New York Rangers 2007-08 Preview Package

Monday, 10.01.2007 / 11:28 AM / Features
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New York Rangers 2007-08 Preview Package
After winning their first playoff series in 10 years last season, the New York Rangers are looking to advance further in the postseason in 2007-08.
INTRO

Optimism abounds in New York

Amid all the optimism surrounding the New York Rangers, it’s easy to overlook the fact that they actually finished with six fewer points last season than they did in 2005-06 — and that with six weeks to go in the regular season, they were on the verge of missing the playoffs. But after a fast finish and their first playoff series victory in 10 years, there is real cause for Stanley Cup dreaming in the Big Apple.

The Rangers made the biggest moves in the free-agent market this summer when they signed a pair of centers from Eastern Conference rivals: Scott Gomez from the New Jersey Devils and Chris Drury from the Buffalo Sabres. Gomez, one of the NHL’s best passers, will likely play between Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka on what should be one of the NHL’s best offensive lines. Drury, a 37-goal scorer last season and one of hockey’s best clutch players, will center for Sean Avery and Brendan Shanahan in what should be an excellent two-way line.

The Rangers have great depth — they could send out five lines with NHL experience. More than that, they have a host of prospects — including Marc Staal, Brandon Dubinsky, Nigel Dawes, Alex Bourret and Michael Sauer — emerging from the past few draft classes. The young prospects will challenge for jobs at training camp and could dislodge some veterans by season's end.

The goaltending is solid with Henrik Lundqvist back for his third season. In fact, the Rangers' revival is closely tied to the Lundqvist's play. As he goes, so go the Rangers. Lundqvist is on a one-year contract, a strong incentive to do well. With Lundqvist expected to play 70 or so games again, the Rangers are likely to leave former No. 1 pick Al Montoya in the minors and use journeyman Stephen Valiquette as Lundqvist’s backup.

The defense has been adequate for the past two seasons and the core remains, losing only Karel Rachunek. Michal Rozsival, Marek Malik, Paul Mara, Jason Strudwick, Dan Girardi, Thomas Pock and Fedor Tyutin will be joined by Andrew Hutchinson, who was acquired from Carolina to give the Rangers a strong shot from the point on power plays.

GOALTENDERS

Who's No. 1?

Henrik Lundqvist has established himself as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL.
The Rangers’ revival after the lockout can be directly tied to the emergence of Henrik Lundqvist as one of the NHL’s elite goaltenders. In his two NHL seasons, Lundqvist, a seventh-round draft pick in 2000, made the NHL All-Rookie Team, won an Olympic gold medal for his native Sweden and has twice been a Vezina Trophy finalist. Last season, Lundqvist had 37 wins, five shutouts, a 2.34 goals-against average and 1,767 saves while playing 70 games. Lundqvist has displayed the ability to make big saves at important times and has been excellent in shootouts. He's cool in the net, but fiery against opponents. He's not the biggest goalie, but he has fast hands and always seems to be in position. Lundqvist spent four seasons in the Swedish Elite League, and the experience has certainly helped him early in his NHL career.

Backup plan

Al Montoya and Stephen Valiquette split the goaltending duties for the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack last season. Montoya, the Rangers' first pick (No. 6 overall) in 2004, had an excellent season, posting a 27-17-0 record with a 2.30 GAA and .914 save percentage. It’s hard not to root for a guy like Valiquette, who has been with the Islanders, Oilers and Rangers since turning pro in 1998, but has played only 12 NHL games. He went 17-12-0 with a 2.34 GAA and .909 save percentage in Hartford last season and 1-2-0 with the Rangers. With Lundqvist likely to play almost every night, Valiquette could spend the season in New York while Montoya carries the load in Hartford.

In the Wings

Chris Holt — The former University of Nebraska-Omaha goalie got off to a rocky start with the ECHL Charlotte Checkers two years ago, improved when promoted to Hartford and looked good in four AHL playoff games that season. He even replaced Lundqvist in a Rangers' game that year. He returned to Charlotte last season and had an excellent year, once again getting promoted to Hartford. He'll probably be the backup with the Wolf Pack this season.

Matt Zaba — The Rangers signed the former Colorado College goalie in August. The 2006-07 team MVP appeared in 110 career games with the Tigers, posting a 55-42-10 record, along with a 2.42 GAA. Two years ago, Zaba was the Tigers' playoff MVP after getting them into the opening round of the NCAA playoffs. He went 20-14-2 record that season, with a 2.52 GAA and .909 save percentage.

DEFENSEMEN

The Big Four

Michal Rozsival, a great free-agent signing two summers ago, is the leader of the Rangers' defense. He had 10 goals and 30 assists last season, while going plus-10 and averaging 23:46 of ice time. He had five goals and 25 assists in 2005-06 while going plus-35. Marek Malik led the Rangers with a plus-32 rating and had two goals and 19 assists. Paul Mara, who came in a Feb. 27 trade with Boston for Aaron Ward, helped the power play, while Fedor Tyutin, entering his third full NHL season, had two goals and 12 assists and should produce more offense as he matures.

Get the point

Rozsival had seven goals and 13 assists on the power play and will likely be the Rangers' first-unit quarterback. Karel Rachunek was second among defensemen in power-play scoring, so his departure to New Jersey as a free agent should open time for Mara, a former No. 1 draft pick now with his fourth club. Mara came to the Rangers late last season in a deal for Aaron Ward; if he can harness his speed and puckhandling skills and improve his defensive play, the Rangers could be the big winners in the deal. Thomas Pock was an outstanding college scorer at UMass, but has struggled to keep a job in the NHL, limiting his offensive opportunities.

In the Wings

Dan Girardi -- In seven years of organized hockey, Girardi has had only one negative plus-minus season — he was minus-1 in his second season in juniors. A reliable point producer in juniors, Girardi went undrafted and the Rangers made a terrific signing. He had two solid seasons with Hartford and looked good in 34 games last season, moving the puck, delivering big hits and blocking shots. Girardi should get more ice time this season — that could give him more opportunity to display his offensive skills.

Marc Staal could be an X-factor on the Blueshirts' blueline.
Marc Staal -- Staal was the Rangers' first pick (12th overall) in the 2005 Entry Draft. Since then, he has won gold twice at the World Juniors and been named the MVP of last season's OHL playoffs. Staal played 12 playoff games with Hartford in 2006. The Rangers hope he’s ready, but may feel he needs some time in the AHL.

Ivan Baranka -- He has been a hard-hitting defender for two years for Hartford. He's the kind of player who can outmuscle oncoming forwards, and the Rangers don't have a lot of that on their blue line.

X Factor

Marc Staal -- He will try to live up to the family tradition. His older brothers, Eric with Carolina and Jordan with Pittsburgh, have enjoyed considerable NHL success at a young age. Marc plays a tougher position to learn in the NHL and may need more time. Then again, he could come on like a Staal and give the Rangers a new dimension.

FORWARDS

Lining Up

The Rangers rocked the hockey world on July 1 when they announced the free-agent signings of Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. Gomez, one of the NHL’s best setup men, is expected to center for Martin Straka on the left and Jaromir Jagr on the right on what should be one of the best scoring lines in the League. Drury likely will center a tough two-way line with Sean Avery on the left side and Avery's idol, Brendan Shanahan, on the right.

Unheralded Blair Betts does a great job centering the third line, which will likely have Ryan Callahan on the right wing and Petr Prucha on the left. There will be a battle royal during training camp for positions on the fourth line. At center, Brandon Dubinsky will vie with Tom Pyatt, Joe Barnes, Bruce Graham and Artem Anisimov. Dubinsky plays with ferocity, has good skills and is probably the most advanced. Marcel Hossa has the inside track on the left wing, but Nigel Dawes and Brodie Dupont could give him a battle. Tough guy Colton Orr will be challenged by Alex Bourret, a human cannonball and puck magnet, Hugh Jessiman and Greg Moore.

Feeling Special

Michael Nylander, now with Washington, led the Rangers with 37 points on power plays, tying Shanahan with 14 goals. Shanahan had 17 assists to rank second in power-play scoring. Straka had eight goals and 20 assists. Prucha had eight goals and eight assists. Jaromir Jagr had seven goals and 34 assists. Hossa and Avery were also effective. Jagr, Nylander, Straka and Shanahan averaged more than five minutes of power-play time.

Betts led the Rangers with an average of 3:22 shorthanded time per game. Shanahan and since-departed Matt Cullen and Jed Ortmeyer averaged more than two minutes. Shanahan had three short-handed goals and an assist. Avery, Ortmeyer and Betts each had a goal.

Drury led Buffalo in both power-play scoring and shorthanded scoring. Gomez was second on the Devils in power-play assists and rarely killed penalties.

Up and Coming

Alex Bourret — The 20-year-old right wing, a first-round pick by Atlanta two years ago, was acquired in a trade last February. Bourret plays a hard-hitting game and he can score. Bourret is rugged at 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds. He had 44 goals and 114 points for Shawinigan in the QMJHL two years ago and 16 goals and 34 assists in his first AHL season, split between Chicago and Hartford.

Brandon Dubinsky is one of several young forwards who are bidding to join the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan, and Martin Straka up front for the Rangers.
Nigel Dawes — The 22-year-old left wing led Hartford in scoring with 27 goals and 33 assists, numbers nearly identical to his rookie pro season the year before. Dawes played eight regular-season games and one playoff game with the Rangers in 2006-07, so he's had a taste of the NHL. Dawes is a bit on the small size at 5-foot-8, but he's put on 20 pounds in two years to reach 190. He's a rugged Winnipeg product who’s determined to play in the NHL.

Brandon Dubinsky — The 21-year-old center plays angry and he's always on the puck. Even a good shift often ends with Dubinsky banging his stick as he returns to the bench. Winning matters to Dubinsky, a rugged 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds. His skill set is high, he swears by the Rangers' conditioning program, he was MVP of his junior team, led the WHL playoffs in scoring before his team was eliminated and was voted two years running as the "most irritating player" in the WHL. He's a scorer with size and snarl.

X Factor

Petr Prucha -- Prucha would be a top-six forward on most teams. Prucha had 30 goals as a rookie in 2005-06 and slipped to 22 goals last season, largely because he played mostly on the third line and lost much of his power-play time. He's not going to move Straka off Jagr's line, but if Avery wears out his welcome — as he has elsewhere — Prucha could step into his spot, though his defensive abilities aren’t that strong. This is only Prucha's third season and it's not hard to project him as a 40-goal scorer, if given the opportunity and the right linemates.

FEATURE STORY

Gomez looks forward . . . and back.

Scott Gomez already is prepared for the booing he’ll receive the first time he goes back to New Jersey as a New York Ranger.

The 27-year-old center shocked Devils' fans on July 1 when he accepted a huge free-agent contract from the Rangers. After all, Gomez had spent his seven NHL seasons with New Jersey, piling up 116 goals, 450 points and two Stanley Cup rings as a member of the Devils. Despite battling a groin injury for much of last season, he tied for third in scoring on the Devils with 60 points.

But now Gomez is a Ranger and he says he's prepared to hear his longtime fans boo him when his new team comes to New Jersey.

"It never crossed my mind. I didn't know they did that!" Gomez joked. "I talked to (former Devil-turned-Ranger) Bobby Holik during the summer because I saw it happen to him, firsthand. I also talked to some Devils' fans. I'm sure I won't get a standing ovation every time I touch the puck.

"But this is where I wanted to come. Devils fans are passionate. They get a bad rap, but they care and they're behind the team. I've never been booed during a whole game. It will be interesting."

It will also be odd to be playing against guys he’s known and played with for years.

"I was talking to some of the Devils, and it will be different for me this year, for sure," Gomez said. "When we play against each other, there will be a lot of emotion for me. I know when I play the Devils, I'll be ready to do whatever it takes to win — and I'm sure they feel the same way."

Gomez (R) and Chris Drury (L) will give the Rangers quite a one-two punch at center.
The Rangers also signed another top center, Chris Drury, during their summer shopping spree. Both players wore No. 23 with their previous employers, but Gomez was willing to make a change.

"We talked, Chris and I, after I signed with New York," Gomez said. "I said; 'Take No. 23'. It was never a number of mine. The Devils gave it to me and I had no input. I always wore No. 11 or No. 19 when I was growing up. I knew I wasn't going to be wearing No. 11 (Mark Messier's retired number) here. So, I'm wearing No. 19 and Chris will wear No. 23."

The Rangers are playing mix-and-match during training camp in search of the best line chemistry, but Gomez is expected to play with Jaromir Jagr. He has been practicing on a line with Jagr and Martin Straka.

"I've been fortunate to play with talented wingers," Gomez said. "Jaromir Jagr is probably one of the top five hockey players who ever played. He's that good. We're getting used to each other right now. It's kind of like when I played with Alexander Mogilny. You can't step back and watch his talent because you're out on the ice with him. You just know he's a great talent with amazing skills.

"Hopefully, it works out with Jagr and me. But whatever it takes, that's what we'll do. We have the options with this roster. We have guys you can plug in here and there. It doesn't matter who plays with who as long as we get two points every game."

The Rangers weren’t the only team chasing Gomez this summer. He says he received a free-agency offer from the Flyers. After he took the Rangers' offer, he called Flyers GM Paul Holmgren to thank him.

"There's a respect factor with Paul Holmgren," Gomez said. "He called right away on July 1. I had Paul as a coach at the World Juniors and he was with the Olympic team. I thanked him after I saw that Daniel Briere signed with him. Paul was straightforward with me and did an outstanding job.

"A lot of people forget that the Flyers had a lot of injuries right off the bat last season. They were a different team than what they expected to be. The NHL needs the Flyers to be good and I think they will be. The players they added are character guys. They added some defense. They have kids ready to step in and get Philly back on their feet. That's probably not good for us."

Though Gomez is an established NHL star, he hasn’t forgotten the people and organizations that helped him get there — including the Anchorage Boys and Girls Club, which had a policy of lending hockey equipment to young players.

"They gave you everything but the skates, helmet and sticks," Gomez said. "I did that for about three or four years. It's a great program that really helps kids."

It's typical of Gomez not to mention that he's been giving back to the club for years. He also credited Scott McClellan, his Pee Wee coach, with really spurring his development, although Gomez said he got good coaching across the board while growing up in Anchorage.

Gomez moved to the Vancouver area to play a season of Junior B hockey with the South Surrey Eagles. He had 48 goals and 76 assists for 124 points and was drafted by Tri-City of the Western Hockey League. After two years there, Gomez jumped right to the NHL and won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

"Surrey was one of the high points of my career," Gomez said. "I went back this summer and stayed a week with my billet family. Rick Lantz, my coach at Surrey, helped me to the next level. For a kid in his first year away from home, the attitude of the people around Vancouver toward the players, it couldn't have gone any better. The Eagles will always have a place in my heart."

BY THE NUMBERS

Advantage Margin: +6
Tom Renney’s words about discipline must have finally gotten through. The Rangers’ advantage margin improved by 52 from 2005-06. The improvement came because they allowed 86 fewer power plays than they did the season before.

The Rangers have made good progress under the leadership of head coach Tom Renney.
Even-Strength Goals Margin: +7

One reason the Rangers floundered for much of the season before making the playoffs with a late run was their struggles at even strength — they fell from plus-40 in 2005-06. Jaromir Jagr went from 30 even-strength goals to 23.

Special Teams Goal Margin: +15
While their even-strength play fell off, the special teams improved. Shanahan’s 15 PPGs helped a lot, as did 11 shorthanded goals from the penalty killers, up a hefty margin from the four tallied in 2005-06.

Goals by defensemen: 29
The quest for Brian Leetch’s successor continues. Michal Rozsival had 10 goals, seven on the power play, but the Rangers haven’t had a major offensive threat on the blue line since No. 2 was dealt to Toronto in March 2004.

Goals by forwards: 211
Jagr dropped from 54 goals to 30, but it was still good enough for the team lead. He’s losing his regular center, Michael Nylander (26 goals, 83 points) but will likely play with Scott Gomez, one of the two big-ticket centers (along with Chris Drury) the Rangers added in the off-season via free agency. Jagr and Shanahan (29 goals) both reached the 600-goal plateau last season.

Overtime Record: 12-5-5 (OT: 3-5, SO: 9-5)
Henrik Lundqvist has established himself as one of the best at shootouts, stopping 41 of 50 shots while posting an 8-4 record. He’s won the two longest shootouts in NHL history, including last season’s 1-0, 13-round marathon at Philadelphia.

Times Scored First/Record: 45 (Record: 30-10-5)
The Rangers did a good job of getting the lead and were very consistent in keeping it. They had a .667 winning percentage -- both at home and on the road.

Best 06-07 Number: .937
Lundqvist’s save percentage in the 28 games in which he faced 30 or more shots, the best of any goalie who had 15 or more 30-shot games. He allowed only 60 goals in those games, facing 957 shots.

Worst 06-07 Number: 11-19
The Rangers’ record in one-goal games that weren’t decided in shootouts, which ranks among the worst in the league. However, it’s actually an improvement on the 7-22 record they posted in non-shootout, one-goal games in 2005-06.

Scheduling:
The Rangers get a six-game homestand in late October and early November before playing six of seven on the road. They do not have a road trip longer than four games and have the scheduling oddity of playing the Atlanta Thrashers in back-to-back home games right before the All-Star break.