We pimp his work here whenever we can, but I've often maintained that Elliotte Friedman's "30 Thoughts" column is the best hockey column on the Internet. They often say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so let's imitate that column with a New York Rangers' spin. Also, we're going to add 20 more thoughts.
Here are some very preliminary thoughts for the Rangers entering the season since training camp officially begins today:
1) I think the perception of the Rangers' offseason - in terms of keeping the team together - looks worse than it actually was. The Rangers are still keeping five of their six defenseman. Both of their goalies. 10 of their top 12 forwards and one of their three fourth liners. Anton Stralman is the lone defenseman gone, Benoit Pouliot and Brad Richards are the two top-12 forwards and Brian Boyle and Derek Dorsett are the two fourth line guys who moved on.
2) The new faces? Kevin Hayes, Dan Boyle, Lee Stempniak, Matthew Lombardi, Ryan Malone and Tanner Glass. And a wealth of AHL depth, too. But the six named are the NHL moves. (Spare me the Glass isn't an NHL player chirps, please. I'm sick of them.)
3) And, of course, the biggest and brightest new face is rookie Kevin Hayes, who the Rangers lured away from 28 other teams when he opted not to sign with Chicago and become a free agent. For the Rangers, it's a brilliant move that brings a player with very high end talent on board who is only 22 years old. There's a reason teams were lined up out the door for this kid, and landing him was a major coup for Glen Sather and company.
4) The start of the season is going to be very interesting from an expectation standpoint. If the Rangers get off to a hot start there obviously won't be much panic, but if the Rangers struggle out of the gate again will fans allow Alain Vigneault time to right the ship (having learned from last year) or assume the offseason destroyed the team and spiral back into full-fledged panic? As always, time will tell.
5) This thought could use a column of its own (and it might get one), but I think it's safe to say we can expect Henrik Lundqvist to not struggle out of the gate. I think it's clear the contract was a burden on him, and once the extension was finished his numbers popped back up to normal. His 5v5 save percentage before the extension was 92.0%. After the extension it jumped up to 93.3%. Sure, you can chalk that up to coincidence or that he broke out of the slump himself (which might be partially true as well) but he's been good enough for long enough that you can certainly argue the talks messed with his focus.
6) Since we're on the topic of goalies: I think Cam Talbot plays a big role again this year. So long as last year wasn't a fluke (and I know it was a small sample size, but he certainly didn't look like a goalie who was getting lucky) I can see him playing close to 30 games this year. I know Lundqvist thrives when he's being worked, but he isn't getting any younger, and Talbot is a good opportunity for the Rangers to keep him fresher longer. Forget the playoffs, lessening his workload will keep Lundqvist in his physical prime longer than if he's run 70 games a year season after season.
7) Are we watching Talbot's last season as a Ranger? My gut tells me we are. He did great things last year, and I expect him to do the same this year, but he's going to probably want a starting role someplace and it's not coming from New York. He might not be able to find that elsewhere either, but my guess is a team will be willing to offer him more money than the Rangers will when he becomes an UFA next summer.
8) We have talked about this, but this upcoming season is going to be a very make or break year for J.T. Miller. We'll get a good look at how the coaching staff views Miller by whether or not he makes the team out of camp (before Hayes came on board, I would have called him the easy favorite to replace Richards as the third line center) and then how he's used if he is with the big club. Miller dominated the AHL last year on a really bad Wolf Pack team. Like, so bad the Rangers made it a priority to fix the AHL this summer.
9) If you remember, last year Vigneault called Miller out on his "commitment." The coach said Miller needed to "figure it out" and if he didn't "he'll be a good minor-leaguer." Those were harsh words from a guy who came into New York preaching a clean slate, so whatever it was happened recently. As I thought back on it while writing this story, I don't ever remember Vigneault calling out a player so publicly to the media. Whatever he said, it seemed to work, though. Miller continue to tear up the AHL; and if he didn't get injured against Montreal, he would have seen the ice more in the Eastern Conference Finals and the Stanley Cup Final. I would think he's moved passed the issue -- although the Rangers' hand was forced with injuries -- but we'll see.
10) I've been questioned a lot about referring to Miller as a player with a "higher offensive ceiling." People love to point to his 10 points in 56 NHL games and tell me how wrong I am. However, Miller has been at or above a point-per-game player at the USDP (54 points in 53 games), OHL (62 points in 61 games) and last year in the AHL. His rookie year with the then Connecticut Whale saw him score 23 points in 42 games. Then he improved significantly last year. I know it's juniors and AHL-level numbers, but it's all we really have to sample. Miller didn't play a significant enough role -- most of this is due to his issues defensively -- in those 56 NHL games to use them as an argument one way or another. I think he's going to figure it out at the NHL level and I think he's going to be a player the Rangers are very happy with so long as he works through that commitment issue (if he hasn't already).
11) Last thought on Miller: The Rangers got 51 points out of Richards last year. Since we're slotting names into replacement roles, Miller is the Richards replacement for now unless Hayes unseats him (which might happen. If Miller plays a full 82 games for the Rangers as the third line center he should be able to make up some of that offense. Could Miller be a 40-point player his first full year in the AHL. It wouldn't shock me -- especially with the talent he'll inevitably play with. However, I think it's unrealistic to rely on him being a 50-point player out of the gate.
12) Before Hayes came on board the only player I could see giving Miller a run for his spot on the team was Oscar Lindberg. There are some people who aren't sure Lindberg's offensive numbers from the SHL are going to translate to the NHL. He had a rough start to the season with the Pack before tearing up the second half of the season. His defensive ability is miles above where Miller is, but I still think Miller has the higher offensive ceiling of the two in the NHL. As for Hayes, I truly believe he has the inside track over both of them if the Rangers want to deploy him as a center.
13) If you're Vigneault and you have a choice, which of the three do you pick (assuming all three play well enough to potentially make the team)? Do you play it a little safer and bank on Lindberg's defense while he works his way through a rookie season in the NHL? Do you throw Miller in there and bank on his offense while hoping he figures out the defensive side of things? Do you take Hayes -- who is responsible in his own end as well -- and see if he makes a big jump right out of college? It's a good problem to have. There isn't an easy answer.
14) I think Hayes makes the team out of camp. I'd be shocked if he didn't, actually. With that being said, I'm not sure I see a way both Lindberg and Miller make the team out of camp as well. The only way it really works is if Glass is used as the 13th forward (preferable) or is Lombardi doesn't make the team at all. And for some reason I can't shake this feeling Lombardi slots on the fourth line and surprises a lot of people.
15) Until the Rangers inked Stempniak, I really thought Danny Kristo was going to have a shot at being a Pouliot replacement. The strategy is simple enough to figure out: Add a little scoring ability to a line with two dominant passers. With Stempniak on board, I'm not sure Kristo has a spot available for him.
16) And, of course, now that Hayes is in the fold Kristo is all but done as a Ranger. I wouldn't be shocked if the Rangers quietly looked to trade him away while he still had some value, especially if he doesn't make the team out of camp. Especially since he can walk next year for free. Hey, a 5th round pick is better than nothing, right?
17) Stempniak is an interesting player. His fancy stats are very similar to Pouliot, so it makes sense for him to be slotted with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello on the team's third line. Stempniak has always been a hot and cold player, going through point-per-game stretches before trailing off. It will be interesting to see how Vigneault utilizes him. Either way, players who drive possession should be coveted, and the Rangers got Stempniak for $3.1-million and four years cheaper than Pouliot got with Edmonton.
18) Stempniak might find himself on the fourth line thanks to Hayes jumping on board, though. If he slots on the third line (along with Miller) there isn't really room for Stempniak anywhere else. Can he handle those kinds of minutes?
19) There is another school of thought for the third line. Why not throw a player like Rick Nash or Martin St. Louis there? Two players who can rifle the puck and would benefit from two pass-first players. Hell, Kreider might look amazing there, as well. Zuccarello led the team last year in set-up passes and Brassard wasn't far behind. Might make sense.
20) With that being said, I doubt very highly the Rangers break up the Kreider - Stepan - Nash line.
21) Zuccarello's one-year contract holds some risks, but there is one major thing it does that is a huge positive for the Rangers. It forces Zuccarello to play for a payday. Not that Zuccarello has attitude or commitment issues (he doesn't) but it's always nice to have a little extra incentive.
22) The Rangers can begin a negotiation with Zuccarello for an extension after 1/1. Mid-season extensions have been done in the past with bigger names (Lundqvist being the biggest) but it is always a cause for concern as time drags on. That UFA date is nothing but leverage to Zuccarello, and he knows there will be an enormous payday if he gets to the open market. The team knows it, too.
23) Depending on his start, Zuccarello might try to speed up or slow down the negotiations for an extension. If he's scored 30 points in 40 games, you better believe he's pushing for a contract extension now. If he scores 20 points in 40 games, maybe he holds off a little to give himself more time. That will be interesting.
24) Despite all the risks, I can't see Zuccarello leaving Broadway. He's shown a serious commitment to the team every step of the way. Doesn't mean it can't happen, it just means I would be surprised if it did.
25) Back to Stepan for a moment, now that he'll be participating in a full training camp and all the pre-season games, I don't expect him to get off to a slow start like he did last year. I really thought his playoff performance was a little eye opening. A lot of people will point to his 15 points in 24 playoff games, but Stepan played a pretty vital defensive role all through the playoffs and thrived there. I really do think we're going to see a big year from him.
26) Another player I'm expecting a big year from? Chris Kreider. There's going to be a far more expensive story on this a little deeper into training camp, but I really think Kreider's going to take the leap this year. He had 13 points in 15 playoffs games; but outside of the points, the team got much better when he came back. That's about as high of a compliment as I can give a player.
27) We've talked a lot about Nash this summer. We graded his past. We talked about how the Rangers need him. We even looked to see how many top players it takes to win. Basically, the Rangers need Nash. He had a poor offensive showing in the playoffs, but that doesn't mean he didn't make a positive impact. Whatever, we've argued this enough, let's move on.
28) I'll argue that Hayes was the most important acquisition for the team in a big picture way. He'll make a positive impact this year (I think) and then he's a player of the future as well. It was a coup by Sather to even get him, and sometimes when I think about it or watch his highlights I really can't believe he pulled it off.
29) Outside of Hayes, I think Boyle is the newest player with the highest expectations. The Rangers have needed a true power play quarterback since Brian Leech was traded away. They've gotten close a few times -- and it does appear as though McDonagh could be heading down that road as well -- but Boyle is an elite puck moving defenseman who should be a big addition to the power play .
30) When the Rangers acquired him, I went back and watched some highlights of the Sharks' power play. The biggest thing I love about Boyle's presence at the point is his shot. It's hard and accurate, and he knows when to use it. If nothing else, having him at the blue line will keep the opposing unit from collapsing down low and will create more space for the guys on the half boards, in the slot or (hopefully) in front of the net.
31) With Boyle at the helm the Sharks power play has either lead the NHL or been damn close to the top in terms of shot generation. A lot of that has to do with the way he moves the puck at the top. And generating more shots is a pretty easy way to help make a power play better.
32) Another good thing for the power play? Kreider. When he was in front of the net last year the power play was leaps and bounds better. He's a big body who can screen the goalie and he's strong enough to force his own space in that area of the ice. His hands are good enough in close that he can make things happen and he can always slide to the outside and use that lethal shot whenever he gets the chance. Boyle shooting more from the point will help here too.
33) The power play is all well and good, but the penalty kill took a pretty big hit last year. I'm going to ignore Ryan Callahan's departure, since the penalty kill didn't miss a beat after he was traded. But Boyle and Stralman? They're both gone and they played enormous (in Boyle's case) and pretty big (in Stralman's case) roles on the PP unit.
34) Moore and Hagelin played the most extensive PK minutes last year in terms of forwards not named Boyle. I would expect their workload to increase a little (Boyle only averages 20 more seconds a game than both of them). Vigneault has never been afraid of putting guys like Nash or Stepan out there, either, so we might see more of that, too.
35) Here's something I've said before but I think I need to reiterate. I would have rather kept both Brian Boyle and Dominic Moore this summer. But IF I HAD to choose one of them, I would have chosen Moore. He's a better offensive player, is just as good in his own zone and is very simply the better player overall.
36) One of the shiniest moments of Moore's fantastic season last year was him replace Stepan on the top line when Stepan had his jaw broken by Brandon Prust. Moore filled in seamlessly -- although didn't pack the same offensive punch -- and the line really didn't miss much of a beat. I don't think Boyle would have been able to do that.
37) On the Ryan Malone situation: I like the pick up. Malone is basically the Dustin Penner addition everyone was demanding. He's a big body who can find the back of the net. The Rangers low-balled the hell out of him and he took it anyway. Sather loves the reclamation projects and Malone -- especially at his salary -- might be a real steal if he works out.
38) And just to reiterate my last point: If he works out. He might not even make the team this year, so who knows if he will be a steal or not. No matter what happens, he doesn't hurt the team at all. This is literally an all upside move. His salary is low enough that if he's buried in Hartford it doesn't count against the NHL cap. There's no downside here. None.
39) Let's move on to some of the other guys who are going to be fighting for a roster spot, mainly Glass. I've speculated about this a couple of times, but it seems like the Rangers have done everything in their power as an organization to keep Glass out of the lineup. Bringing in Hayes (which the team simply had to do) is a big part of this, but so is adding guys like Stempniak, Lombardi and especially Malone. Where does Glass fit in if those three players make the team?
40) And to be fair, I fully expect Stempniak to make the team. I'm pretty certain Lombardi is going to as well. Malone is something of a crap-shoot, but even with Lombardi and Stempniak on the roster, Glass' role becomes even more finite.
41) I think a lot of people expect Anthony Duclair to make this team. I'm not so sure he even has a real chance, to be honest. And that has nothing to do with his talent, but it does have to do with the pieces the Rangers already have in place. Duclair might open up some eyes at training camp (actually, I fully expect him to do this) but he would really need to blow the coaches away to force them to push that nine-game NHL limit.
42) That note doesn't have anything to do with his future, though. I still maintain Duclair is going to be a special, special player in this league. And next year I think he's pretty much a lock.
43) The other player that's going to be special, special? Pavel Buchnevich. He's not going to be at training camp, since he's on the final year of his KHL contract, but that doesn't mean he's not impressing overseas. He has seven points in seven KHL games. As a 19 year old. He's playing over 18 minutes a game. If you don't know, those numbers are ludicrous for a 19 year old in that league. So is this pass. And this one. Next year he's crossing the pond and it's going to be amazing.
44) The one other guy who isn't at training camp but is at the top of the Rangers' farm is Brady Skjei. Skjei is returning to college for his junior year, in part to rectify his team's failure to win a national championship last year. Skjei will probably go pro next year where we can dissect him further. Another year in the NCAA ranks to season won't be the worst thing in the world for him.
45) There are other names on that training camp list that stand out. We've already talked about how this might be Kristo's last shot -- and the deck is severely stacked against him -- but he isn't the only one. Marek Hrivik always seems to impress this time of year before just missing making the team and then getting forgotten about until the next training camp. He's a big body who can be a net presence, but like Kristo, I just don't see him getting past the guys in front of him.
46) Michael St. Croix is also on that list. After dominating the WHL after the Rangers drafted him, he had trouble even staying in the AHL last year. This might be his last shot to even prove he belongs in the AHL.
47) Another player like St. Croix? Andrew Yogan. He jumped from the AHL to the ECHL last year as well. And while his numbers in the ECHL were dominant, the Wolf Pack were so bad last year that not being able to stick with the team is a heavier blow than it might seem on the surface.
48) I do not think this is a make or break year for Dylan McIlrath. Yell at me. Say what you want. I'm maintaining that he's a year behind on his development thanks to that knee injury caused by Kyle Jean, and that bigger defenseman take longer to develop. Sue me.
49) Conor Allen has a chance to open eyes at camp this year. He did a lot of impressing last year in the AHL, and even got a mid-year call up for three games where he didn't look totally out of place. But, much like Kristo, where is the room for him? It's not as a 7th defenseman, since that would stunt his development. So the only answer is to send him back to the AHL. Unlike Kristo, however, I do think Allen might have an NHL future with the Rangers. It's a slim shot with McIlrath and Skjei fighting for a spot with him, but it's there.
50) Thew goalie invites to camp range from already made the team (Lundqvist and Talbot) to AHL depth and they know it (Jason Missiaen and Cedrick Desjardins) to prospects who know they're going back to juniors (Brandon Halverson and Mackenzie Skapski). Kind of sad to be on that middle list.
That's about all I can crank out for now. Most of this will obviously become old news in maybe even a few hours.
Celebrate, guys, hockey is back!