30 in 15: Rangers must address personnel issues
Wednesday, 09.25.2013 / 3:00 AM
For a team featuring so many established NHL players, the New York Rangers have a lot of compelling question marks coming into the 2013-14 season. It all starts with new coach Alain Vigneault, who will be expected to jumpstart a Rangers offense that had trouble scoring at times last season. He'll also need to improve a struggling power play that ranked 23rd in the League.
But there are also a number of key elements to the team's roster to consider. Especially up front, where it appears the Rangers could start the season without their entire first line. Throw in the saga of Brad Richards, who struggled mightily in the second season of a nine-year Rangers contract, and there could be plenty of dramatic subplots surrounding this team. All in all, it's the perfect recipe for Broadway.
Here are three things to keep an eye on as the Rangers break training camp and head into the regular season.
1. How quickly can the Rangers learn the new system? -- Adapting to an entirely new coaching staff and a new system is challenging for any team. That may especially be the case with the Rangers and coach Vigneault, whose freewheeling game plan is expected to be a major departure from the conservative system former coach John Tortorella installed.
If the Rangers can adapt to it quickly, it could suit them well. Veteran players like Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello should flourish in this system, which should also help youngsters like Chris Kreider find their game. But the greatest beneficiary of Vigneault's arrival could be Richards. (More to come on him.)
Early indications are the process could take some time. With five total goals in their first three preseason games, New York didn't exactly look like the high-flying Canucks teams Vigneault led in Vancouver. What's more, the team will be playing their first nine regular season games on the road as Madison Square Garden undergoes renovations. But despite the growing pains, the team still has high expectations for the upcoming season.
"If you just ask me, I want to win. That's going to be the goal and that's going to be my mindset going in," goaltender Henrik Lundqvist told NHL.com. "Hopefully when we sit down and talk, the entire team together during camp, I think we all can agree that winning is the only goal here."
2. How long will New York be without their top line? -- The Rangers got hot at the perfect time last season, going 10-3-1 in April to secure the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. That run was keyed in large part by the energy and physicality of the team's top line, which consists of captain Ryan Callahan, Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin. Heading into their opening-night game against the Phoenix Coyotes, it appears as if all three forwards could be missing from the lineup.
Callahan and Hagelin both underwent offseason shoulder surgery and appear unlikely to be back for the start of the season. Both have been skating through training camp, but neither seems ready to take on full contact in practices or games.
"I've started shooting now. Me and Hags are doing drills together," Callahan told MSG during a recent team scrimmage. "It's progressing the way it should. Everything is on time."
Callahan and Hagelin are expected to be back at some point in the season's opening month, but the situation is far more uncertain with Stepan. A restricted free agent, the team's top center still has yet to sign a new contract with the Rangers. Until that contract is signed, the situation appears to be in a holding pattern.
One thing that is for certain, though, is the Rangers will need their top line back if they hope to compete at a high level.
3. Can Brad Richards find his old form? -- It was a running theme to the 2012-13 Rangers season. What is wrong with Brad Richards? Save for two week-long stretches when he appeared unstoppable, the center had great difficulty contributing. The fact this came in the second season of a nine-year, $60 million contract made it even more alarming.
Richards finished with 34 points in 46 games, but his inconsistency led to much speculation that the Rangers would use their second compliance buyout on the veteran center and the seven remaining years on his contract. New York decided not to buy him out, giving another chance to a player who at times looked great, especially playing alongside Zuccarello. But in the end, he was a healthy scratch for New York's final two playoff games against the Boston Bruins.
Vigneault's new open system could potentially give Richards an opportunity to find his game again. So far in training camp, the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner has made it clear that he's focusing solely on the upcoming season and not the past.
"Alain has been great. He's had a lot of conversations with the returning guys. We're trying to get to know what he wants and how things work," Richards said at the beginning of training camp. "I'm going to go out and play. I need to regroup. That will just push me. Either way, it's a new season. I've really put all that in the past."