2011-12 was a great season for the New York Rangers, possibly their best season since winning the Stanley Cup in 1994. They went to the third round of the playoffs for the first time since 1997, recorded more points than they have in a year since 1994, and put up a plus-39 goal differential, their best since the lockout. They showed themselves a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Will they rise or fall from their current position?
The Rick Nash Trade
With all due respect to Artem Anisimov and Brandon Dubinsky, it’s very clear that the addition of Rick Nash should make the New York Rangers better in the here-and-now. New York swapped those two forwards, plus prospect Tim Erixon and a first-round draft pick in a deal that saw them add another dynamic offensive weapon to the team.
Nash is used to playing against the best possible opponents, often with a less than stellar supporting cast in the tougher Western Conference, and has come out ahead. Now he’ll join a deeper team with more varied offensive weapons. He’s averaged 32 goals/season over his nine year career. Allowing for games missed and ignoring his rookie season, that number jumps to 37 goals per 82 games. He’ll certainly help take some of the focus of Marian Gaborik.
Anisimov and Dubinsky – particularly the latter – both fared well in supporting roles. Neither, however, compares favourably to Nash.
Nash joins a group that already features some significant stars as well as up-and-comers. Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik are the headliners. Gaborik scored 41 goals last season and has not failed to hit at least 40 in every season where he’s played more than 70 games since the lockout. Richards contributed 41 assists, and has not failed to hit the 40-helper mark in any 70+ game season since the lockout, either. They’re joined by Ryan Callahan; the Rangers captain plays in all situations, including against the toughest opposition, and not only holds his own but also manages to chip in 20+ goals.
The young players are a bit of a work in progress. At this point in his career, Derek Stepan is more of a soft-minutes scorer than anything else (though he does kill penalties). Both he and rookie winger Carl Hagelin (64 games, 38 points, plus-21) had a disappointing post-season, combining for a single goal, but are big parts of the future. Chris Kreider made his NHL debut in the post-season; the 6’3” 21-year old was the Ranger’s first round pick in 2009 and contributed five goals to the cause.
The third and fourth lines are traditional checking/energy lines, but the group of forwards employed is pretty good. Brian Boyle excelled in a difficult role last season – he started just 28.8 percent of his non-neutral zone faceoffs in the offensive end – and is probably the best of the lot, but with veterans like Taylor Pyatt, Mike Rupp, Aaron Asham and Jeff Halpern all in the mix both lines should fare well.
The Rangers’ top-four is an excellent group, and the scary thing is that there’s absolutely no reason to believe that will change any time soon.
Dan Girardi led the team in playoff ice-time, and he’s the oldest of the quartet at 28. Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto are all between the ages of 22 and 25, and are already acquitting themselves well in tough-minutes work. Staal struggled with injury last season, missing 36 games and not playing to his full capability when in the lineup; the Rangers will greatly benefit from his return to full-time duty. Del Zotto, meanwhile, has ironed out some of the kinks, improving from a defensive liability with offence to spare to a useful two-way guy who can put up points, too.
The pairing of Girardi and McDonagh was the most vital, though. They took on the toughest competition, spent a surprising amount of time in their own zone (with each player starting more than 55 percent of his non-neutral zone shifts in his own end) and still managed to be on the ice for more shots for than against. They continued to prove their value in the post-season.
Stralman’s a useful number five, and the team has other options – including Matt Gilroy, who is expected to join the team when the lockout ends. They’d be better still if they got good news on Michael Sauer were to return from concussion; unfortunately there’s no indication that will happen any time soon.
In Henrik Lundqvist, the New York Rangers can boast a truly elite goaltender. His sustained excellence was rewarded last season, when Lundqvist won the Vezina trophy as the league’s top goaltender on the back of a career-best 0.930 save percentage. Since the NHL lockout, Lundqvist has on average managed to post a 0.920 save percentage, fifth among NHL goaltenders with at least 100 games played in that span. He’s also a workhorse, second only to Miikka Kiprusoff in terms of games played since 2005-06.
The likelihood is that Lundqvist overachieved in 2011-12, mostly on the penalty kill. In 2010-11, Lundqvist’s even-strength save percentage was 0.930 and his penalty killing percentage was 0.873; in 2011-12 those numbers moved to 0.933 and 0.905, respectively. The odds are good that Lundqvist will fall back to the 0.920 save percentage range, but even so he should provide outstanding work between the pipes.
Martin Biron wasn’t great last season, but even so is a good bet to be one of the league’s best backups once again.
Even if Henrik Lundqvist takes a small step back, the Rangers should be in the thick of the championship hunt once again. The addition of Nash adds needed dynamism to a team that finished 11th in regular season scoring but had difficulty getting goals in the post-season. Add that to an exceptional top pairing, good depth both up front and on the back end, and one of the best goalies in the game and this team should hang with the best of them.