Thursday, October 04, 2007

NHL Preview: From Broadway to the Motor City

The waiting is over...well, sort of. While most of New York's sports fan tune in to the Yankees (who will beat the tribe in four), the New York Rangers will kick off their much anticipated 2007-2008 season tonight at home against the Florida Panthers. It's been five months since the Blueshirts were eliminated by the Buffalo Sabres and as is the norm in the National Hockey League, the roster has been shuffled. Enter Scott Gomez and Chris Drury.

The first day of free agency on July 1, saw G.M. Glen Sather nab the two most coveted prizes on the unrestricted free agent market. These signings were different than past U.F.A.s the Broadway Blues have grabbed. We're not talking an over-the-hill Val Kamensky, or a "we have no idea how to use you correctly," Bobby Holik. No, these two are proven winners. With the signings the bar has been unquestionably raised. The Rangers are now in year three of their rebuilding mode. They've mostly gotten away from Mark Messier's huge shadow, although, Don Maloney would still be here had it not been for the Messiers declaring the G.M.'s position, "Mark's for the taking when Glen is gone." But that's all for another day, let's look at the Rangers and we'll also skate around the rest of the National Hockey League with some picks that may cause your Zamboni to jam. OK, 'nuff cheesy hockey jokes. Let's drop the puck:

Henrik Lundqvist has done so much his first two years in the league it's pretty astounding. He's won 30 games or more each season, was a finalist for the Vezina, and backstopped Sweden to Olympic Gold in 2006. So what's next? I expect "King" Henrik to win the Vezina this year and lead the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals. When you watch Lundqvist you see a guy who gets better and better through each N.H.L. experience. In some ways, he reminds me of Martin Brodeur, in that he loves to play a lot of games and he's got a pretty laid back even keel personality. All Rangers' fans would love to see Henrik mirror Brodeur's success. There's no doubt that Henrik is the Rangers' number one, and he'll have two capable backups when he needs a breather. Stephen Valiquette will be the Rangers' number two man. Meanwhile, Al Montoya will most certainly see some action as well. Montoya earned a spot coming out of camp, however, it just doesn't make sense for the 22-year-old to sit. He'll get plenty of minutes in Hartford and then maybe take an Amtrak into Penn Station from time to time to give Henrik a rest.

The Rangers defense is better as a unit than as singular entities. Marek Malik will make some costly gaffes, but he'll still be atop the league in the +/- category. Michael Rozsival continues to improve but needs to shoot more especially when the team has a power play. His low slap shot from one of the points creates juicy rebounds that I'm sure the forwards will love to pounce upon. Dan Girardi enters his first full season and was stellar down the final few months of last season. He was one of the reasons why New York turned their season around. Fedor Tyutin needs to break out this year. We've seen flashes of brilliance from "Toots" but now that he has a full-time regular partner in Girardi, he's got the green light to jump into the play and make something happen. Paul Mara was awful in Boston, and superb in New York while splitting his time last season between the two storied cities. So which Mara will we see this year? Jason Strudwick provides good stability and can play forward. He also writes a really good blog, too. Thomas Pock may be the odd man out. For some reason, Head Coach Tom Renney doesn't show much faith in the 24-year-old. I have no idea why, either. The main d-man everyone wants to see is Marc Staal. Staal, 20, made history last season with the Sudbury Wolves when he was the first player from a losing team to win the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award as the Ontario Hockey League's postseason M.V.P. Staal is 6'4, 240, and can hit, sees the ice well, and has a modest offensive game that is reportedly getting better all the time. I hope the Rangers don't put too much pressure on Staal to be their blueline's rock. In time he will be, but this year the Rangers may need to incorporate, dare I say "Staal's Rules." The point is that Staal's development should not preclude New York from going out and making a deal for a vet to bolster their backline.

This is where it gets fun! We know everything runs through Jaromir Jagr who had a full summer to work out and get ready for the season. Last year, he was recouping from shoulder surgery. Jagr has said he will only play for another year or two and he's desperate to win another Stanley Cup. Jagr will have a monstrous season, no matter which centerman he ends up flanking. That leads us to the prized duo: Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. Gomez put up 13 goals last season with New Jersey, and 33 the year before. I'd pencil Gomez for about 25. The danger is that Rangers' fans are going to expect a ton of offense from him due to his "gee, isn't America great" $10 million bonus-filled salary for this year. But being an offensive wiz is just not his game. Gomez carries the puck a great deal, which means if things are going bad, that's the signal for the boo birds to come out at M.S.G. Asking Gomez to do too much offensively, could mean that he'll give up some of his defensive attributes. I hope not. Ditto Drury. Mr. Clutch we'll score, and score some big goals. But he's more of a gritty, in your face, type of player. Brendan Shanahan had a fabulous first year performance on Broadway, and looks to continue to lead this team deep into the playoffs. Shanny will turn 39 in January but he showed last year he's still one of the top forwards in the game. The key will be for Renney not to overplay Shanahan in order to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Sean Avery brings his abrasive style of play back to New York after an arbitration hearing that hurt Avery's feelings. Gimme a break, Sean. You've gotta have thicker skin than that, otherwise YOU sir will have to change your name. Avery was another player who helped to turn last season around for the Rangers. He'll most likely be a winger, but is also very good at center ice. Avery needs to keep his mouth under control in order for this to work. But he drives the opposition nuts, especially Martin Brodeur. The third line for the Rangers should bring the Garden crowd to its feet with its energy, intensity, and hopefully its goal scoring: Ryan Callahan and Petr Prucha will be centered by Brandon Dubinsky. These three youngsters are a high-octane line that was partially together last season. Prucha and Callahan were centered by Matt Cullen, who has since been traded back to Carolina. Dubinsky saw some action in the playoffs and showed some grit, but no goals. Callahan is one player the entire N.H.L. will have to take notice of. He loves to shoot the puck, and quite often he scores when he does. He also can fight and drives to the net on every shift. Martin Straka, Ryan Hollweg, Colton Orr, Blair Betts and Marcel Hossa round out the forward corps. Straka will start the season on the top line with Jagr and Drury. He can also play center. The most important thing for Renney to do is to find a suitable role for Straka and Hossa.




Has there ever been a team in any sport that had two men who hailed from Alaska? Quick, someone call Elias, and no not Patrick. Dubinsky and Gomez both are natives of that great state.

Every team in the Atlantic division has improved and has also bulked up. This may not be like the old Patrick Division, but it's going to be close. Still, I like the Rangers to finally win the division after falling short the last two seasons. Sidney Crosby is said to be in better condition than last year, which spells bad news for the rest of the N.H.L. Pittsburgh needs to learn to play defense, however. Philly and Daniel Briere will really test the Rangers. New Jersey made a very astute move in naming Brent Sutter as their coach, and with Brodeur between the pipes they'll be dangerous. The Islanders added Mike Comrie and Bill Guerin among others. They'll definitely contend for a playoff spot.

It's Ottawa and then everyone else. So why did we exactly have a lockout when Buffalo would lose Briere and Drury anyway? Boston will be better and doesn't Marc Savard know how to pass. Montreal is a fun team to watch, but usually ends up on the wrong side of 5-4. Toronto is starting to become a punch line. Sorry, no disrespect meant to the late coach, George "Punch" Imlach.

Carolina is healthy and made a couple of wise pickups in the off-season, notably Matt Cullen. They'll battle Tampa Bay tooth and nail and indeed it will be the Hurricanes who will come out on top. Washington is better, but not quite ready for prime time. Florida is ho hum.

Detroit is a little long in the tooth in goal, but Dom Hasek should be one of the league's best this year. Nashville really disappointed in the playoffs. The ownership situation is a mess, but I don't think that we'll distract them from what has to be done on the ice. J.D. has done a nice job rebuilding St. Louis, but it won't be enough for the playoffs. Columbus has many talented players, but has difficulty staying healthy. Chicago: see Toronto.

Calgary has one of the best goalies in the league in Miikka Kiprusoff. Colorado has enough to push the Flames. Vancouver: Roberto Luongo and this talented bunch may take a step back. Minnesota: They play "put you to sleep hockey" but what else would you expect from Jacques Lemaire. Edmonton: Was it really worth getting Dustin Penner?

Anaheim. How will the champs defend their title? I say pretty well. Dallas. Love the Stars on the shootout. San Jose. Can Joe Thornton and the boys finally overtake the usual perennial favorites? Los Angeles. Movies anyone? Phoenix. Golf anyone?

Rangers over Penguins in 7.

Detroit beats San Jose in 6.

Rangers defeat Detroit in what else? 7

No comments: