Today is the official release of SB Nation's 2014-2015 season preview. The three biggest questions surrounding each team are asked in the preview, and every team site is answering them separately on their own corners of the web. The below are the answers for the New York Rangers questions I asked in my preview of the team.
1. Are Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller (or both) ready for a bigger role with the team?
If the two preseason games are any indication, Miller is absolutely ready for the open third line center position. Miller has come to camp far more polished than last year, and he's seemingly putting it together before our very eyes. He has a goal and two assist in the two preseason games so far, and Alain Vigneault will have him play again Monday night against the Flyers. If nothing else, he's giving Miller a shot to prove the spot is his to lose.
Is Miller ready for that role? Well, Derek Stepan's injury has opened the door for a few kids who might not have had a real chance before. If Miller does grab the 3C position, one can easily make a case for Hayes to move to the wing (which Vigneault has already talked to him about) and potentially playing on that line as well. Hayes had a pretty good showing in his only preseason game thus far, having a quiet first period before showing his potential in the third.
Names you can add to this question are Anthony Duclair (a goal and an assist in his first preseason game), Oscar Lindberg (an up and down showing so far in camp) and Jesper Fast (a goal against the New Jersey Devils on Monday); all of whom might make the team with Stepan's offense on the shelf for 4-6 weeks.
Are the kids ready for bigger roles? I'd say Miller looks ready, but in the end, none of them may have much of a choice.
2. Will the Rangers improvements to their power play roster make a difference?
This is still a difficult question to answer, since we don't know who is going to make the team or see time with the man advantage. So instead let's make an assumption based off of what the Rangers have right now.
Glen Sather brought in Dan Boyle this summer, a move that irked many fans since it came at the expense of Anton Stralman. Boyle's role isn't just going to be to replace Stralman on the second pairing, but also to quarterback the team's power play. It's very clear Boyle's best days are behind him; but even so, he is going to be the best puck moving defenseman the Rangers have on at their blue line in a long time.
The hope is Boyle's expertise and experience is going to help the Rangers find more consistency with the man advantage which will lead to more shots generated. A full season of Chris Kreider in front of the net will also help; and if Ryan Malone makes the team he fits this mold as well.
With Boyle at the point Vigneault was confident enough to have him at the line by himself, running a 1-3-1 power play. That will leave more room for players to fill the slot and park in front of the net. Martin St. Louis can help run the power play from the half-boards, and a physically and mentally healthy Rick Nash will help in terms of crashing the net.
3. Was last year a fluke? Or can the Rangers really build off that Stanley Cup Final run?
This is the biggest question of all. Depending on who you ask, the Rangers are either better than where they were last year, or far worse, with basically no in between.
Here's something the Rangers will automatically benefit from last year's run: The youth will grow. The Rangers had a slew of young players play major roles last year. Names like Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Carl Hagelin, Kreider, John Moore and even guys like Derick Brassard, Marc Staal and Mats Zuccarello can all expect to grow and improve from last year. There's no way to get the experience of a Stanley Cup run without going through it, which the Rangers did last year.
Knowing what it's like can be half the battle in the playoffs, which is a payoff the Rangers have already earned from last year.
The Rangers still have Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes, five of the six defenseman who suited up last year and most of their top nine in tact. The bottom three took a pretty significant hit, which is important since the fourth line played grueling defensive minutes under Vigneault last year.
The fourth line might actually be the biggest issue this year, especially with Stepan's injury. In the playoffs, Stepan, Nash and Kreider took on tougher matchups because they could handle it. With Stepan out, the Rangers are going to make tough decisions about which lines they can shelter and which they need to expose to tougher minutes. This is especially true if Dominic Moore joins Nash and Kreider on the top line.
So can the Rangers be the team they were last year? I'm an optimist, but I do think the Rangers have the pieces in place to make a similar run. The biggest issue is how lard it is to make it to the Cup Final. You need the right amount of luck, getting hot and skill to all come together in perfect harmony. The Rangers had it happen last year, but it's never easy.