As I watched Sergei Fedorov’s shot beat Henrik Lundqvist and the final buzzer sounded in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals between the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers, I knew changes were abound. This was not going to be the same team that I would see next year.
I am usually writing about my other favorite team on here, the Phoenix Coyotes, but I am going to offer some insight for my favorite team.
The main area of concern for Glen Sather and John Tortorella going into the offseason is scoring ability. The Rangers finished 28th in the league in scoring this year with just 200 goals, 10 more than the Colorado Avalanche who finished last and two more than their crosstown rivals, the New York Islanders. With only five 20 goal scorers, one of which arrived later in the season, the New York Rangers need to re-sign and look for new scoring talent.
With rumors of Markus Naslund retiring, the Rangers will have to replace their highest goal scoring forward on the year (technically Nik Antropov led the team in goal scoring but most of his goals were scored with the Toronto Maple Leafs). The veteran was brought in to provide goal scoring, which he did, but he was not meant to be the leader in goals. Chris Drury had only 22 goals on the year; a number that needs to be increased not only because his contract requires it but because of his skill. He may not be worth his contract but he is still a goal scorer and will be looked to improve on his totals from this year.
Obviously, part of the goal scoring woes of the New York Rangers were as a result of former head coach Tom Renney’s defense first system. The team would score one or two goals and then sit back playing a defensive game and relying on goaltender Lundqvist to win the game. However, too many teams found a way to beat the Rangers with speed and creativity as the defensive system was picked apart and the Rangers, who started out hot, fell lower in the standings and out of the playoff picture for a short time.
In comes John Tortorella who brings a much more aggressive style that focuses on an aggressive forecheck to generate opportunities. The Rangers began scoring a little more but the lack of natural goal scoring talent did not allow for this system to come to full fruition.
Before the Rangers dip into the unrestricted free agent pool, they need to re-sign some players. On the restricted free agent front the Rangers have a few players who absolutely need to be re-signed:
Brandon Dubinsky: The second year center surpassed his totals from his first year when he played with Jaromir Jagr, signs of development. While he did not score as much as some people may have wanted, his aggressive play in the offensive zone began to produce results as Tortorella’s system was implemented. He finished with 13 goals and 28 assists for 41 points in 82 games. Dubinsky is key to the future of the Ranger offense and needs to be re-signed.
Ryan Callahan: For anyone who watched the Rangers after Tortorella was hired by the Rangers, they know that Ryan Callahan was the best forward on the team and maybe the best player not named Henrik Lundqvist on the New York Rangers. Callahan finished the year with 22 goals and 18 assists for 40 points, his career high in the NHL. His physicality and determination was huge for the Rangers against the Washington Capitals as he showed just how John Tortorella wants his players to perform in his system. Callahan must be re-signed.
Fredrik Sjostrom: One bright spot for the New York Rangers this season was their penalty kill which finished first in the league at 87.8%. While Blair Betts gets most of the credit for making the penalty kill as good as it was, Fredrik Sjostrom was just as integral to making it work. He blocked shots and was aggressive against the power play. Thus far in his career, he has not had alot of chances to show off his offensive abilities; his strong skating and aggressive forecheck could work well in Tortorella’s system if he is given the shot. I would certainly re-sign him.
Another restricted free agent who is with the Rangers is young winger Lauri Korpikoski who has shown he can be good on the penalty kill as well. However, with young forwards coming up in the system and other players like him on the roster, he may be expendable.
One restricted free agent who I believe should be let go is Nikolai Zherdev. I believe that he has a very high talent level and he has shown flashes of it at times. However, after Tortorella took over he did almost nothing for the team offensively which is where he needs to be effective. He constantly turned the puck over and if he took a shot, it went wide. Many Ranger fans were excited when the Rangers traded for him but knowing about his problems with consistency in the past, I was not. He showed just how ineffective he can be.
However, that is not to say he can not work in another system elsewhere in the NHL. His value will be looked at by many other teams around the league and will throw an offer sheet at him. If Glen Sather is smart enough, which is in question considering some moves he has made, he will let Zherdev go for the compensation draft picks. Another route that Sather could go for is trading Zherdev’s rights at the NHL Draft and try to get a return there. Either way, Glen Sather should not bring Zherdev back to New York.
On the unrestricted free agent front, the Rangers have a few decisions to make.
Blair Betts: Would the New York Rangers have won Game 7 against the Capitals if Blair Betts was in the lineup? No one knows but the man was certainly key to the success of the Rangers this season, especially with the penalty kill. Betts does not put many pucks in the net but he can sure block them. He never gave up on any play and was a leader on the bench and on the ice as he fronted the league’s best penalty kill. I believe he should be brought back without a doubt.
Nik Antropov: One of the acquisitions at the trade deadline, Antropov was brought in to score goals and add size to a relatively small offensive attack. Big Nik had 13 points in the 18 games he played as a Ranger. Despite not being the best skater he used his size and reach to help himself in the offensive zone. He has a good wrist shot and can play the defensive side of the game as well. There was a report earlier in the year that he was only asking for $3 million from the Toronto Maple Leafs in terms of a new contract. Whether that is true or not will be seen in the near future but the Rangers should certainly keep Nik.
Derek Morris: The other big acquisition at the deadline was defenseman Derek Morris. A good all around defenseman, Morris showed good defensive skills and offense from the blueline. He was not afraid to shoot the puck with his low, heavy shot. Bringing solid defensive play over, Morris added depth to the blue line of the Rangers. His price tag may be too high for the Rangers but Morris should be looked at.
Paul Mara: If the Stanley Cup were decided on beard growing skills, Paul Mara would have won the Cup for the Rangers. However, he was relied on for his physical defensive style and leadership. Later in the year, he was used on the power play because of his heavy shot. He mentored young defenseman Marc Staal for much of the year and helped him develop a bit of an edge. A shoulder injury towards the end of the season may have limited Mara’s effectiveness but he was still good. He took a pay cut last offseason to stay in New York and may have to if he wants to stay again.
In terms of free agency, the Rangers may or may not have alot to work with. Because of the big contracts like Wade Redden, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez, and Henrik Lundqvist eating up much of the cap, the Rangers may not be as active as they would like to be. However there is a possibility to create room. If Markus Naslund retires, that will free up $4 million and if the Rangers can move a defenseman like Michal Rozsival, making $5 million, that will open up possibilities for the Rangers to work with. Scoring talent will be at the forefront of management’s head, especially on the wings. Here are a couple of realistic possibilities for New York considering their cap situation:
Taylor Pyatt: The young Canucks winger will be hitting unrestricted free agency this summer with general manager Mike Gillis focusing on Henrik and Daniel Sedin in the offseason. Despite a sub-par season, Pyatt has shown he can score in the NHL. He has size, which is something the Rangers need up front not to mention he is an effective skater. Scoring depth is an issue with the Rangers and Pyatt may help with that at an affordable price
Steve Sullivan: Ranger fans have not been very fond of signing older players who may be over the hill but Steve Sullivan is not one of those players. He has had injury problems in the past but has shown that he can still play in the NHL. Playing in 41 games this season, he had 11 goals and 21 assists for the Predators. He may not help in the size department but his speed and skill with the puck are more than enough to make up for his deficiencies physically. He may cost more than someone like Taylor Pyatt but he would be worth it.
Those are two names in the unrestricted pool that may be realistic possibilities for the Rangers. If New York is willing to give up assets to get players, there are a few restricted free agents who could be targets:
David Booth: The young forward from the Florida Panthers is a restricted free agent and will certainly garner attention from other teams. He had a break out year with the Panthers as he broke the 30 goal plateau in just his second year in the NHL. An offer sheet for him may come at a high price in terms of draft picks but it would be worth it considering Booth’s skill. His combination of speed and physicality would be perfect for Tortorella. However, the Rangers may be hoping that Ryan Callahan can become what David Booth has become.
Colby Armstrong: Another young forward who can score and forecheck, Armstrong was involved with the trade that brought Marian Hossa to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has a very similar style to Ryan Callahan as a hard worker and a physical style. Being good along the boards is key to Tortorella’s system and Armstrong has been known to do that. He would be a cheaper alternative to Booth but could be very effective with the Rangers.
As mentioned before, going after restricted free agents requires giving up compensation in the form of draft picks, based on the salaries offered. The Rangers have alot of money locked up in a few players which will make it hard for them to entice restricted free agents.
One other source of talent that the Rangers need to consider is their young players in their farm system. Artem Anisimov was the leading scorer of the Hartford Wolf Pack in the American Hockey League (AHL) and 5th overall in league scoring with 37 goals and 44 assists. He got some playing time with the Rangers during the season and will be looking to make the team right out of camp next year. A long shot at the forward position is young Evgeny Grachev who is impressing many at the major junior level with the Brampton Batallion of the Ontario Hockey League, winning rookie of the year honors in the league. His 40 goals and 40 assists were very impressive considering he needed time to adjust to the North American style of play after having spent his entire life playing in Russia.
On the defensive side of things, the Rangers signed the top college free agent in Matt Gilroy out of the national champion Boston University Terriers. In 34 games for the Terriers, Gilroy posted 8 goals and 20 assists leading the blue line. His play was instrumental in the team winning a national championship and he will be looked to be apart of the future of the blue line. Behind him are young players like Bobby Sanguinetti, Michael Del Zotto, and Michael Sauer who will be looking to crack the lineup.
The New York Rangers have shown that they are a competitive team in the Eastern Conference but need to become a competitive team in the NHL. Changing their style of play through the hiring of John Tortorella was a start; but they need the right players if they are going to take the next step in being a Stanley Cup contender.