by Paul West
The New York Rangers are the defending Eastern Conference champions, and are widely considered a serious threat to make a return visit to the Stanley Cup Finals. And believe it or not, they’re even better than that implies. The New York Rangers have the makings of an NHL dynasty. Let’s examine.
Balance & depth
The Rangers are fourth in the NHL in both goals per game and goals allowed per game, with 3.1 and 2.4 respectively. They’re ninth in power play percentage, and have hovered near the top ten in penalty kill percentage all season. Their team captain is Ryan McDonagh, a 25-year-old defenseman who’s been in the Norris Trophy conversation for two years running; McDonagh is a lockdown defender who can jump into plays on offense. Newly acquired defender Kevin Klein has been a pleasant surprise as a two-way presence, and Dan Girardi lacks star power but is always in the right place at the right time, and capable of the occasional big goal. 6’4″ Marc Staal is an imposing figure who helps provide muscle, and the Rangers have several forwards who are improving as defenders in their own zone. Under previous coach John Tortorella, the Rangers relied on defensive prowess (and, of course, spectacular goaltending) to keep them in games while the offense often sputtered. Under Alain Vigneault, the Rangers can score in bunches, and have the NHL’s leading scorer in the resurgent Rick Nash. The Rangers are explosive transition team that converts defense to offense in a flash, and their set plays can be dazzling when they’re locked in. They have playmakers in Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan, speed merchants in Chris Kreider and Karl Hagelin, and with the emergence of players like Jesper Fast, Derrick Brassard and Kevin Hayes, they have multiple lines that can put up points. When an elite scorer like Martin St. Louis is badly slumping and you’re still hanging five in a game, you know you have scoring depth.
Over a year ago, the Rangers began to gel into a multidimensional threat. But just as importantly, over the past several years they’ve gained valuable postseason experience. The Rangers were the top seed in the Eastern Conference in the 2011-12 season and made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost in six games to the New Jersey Devils. The next season, they outlasted the Washington Capitals in a grueling seven-game series and then were bullied out of the playoffs by the Boston Bruins. And last year, the Rangers inched ever closer to their first Stanley Cup since 1994, making it to the Cup Finals for the first time since that fateful year. In a series that came down to a handful of plays, the blueshirts lost to the gritty Los Angeles Kings and gained the valuable knowledge that they can go toe to toe with any team in the league. And unlike previous years, the Rangers can now beat you with offense, defense, or perhaps their biggest asset: game-changing goaltending.
Two-headed monster in goal
You already know about Henrik Lundqvist, the perennial elite goaltender who’s won a gold medals and is the first NHL goalie with 20 wins in each of his fist ten seasons. He’s also the only one with 30 wins in each of his first seven seasons. “King Henrik” has been the Rangers’ centerpiece for a decade, and at long last, he has more than a little bit of help. Not just from the improved two-way team playing in front of him, either; Lundqvist now has what might be the best backup goalie in the NHL in Cam Talbot. Hank is currently expected to miss most of the month with a scary vascular injury to the neck, and many Rangers fans recently worried at the prospect of Talbot taking over. Some of us predicted that Talbot would shine when given the chance, and fortunately, he’s proven us right thus far as the Rangers have won three in a row. King Henrik isn’t in danger of losing his job, but Talbot’s emergence only makes the Rangers more formidable. They’ve learned that they can win without Hank if they need to, and meanwhile, their ace has a chance to get some rest before the home stretch begins.
An elite scorer
Scoring balance and line depth are great, but elite teams usually have at least one bona-fide elite scorer. Martin St. Louis has been an elite scorer for years, but he’s 39 and has slumped intermittently all year. Stepan is already an elite playmaker, and Hayes and a couple of others seem to have elite scoring potential. But one Ranger in particular is having the kind of career year that most players only dream of: Rick Nash. Once the subject of widespread derision as an elite talent who fizzled when it counted, Nash is playing the best hockey of his career and emerging as an MVP candidate.
A great coach
Alain Vigneault just won his 500th game as an NHL coach. He won two Presidents Trophies with the Vancouver Canucks, and has now been to two Stanley Cup Finals with two different teams. He’s animated the Rangers’ talented skill players by employing a transition-driven attack that favors speed, skill and two-way play. Under Tortorella, the Rangers’ skill players often seemed miserable, hamstrung or both; with their newfound freedom, the blueshirts have flourished as a team that can both score and defend. Vigneault has shown a willingness to shuffle lineups to get things going, and he seems to be getting the best out of all four lines. Under his leadership, the Rangers seem relaxed, confident and dangerous.
A quick look at the Rangers’ roster shows that a large number of their best players are at, or approaching, their peak. Moreover, they have a ton of talent waiting in the wings. Anthony Duclair*, who made his Rangers debut this season and excelled for Team Canada in the recent World Cup of Hockey, is still being stashed in the minors. He’s got Kreider/Hagelin level speed, a high hockey IQ and a wold-class wrist shot. He’s also 19. Hayes is 22, Kreider and Fast are 23, and as mentioned above, McDonagh is still just 25. Talbot is only 27, and at 32, Lundqvist is not yet old by the standards of elite goaltenders. Even Nash is only 30.
Still work to do
The Rangers, if you think about it, have been a power house for several years. Since 2011, they’ve narrowly missed a Presidents Trophy and been to the sixth game** of the Eastern Conference Finals and the fifth game** of the Stanley Cup Finals. Nevertheless, they’ve also been under construction. Previous dynasties have knocked on the door before finally winning their first Cup; the Rangers have been to the verge, and the only remaining step is to go all the way. They still occasionally turn it over in their own zone too often, and they still occasionally over-pass on the power play. But the New York Rangers have the components to cross over from perennial powerhouse to the next NHL dynasty. There’s no telling how long the window will stay open, but they stand a decent chance of stepping through to the next level. Either way, it should be exciting to watch.
* Duclair has, to the consternation of many including myself, been traded to the Coyotes for defenseman Keith Yandle. If anything, this furthers the point of the article, though it makes winning a Cup seem far more imperative after giving away so much.
** Please note: the original version of the article overstated their progress by a game in each series. It has since been corrected, with apologies.