After the shortest possible off-season, which still felt like an eternity for New York Rangers fans, the 2014-15 hockey season is finally underway. So far, there are already plenty of storylines that fellow Blueshirt faithful need to be following. While we can’t cover all of them here, we can try to call out the most compelling–and the ones that stand to play out the longest. This will give us a short list of the Rangers storylines that the best and brightest fans should be following. Let’s get to it, shall we?
How Do the Rangers Respond to Their Injuries?
No other Rangers storyline could go first. Even before the season started, they lost first-line C Derek Stepan to a broken fibula. In the regular season opener, new second-pair D Dan Boyle suffered a broken hand blocking a shot. For the next 4-6 weeks, the question on everyone’s mind will be how they respond to this double-barreled assault from the Injury Ninja. Both injuries will hurt the Rangers, and will require players to step up.
First, regarding the injury to Stepan. For a team whose depth at the center position was already thin, losing Stepan for the first few weeks of the season is probably the harder of the two injuries to overcome. Thankfully, he was able to begin his recovery before the season started and will likely be back sooner than Boyle. In the meantime, however, it leaves a very large hole in the heart of the Rangers lineup. The situation is so dire that coach Alain Vigneault has moved Martin St. Louis from wing to center on the first line. St. Louis has at times played center during his tenure with the Tampa Bay Lightning, but has never taken faceoffs with any regularity. Without Stepan, the Rangers simply have no natural center that can step in on the first line. Keep watching to see whether St. Louis remains as pivot, or whether Alain Vigneault decides to give someone like Derrick Brassard, Dominic Moore, or even youngster
J.T. Miller some top line time. Early indications are that St. Louis will stay, as the first line delivered in a big way against the St. Louis Blues in game one of the season.
Losing Dan Boyle also hurts the Rangers, but doesn’t cut quite as deeply. The simple fact is that the Rangers are an extremely deep defensive team, and Kevin Klein is certainly capable of filling in on the second defensive pair. Meanwhile, Matt Hunwick will get his chance on the third pairing with John Moore. Hunwick will be playing on the right side, which will be more difficult for him as a left-handed shot. Where the loss of Boyle will hurt the most is on the power play, where the Rangers were depending on him to be a true quarterback. Martin St. Louis may be the answer here, too–he will get the opportunity to play the point on the PP a la Brad Richards last year–hopefully with better results.
Anthony Duclair: Will He Stay or Will He Go?
One of the Rangers’ kids who made a huge impression in training camp was Anthony Duclair. He made so much of an impression that the Rangers made a 2-for-1 deal with the Florida Panthers in order to keep him in the NHL (by not assigning Duclair back to Quebec in the QMJHL, the Rangers would have been over the maximum of 50 players under contract, so they needed to cut one contract before the end of training camp). Without a doubt, Duclair played his way onto the team. He tied for the team lead in goals during the pre-season with three and was consistently noticeable on the ice for all the right reasons. Through the first two games, he has shown the skill that made him such a highly regarded prospect (he scored 50 goals last season for Quebec) , but has also shown a remarkable maturity and hockey sense, even while playing against NHL-level opponents for the first time. If he continues to play at his current level, he will likely establish himself as a legitimate top-9 player on this Rangers team. Watching Duclair work on the third line alongside J.T. Miller and Lee Stempniak, it’s easy to see why coach Alain Vigneault said, “he’s got an NHL skill set. He’s got the hands, the speed, the thinking with the puck.” He’s certain to be a large part of the Rangers’ future, and it’s beginning to look like that future starts now.
Is Rick Nash Back to His Old Form?
What would a Rangers storyline post be without a Rick Nash section? It’s practically a requirement–Nash has been an enigma from the day he first put on a Rangers jersey. He has shown flashes of the form that made him a first overall pick, but has not been the player the Rangers thought they were getting much of the time. Certainly injuries played a role last two years, as he missed time both seasons due to concussions. Given the unpredictable and cumulative nature of concussions, it’s not a stretch to say that Nash may still have been dealing with the effects long after he was cleared to return to the lineup. In an interview with the New York Post given shortly after returning last season, Nash admitted to a change in his perspective:
“I’ve come to realize that with all this stuff going on, I’m going to have more than half of my life to live after I retire,” said the 29-year-old. “There’s a lot to life after hockey.”
It’s no surprise that Nash was not playing with reckless abandon. He does not want to follow in the footsteps of Eric Lindros and Chris Pronger, who both had their careers cut short by concussions. He likely needed much more time to find a balance between his playing style (which requires a more fearless attitude) and the newly-discovered realities of how thin a line there is between having a successful playing career and being forced to watch from the stands.
With all that, Nash has been much more involved so far this young season, scoring two goals in the opening game against St. Louis and adding another in game two against his old teammates from Columbus. It’s a small sample size to be sure, but Nash has been taking more shots from the high percentage scoring areas of the ice. While our earlier prediction of him moving back to left wing hasn’t happened (yet), it seems like we’re finally seeing the “real” Rick Nash.
Damn. Nash now only scoring at a 123-goal per season pace down from 164. He sucks.
— The Hockey Rodent (@HockeyRodent) October 12, 2014
Be sure to keep an eye on how these Rangers storylines play out as the season progresses. There will be more with each new game, but for the near future at least, these three will be at the forefront of most discussions about the Blueshirts.
Kevin has been covering the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers for The Hockey Writers since the 2013-14 season. Before that, he has written about, played, and coached hockey at all levels. He grew up a Rangers fan in the Southern Tier of New York State, but now lives in the Atlanta area with his wife and two sons. You can reach him on Twitter as @kmizTHW , or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).