But they remain a player away
The Rangers head into this season coming off an 8th place finish and another first round playoff exit—the team’s second under head coach John Tortorella. 2011-2012 will be the teams third full season under the fiery Tortorella, and it’s clear the organization has its eyes on getting out of the 1st round of the playoffs, something the Rangers have accomplished just twice since the lockout.
This year, the team will have a shiny new toy added to the mix—expensive free agent Brad Richards. The 31-year-old Richards signed a 9-year deal worth $60 million this offseason. But the fact that Richards will be on the Rangers roster until his 40th birthday is not what Rangers fans should be focused on.
Richards, at his best, is capable of a point-per-game pace—something he’s done each of the past two seasons—and his playmaking ability should help much maligned sniper Marian Gaborik, and a power play that at times last season the team would have been better off forfeiting. If that’s not enough, Richards is familiar with Tortorella, having played under him the first seven seasons of his NHL career, and is a winner, taking home the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP when his Lightning won the cup in 2004.
In addition to Richards, the Rangers will be counting on several young players to raise their games this season. The team will hope newly minted captain Ryan Callahan can stay healthy and make a run at 30 goals, and that fellow forwards Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, and Derek Stepan continue there maturation. On defense, the blueshirts will look to Marc Staal to continue rising up the ranks of the top d-men in the league, hope Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh avoid sophomore slumps, and welcome highly touted youngster Tim Erixon into the fold.
It’s a solid, hard-nosed lineup that will bring it every night (or risk facing the wrath of Tortorella), but one that should hardly be among the odds on favorites to win the Stanley Cup. The Rangers are still a team that lacks the top end skill necessary to be counted amongst the league’s elite. As long as Gaborik rediscovers his scoring touch and Richards proves his concussion last season is a non-issue, the Rangers will be better, and are a safe bet to be in contention for 4th place in the East and to win a playoff series, but anything more than that is a stretch.
The Rangers simply do not have the firepower the leagues elite teams do. Teams like Washington, Pittsburg, Vancouver, and Tampa Bay all would win a battle of skill over the Rangers. But building a championship team is a process, and with adding Richards to their young core, the Rangers are a step closer to completing that process.
Where could the skill players capable of putting the blueshirts over the edge come from? Could it be on their own roster in the form of the talented but enigmatic Wojtek Wolski? Maybe, but probably not. In reality the team will have to bank on either a midseason trade, or wait until next offseason when more money comes off the books—an offseason that figures to include highly touted prospects Chris Kreider and Christian Thomas challenging for roster spots. Until then, Rangers fans are encouraged to remember that building a winner takes time, and for the first time in a long time, the Rangers appear to be on the right track.