After an offseason for the Blueshirts that was defined by wholesale changes up front, the team is returning only 5 forwards (Dubinsky, Callahan, Chris Drury, Sean Avery and Aaron Voros) who played significant minutes for the Rangers last season. In an attempt to bolster the team’s ability to score goals at even strength and on special teams, the Rangers revamped their roster to include proven scorers such as Marian Gaborik, Ales Kotalik, Christopher Higgins and Vinny Prospal amongst others. GM Glen Sather even let his best defensive minded forwards (Blair Betts and Frederic Sjostrom) walk away and replaced them with players who the team felt had a better chance to contribute secondary scoring from the usually checking oriented fourth line. Such turnover amongst the forwards may take some time before the new players can find a comfort level with their linemates and will most likely lead to some experimenting by coach Tortorella as the season begins. Rangers fans have to hope that they find their footing quickly as this team cannot afford a slow start in such a talent laden division.
The biggest acquisition for the Rangers this offseason is also the one causing the most concern amongst fans. Glen Sather won the bidding war for talented winger Marian Gaborik this summer and brought him to Broadway. Gaborik, when healthy, is an explosive offensive force and one of the top scorers in the entire league but the big question mark is: Will he stay healthy? Gaborik has been hampered by injuries throughout his career and even as he joins the Rangers, he is still rehabbing from hip surgery that caused him to miss most of last season with the Minnesota Wild. When he did play last season, he showed why the Rangers wanted to add him to their anemic roster scoring 13 goals and 23 points in just 17 games. If Gaborik can stay healthy and stay on the ice, he gives the Rangers an offensive weapon they have sorely missed since Jaromir Jagr left. He has the ability not only to take over games himself (as witnessed by his 5 goal explosion against the Rangers in December of 2007) but to makes his teammates better by opening up the ice for them with the defensive coverage he demands from opponents. There has been some question as to who will be the center on Gaborik’s line since he arrived and with Brandon Dubinsky’s lengthy holdout causing Tortorella to shake things up in camp, it looks like at first veteran Vinny Prospal will be the man with the assignment of setting up the speedy sniper. Rangers fans (as well as mamagement) will hold their breath every time Gaborik goes down this season because of his history ,but if he can somehow stay healthy and give the team 65-70 games, a 40 goal campaign is not out of the question for the talented winger.
As we mentioned, Vinny Prospal will probably get first crack with Gaborik when the season opens on friday in Pittsburgh. Prospal is a smart player with deceptive skills. He spent most of his career playing wing until he played for Tortorella in Tampa Bay (where they won a Stanley Cup together) and he understands what the coach expects out of his players at both ends of the ice. Prospal may not stay at center as the Rangers have many options up the middle and if he is ultimately moved to the wing he will provide a veteran presence there as well. The biggest thing Prospal brings to the team is his outstanding passing on the power play and he figures to be a part of the number one unit as the year begins.
While Gaborik was the most exciting pickup for the Rangers this offseason, the most important acquisition might turn out to be getting Christopher Higgins from Montreal via trade for Scott Gomez. Higgins is exactly the type of two way player the Rangers have lacked over the last few seasons. A responsible defensive minded forward who can also put the puck in the net, the Smithtown L.I. native will bring energy to the ice in all situations and may team with Ryan Callahan in the near future to give the Rangers a formidable penalty killing duo. Higgins is coming off a disappointing season in which injuries caused him to put up his lowest point totals of his career but he is now healthy and looking to rebound big with his new club. The team is expecting a big year from the 6’0, 200 lb. 26 year old LW and a return to the 20-25 goal plateau he reached the previous three seasons.
Another winger brought in by Sather to add scoring punch is former Buffalo Sabre and Edmonton Oiler Ales Kotalik. The 6’1, 230 lb. RW brings a booming slapshot and an accurate wrist shot with him to the Garden and will man the point on the Rangers power play. Kotalik has had some issues during his career with coaches questioning his work ethic and drive so a conflict with Tortorella sometime down the road would not be a surprise but the Rangers are hoping he will blossom with a change of scenery and use his size and shot to help this team improve greatly on the man advantage. Kotalik had his best season while playing with Chris Drury in Buffalo and will be reunited with his former center here in New York.
Blair Betts, Frederic Sjostrom and Tough Guy/Fan Favorite Colton Orr all left this offseason and the Rangers have made some moves to try to fill their shoes both on the fourth line and the penalty kill. We mentioned Artem Anisimov yesterday and the team hopes he can help the PK along with Higgins, Callahan and the newly acquired Brian Boyle. Boyle is a former first round pick (26th overall, 2003) who has been all but labeled a bust during his first few years in the league. He has tremendous size (6’7, 250) and a strong work ethic but it has yet to translate to any offensive success for him at the NHL level. He had an uneventful training camp and may start the year in Hartford if the Rangers keep Prospal at center but most likely Glen Sather’s version of “My Giant” will see significant time with the fourth line and on the team’s PK throughout the season. Another fourth liner acquired by Sather (and the most controversial move by the GM this season) is Tough Guy/Cheap Shot artist Donald Brashear, who is best remembered (reviled) by Blueshirt fans as the guy who knocked Betts out of last year’s playoffs with a blindide hit that broke his orbital bone. Both Sather and Tortorella have championed this signing by saying that Brashear is a “good team player” and that he “brings an element of offense with his jam” that the Rangers were missing with Orr in the lineup. There is a good chance that once Brashear stands up for a teammate or blindsides Sidney Crosby, that the Rangers faithful will forgive and forget his past transgressions but if he costs the Rangers some games by taking ill timed penalties, I don’t think Tortorella will be so understanding.
The reutrning forwards from last year’s squad are all expecting to step up this season. Brandon Dubinsky ended a lengthy holdout by signing a two year deal and will be counted on to provide more offense than he did last season as he struggled at times to find the back of the net. Super pest Sean Avery will look to put his disappointing playoff performance behind him and make nice with coach Torts while still being one of the most aggravating players to play against in the league. Ryan Callahan is poised to take a huge step towards the next level with his confidence at an all time high after signing a multiyear deal and being invited to attend the USA Olympic team camp this offseason. Aaron Voros got off to a great start last season but faded late and was almost invisible once Tortorella took over the coaching duties. He came to camp in great shape and worked his way onto the team and looks to bounce back and put together a full season of work worthy of his contract numbers.
The most important returning forward is the team’s captain and biggest lightning rod Chris Drury. When Drury came to Broadway with Scott Gomez, he was brought here for his big play in pressure situations which earned him the nicknamed “Captain Clutch”. So far, he has been referred to more by another moniker “Captain Clueless” by many of the Garden faithful. Drury has never equaled the level of production he had during his time in Buffalo and this season could be make or break for the talented and hard working center. He spent the offseason having conversations with Tortorella in an attempt to develop a better “coach and captain relationship” and came to camp with a “just shut up and play” mantra that he hopes will not only jump start his own game but that of his teammates as well. Drury is a gamer and no one questions his work ethic or heart but if his production lags offensively it could become tough for him to command respect in a locker room full of new faces. With the greatest Rangers captain ever now working with the organization, Drury should look to him for a sounding board and ear to chew on about what it takes to lead a team on the sports world’s biggest stage. If the team gets off to a slow start and Drury struggles offensively, Tortorella will not be afraid to shake things up in the locker room (just like he did in Tampa with Vinny Lecavalier) and it probably wouldn’t be long before Drury met the same fate as Gomez. Let’s hope for the good of the club that none of this comes to fruition and Drury, playing with old friend Kotalik, bounces back and has the kind of year we have been expecting from him since he signed on with the team.