Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Team Preview: New York Rangers

Key additions: Kevin Weekes, G (FA - CRL); Martin Straka, C/LW (FA - PIT); Michael Nylander, C (FA - BOS); Martin Rucinsky, LW (FA - VAN); Steve Rucchin, C (T - ANA); Marek Malik, D (FA - VAN); Ville Nieminen, RW/LW (FA - CGY); Michal Rozsival, D (FA - PIT); Jason Ward, RW (FA - MTL); Jason Strudwick, D (FA - CHI); Joe Rullier, D (FA - LAK); Hugh Jessiman, LW/RW (D - 2003, 1/12); Alvaro Montoya, G (D - 2004, 1/6); Henrik Lundqvist, G (D - 2000, 7/205)

Key losses: Bobby Holik, C (FA - ATL); Eric Lindros, C (FA - TOR); Jan Hlavac, LW (FA - Europe); Mike Dunham, G (FA - ATL); Karel Rachunek, D (FA- Europe); Boris Mironov, D (FA); Josh Green, C (FA - Europe); Joel Bouchard, D (FA - NYI); Sandy McCarthy, RW (FA); Chris McAllister, D/LW (FA - PHX); Lawrence Nycholat, D (FA - WSH); Stepehn Valiquette, G (FA -Europe); Ken Gernander, RW (Retired); Trevor Gillies, LW/D (T - ANA); Jason Labarbera, G (FA - LAK); Pavel Bure, RW (Retired)

Key player unsigned: Mark Messier, C

Forwards: Talk about turnover, of their projected top 12 forwards only Jamie Lundmark and Rucinsky were in the Rangers lineup on opening night, 2003, and Rucinsky was traded to Vancouver in March of 2004 before re-signing with the Blueshirts in the offseason. New York has jetissoned a number of high salaries since the start of the 2003-04 season, but has taken on a few as well, including the highest of them all, Jaromir Jagr's (though the Capitals are paying a portion of that salary). The Rangers have good depth down the middle in Straka (who will also see time at wing), Nylander and Rucchin, but are weak on the wings, with the exception of Jagr. Rucinsky had 14 goals in 2003-04. Straka had ten. Lundmark (who will also play some center) had two. Ward and the pesky Nieminen, five each. Jed Ortmeyer had two. Jozef Balej had one. The Rangers presumably will have a productive power play (since it is the only situation in which Jaromir Jagr puts forth more than a minimal effort these days), but it is difficult to see this team as one that will score a ton of goals at even strength unless kids like Lundmark, Balej, Ortmeyer or Jessiman step up considerably.

Defensemen: The turnover on the blueline hasn't been as drastic, but the turnovers by the blueline may be in 2005-06. Tom "Poke Check" Poti is a talented offensive player, but often makes poor decisions and leaves an awful lot to be desired in his play in his own end, especially given his 6-3, 215-pound frame. A Ranger since March, 2002, Poti is the longest tenured player on the team (assuming Messier does not return). Darius Kasparaitis is everything that Poti is not - a hard-hitting usually-responsible defenseman with no offensive skills to speak of (25 goals in 774 career games). Remarkably, Kasparaitis was +11 on a Ranger team that surrendered the fourth most goals in the League in 2003-04. Rachunek's decision to stay in Europe really hurts the Rangers, as he would have been the team's best two-way defenseman. Now 22-year-old Fedor Tyutin may be the Rangers best all-around defenseman. The 6-5 Malik is a solid defensive defenseman (he tied Martin St. Louis with a league-leading +35 rating in 2003-04), though overpaid at $2.5 million. Beyond this adequate top-four, however, the Rangers have nothing but question marks. The team's website lists Strudwick and Dale Purinton as the only other two defensemen on the roster, and neither of them is good enough to deserve regular minutes in the NHL. Rozsival hasn't played in the NHL since 2002-03, but is a much better option than either. Youngsters Maxim Kondratiev (acquired from Toronto in the Brian Leetch trade) and Thomas Pock may not be quite ready either, but the team might be well-served by giving them some playing time at the NHL level.

Goaltenders: Where have you gone, Mike Richter?* Since Richter's last game in 2002-03, the Rangers have used seven different goalies, with Weekes and whoever gets the job backing him up (likely Lundqvist) undoubtedly making it nine before Halloween. Weekes, an inconsistent goalie who is now with his sixth NHL organization, was great for Carolina in the first half of 2003-04 (1.97 GAA, .923 SV%, 5 SO), but finished the year with good-but-not eye-popping numbers and a GAA under 2.55 for the first time in his NHL career. A goals against of just over 2.50 and a save percentage near .910 seem likely for Weekes in his first (only?) season in the Big Apple. Weekes is only a placeholder, however, as the Rangers have two good prospects in goal in Lundqvist and Montoya. Lundqvist led the Swedish Elite League in save percentage (.936) and goals against average (1.79) for the third straight year in 2004-05 and captured the League's MVP award. Expect to see Lundqvist this year, perhaps even wrestling the starting job away from Weekes for a stretch of time or two. Montoya is still a couple of years away from consistent NHL work.

Bottom line: Will the Rangers ever learn? In the NHL (and in most salary-capped professional sports leagues), mediocrity breeds mediocrity. In order to get good, teams first must get bad. Real bad. The Penguins know this. The Capitals know this. Why don't the Rangers? The team should have bought out Jagr and Kasparaitis when they had the chance, and $3 million contracts to Martins Straka and Rucinsky were just plain stupid (even if these fellow Czechs keep Jagr happy). The Rangers could conceivably make a run at a playoff spot this year, but even if they get in, they're not going to scare anyone. Teams must dive headlong into a rebuilding process for it to be successful. Right now this is an expensive team ($34+ million already, with more than half of that tied up in the four players mentioned above) that simply is not very good. But they're also not very bad. As a result, they will be largely the same next year and for the years to come: mediocre.

* contractual obligation fulfilled by mentions of Richter, Leetch and Messier in article on the Rangers

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