With three games in four nights, the New York Rangers 2014-15 season is officially underway. After a season opening win at St. Louis against the powerful Blues, the Rangers have now dropped two straight, in back-to-back games, against the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs, including their home opener.
While they’ve looked inconsistent over the past two games, Rangers fan should wait a bit before starting to worry. Last year’s Eastern Conference Champions team lost 4 of their first 5 games to start the season. At the same time, it’s tough comparing the two teams, considering the differences in the lineup from this year to last.
The core of the New York Rangers may still be intact but there are many new faces that will look to make a difference this year.
When the New York Rangers first drafted Anthony Duclair in the third round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, no one could have expected the progress and impact he would make a little over a full year later.
Though it still remains to be seen whether he’ll stay on the Rangers this season or be sent back to Junior, one thing holds true; Duclair has set high expectations for himself and is intent on making it as an NHL player, sooner than later.
Heading into his second official NHL training camp, Duclair seemed to have a greater sense of confidence compared to the year before. Asked about the difference from this year compared to last, Duclair was open and honest:
“Last year I was only here for a week and I had a tough time adjusting to the pace…this year I feel more comfortable and the older guys have helped me a lot.”
While the expectation coming into camp was that Anthony Duclair would be sent back to the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for his final season, we were all quietly expecting the 19-year-old forward to show us something, a glimpse of what made him so dominant in Juniors.
What we all saw was completely unexpected. Right out of the gate and in his first game as a professional, Anthony Duclair displayed his NHL level skill-set and nose for the net, finishing on a beautiful feed from Rick Nash for his first goal of his career. He scored in his next game as well, finishing the preseason with a team-high 5 points in only 3 exhibition games. This left Coach Alain Vigneault and Rangers management to wonder whether it’s worth the risk to keep him or send him back to Juniors for another year.
Fast forward three games into the season and we now know Anthony Duclair is officially part of the 2014-15 Rangers squad, for the time being. It’s a smart move by the Rangers brass as keeping Duclair allows him to take in the speed and intensity of regular season games while it gives them time to ultimately decide if they want to keep him in the pros or send him back to Quebec.
As we’ve seen this far, Duclair presents a game-breaking skill set and can certainly make a difference when slotted on a top line. While he didn’t have a memorable first NHL game, Duclair seemed more comfortable in the 2nd game against Columbus as he collected two assists in a 5-2 loss. It also helped that he was paired with Rick Nash and Marty St. Louis as Chris Kreider sat in the box for most of the 3rd period.
The only thing that remains to be seen is if he will get enough of that playing time in order to be truly valuable. Coach Vigneault will continue to shuffle lines as he keys in on which players seem to show chemistry together and get the most out of each other. Only time will tell but for now it seems “Duke” will be sticking around for a lot longer than we all first thought. The Garden crowd seems to hope so with shouts of “Duuuke” echoing through the arena.
Many of us heard the story behind highly-touted college product Kevin Hayes. Drafted by Chicago in 2010, Hayes spent four years in the college circuit and nearly won the Hobey Baker last year as best player in the nation. After not signing with Chicago due to their depth at the forward position, Hayes opted for free agency and chose the Rangers after being courted by several teams.
Unlike Duclair, the expectations were high for the 22-year old Hayes as he was presumed to be near NHL ready as he started his first pro training camp.
While he didn’t have a fantastic camp, it was clear that Hayes was had skill to play with the big boys, not to mention his size at 6’3″ 205 lbs. He didn’t score in any of the exhibition games he played in but he seemed to progress as the preseason wore on and displayed the kind of playmaking ability that made him a star at Boston College.
Whether he contributes extensively this year is unknown but the simple addition of Kevin Hayes makes the Rangers prospect system a whole lot deeper. Ranked near the bottom of all prospect rankings, the addition of a college star with great size only changes the depth of the Rangers prospect pool for the better.
Kevin Hayes is the type of player every team craves as they build a future. His size, skill, and versatility make him an excellent addition and someone to watch out for this season. Where he plays exactly, center or wing, and how long, if at all, he plays in the AHL, are questions that remain to be answered.
With Mats Zuccarello nursing what is to believed to be a sore shoulder, Hayes was slotted into the lineup as a game-time decision for the Rangers home opener. An ugly loss for the Rangers, Hayes did not seem out of place but also did not show anything special in a game marked by penalties and inconsistent play by most of the team.
Ryan Malone is someone nobody would have expected to be wearing a Rangers jersey as the 2014-15 season began. After his buyout from the Lightning and an April arrest, it was unclear if Malone would ever play again in the NHL. It also didn’t help that his arrest came right at the end of what was arguably his worst year as a pro.
But as the summer waned on, the Rangers began to make inquiries and after working out with the team, Malone was signed to a one year, two-way deal. If he was going to make the Rangers and not be sent to Hartford, he would have to earn it.
He has done just that, scoring twice in his only two preseason games. After missing some time with a hip flexor, Malone skated in the Rangers preseason home closer and not only tied the game on a pretty pass from JT Miller, but he also won the game with a shootout tiebreaking tally.
While Malone might not have the speed that he used to, he certainly has a knack for the net. You simply cannot buy the experience he has as a professional. A former Cup winner with Pittsburgh and a member of the 2010 US Olympic team, Malone has the tools to be a very effective player for the Rangers this season when given the opportunity.
Looking at Hayes and Malone and the first thing that comes to mind is their size. In the finals last year, the size difference between the two teams proved to a major factor as the Kings physically dominated the Rangers at times. This is certainly where the signing of Malone can prove to be a wise strategic decision while giving him a chance to redeem himself.
Although Coach Alain Vigneault has publically stated he does not know where Malone fits into the lineup, look for him to be inserted sometime in the near future as they continue to tweak the offensive line pairings with the absence of Derek Stepan. At this point in time, the Rangers could sorely use Malone’s physicality and front net presence.
It’s been a tough start to the 2014-15 season for defenseman Dan Boyle. The veteran D-man looked steady and was a +1 in the team’s season opener against the Blues but will now miss up to the next 6 weeks with a broken hand, courtesy of blocking a shot from Blues forward Jori Lehtera.
There is no question what Dan Boyle brings to the Rangers. The slick puck moving defenseman, expected to be a viable replacement for Anton Stralman, will also be slated as the quarterback of the Rangers’ often woeful powerplay. On the older side of the hockey spectrum at age 35, Boyle has at least a few more years of service in him. Unfortunately, he will have to watch and wait as his hand heals over the next month.
Right now, it also might seem as though the Rangers need him a lot more than they originally thought. In the past two games, the Rangers have looked uncharacteristically out of focus on the defensive end, with breakdowns occurring far too often.
This could be simply attributed to early season struggles and chemistry issues but nonetheless, it’s not a pleasant situation when one of your top-4 defenseman is injured in the first game of the season. Luckily, for Boyle, a small silver lining exists and he will be able to stay in some form of condition while rehabbing his broken hand.
When the New York Rangers signed Tanner Glass to a 3-year deal this past offseason, it left many scratching their heads as to why they needed the scrappy, hard-working forward. Yes, they needed to make up for the loss of Dorsett and Carcillo. But did we really need to sign an enforcer for average annual value of $1.45 million a year?
We can’t answer that for sure, but it seems that Coach Alain Vigneault highly recommended the pesky, hard-hitting forward. Their relationship dates back to their time in Vancouver when Glass found a role as a gritty fourth line forward and penalty-killer for the deep and offensively formidable Canucks team.
If there is anything definite we can take from the addition of Glass it’s that he will continue to work hard in the corners for the puck and ultimately use his physical presence to create room for and protect his teammates. Vigneault is most likely expecting Glass to help replenish the Rangers’ penalty killing unit which lost key players over the summer.
The Lee Stempniak signing will prove to be the most underrated signing for the Rangers this past off-season.
At a bargain price of just $900,000 for a one-way deal, GM Glen Sather was able to snag Lee Stempniak, a solid two way forward who will bring experience and as well as point production into the fold. An underrated player for most of his career, Stempniak has had 5 seasons with 30 or more points and even posted a career high of 52 points with the Blues a few years ago.
While he might not overpower you with his size, Stempniak has made a career out of doing the little things right and will serve as a viable replacement for the points lost with the subtractions of Brian Boyle and Benoit Pouliot.
If Lee Stempniak can stay healthy enough to play a full season with the Rangers, it would not be surprising to see him hit 40 or more points, especially if he is to be used on the point for the power play.
In three games thus far, Stempniak has been one of the better and more consistent Rangers forwards, scoring two goals and adding an assist. Look for Lee Stempniak to take on a greater role as the season roles on.
Josh recently joined The Hockey Writers as a contributing writer for the New York Islanders. Hailing from Long Island, Josh has written previously for CBS New York/WFAN.