we saw the good Avery in streaks last year, we also saw times when he was completely invisible. As I said before, the first true season under Tortorella is my assumption as to why Avery was "on his best behavior." And while that was okay last year, there is no doubt that the Rangers could have used the Avery of old in a ton of different games.
Avery's art is his ability to throw other teams off their game. Sometimes that becomes difficult when other teams have big time enforcers, who can easily manhandle a Rangers team, and do it without a smaller Avery being able to retaliate. But now that the Rangers have a true enforcer in Derek Boogaard, who can handle the other big time enforcer in the league, Avery should be able to do his work on a daily basis.
Adding into the mix Brandon Prust, who can do his own share of enforcing himself, the Rangers have a trio that will not only scare the hell out of, but effectively rough up other teams. Avery should be able to do his dirty work, and might even play on a line with Prust during the season. As is such, Prust can keep the flies off Avery as he roughs it up during scrums, or infuriates the opposition into insanity. Prust is a bigger part of this equation depending on the amount of ice time he happens to see. I don't expect Boogaard to play more than 5 minutes a game, but Prust is a guy that Tortorella leaned on last year, and he might find himself playing 10+ minutes a game.
Although not a real 2nd liner, he can soak up top line minutes, and even help on the power play in limited situations. He is a constant annoyance to Martian Brodeur, the entire city of Philadelphia (including every one of Flyers, I've never seen one guy piss off an entire team before) and basically every team and player in the NHL.
The Rangers could use some of that this season. Actually, so can Avery.