by Paul West
On the eve of the 2015-16 season, the New York Rangers have but one hill left to climb. They’ve established themselves as one of the NHL’s elite teams; they won the President’s Trophy last season; they won the Eastern Conference the season before, losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final. They’ve retained the vast majority of last year’s core, and after suffering numerous key injuries during last year’s postseason, the Rangers have high hopes for another deep playoff run. Henrik Lundqvist in net is as good an anchor as they could ask for, and they have a balanced, talented team that can play well in all three zones and win in different ways. Here are four bold predictions for this year’s Rangers, whose window appears to remain open for one more year.
MATS ZUCCARELLO WILL SCORE 70 POINTS
Mats Zuccarello was first known to the NHL world as a feisty, undersized speedster who was fearless in the corners and brought energy to every shift. He became known as a true difference-maker, whose absence was seen as a key reason for the Rangers’ failure to recapture the Eastern Conference and perhaps win the Cup. Zucc appears fully healthy in training camp, and is in line for a breakout season. He’ll open the season on the top line with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard, and his combination of skills make him an all-purpose threat. Zucc is both quick and fast, and he plays like a bowling ball in the offensive zone. He’s got excellent ice vision and a knack for highlight-reel passes, and at 28 he’s at the front end of his peak. He’s got the playmaking ability to improve on last year’s 34 assists, especially with a sniper like Nash on his left wing. And his all-over-the-ice style of play will give him chances to improve on last year’s total of 15 goals, as he’ll have Brassard facilitating from center and opposing lines may concentrate on stopping Nash. He spent much of last year bouncing between lines, but spending this year as a top-six fixture he could eclipse 25 goals and approach 45 assists.
CHRIS KREIDER WILL SCORE 30 GOALS
Chris Kreider burst onto the scene in the 2012 playoffs, and has continued to increase his stature ever since. Last season, he played a full 80 games with the team and scored 21 goals, gradually becoming a more integral part of the offense. He’s big, fast and aggressive, and he’s assertive in front of the net, which is something the Rangers struggle with at times. Camped out in front of the opposing goalie, Kreider could score 10 goals this season on putbacks alone. He’ll benefit from starting the season on a line with Derek Stepan and Kevin Hayes. Hayes is a rapidly developing talent who can create his own scoring chances as well as create chances for others, and Stepan is developing into one of the NHL’s best playmakers. Together, they’ll make up the second line for a team that was third in the NHL in scoring last year and is increasingly balanced and explosive.
THE POWER PLAY WILL IMPROVE
For a team with so much talent and offensive firepower, the Rangers’ power play was a source of constant frustration last year. Flashes of brilliance were fueled by brilliant tic-tac-toe passing that often resembled a video game; this was also the key to the Rangers’ power play struggles, as the search for perfection led to over-passing and the team often went entire power plays with scarcely a shot on goal. Zuccarello’s absence exacerbated this problem, and it often seemed like if they didn’t put together a highlight-reel sequence the power play looked like even strength of even a penalty kill. Quotes from the locker room began to gradually reflect an understanding of the problem, and the Rangers seem more generally committed to putting pucks on net when they have a man advantage. A healthy Zuccarello and a still-improving Kreider will go a long way toward eliminating the power play as a glaring weakness.
RICK NASH WILL HAVE A STRONG SEASON
Rick Nash was resurgent last year, answering his critics and putting together his best overall season yet. He led the team in goals with 42, points with 69 and plus-minus with 29, and played a more complete game than is usually expected from a high-volume scorer. This season, with the Rangers’ younger talent continuing to blossom, the Rangers will be less reliant on Nash for offense; this will mean two things. First, Nash will avoid periods of burnout like he appeared to suffer briefly a couple of time last season. Second, opponents will not feel as free to concentrate their efforts on stopping him. This will create more room for him on the ice, allow him to remain relaxed and refreshed as well as confident, and lead to him having yet another resurgent offensive year. He might not score 40 again, but 30 is a good possibility and he’ll continue to demonstrate the improved three-zone balance in his game.
The Rangers are virtually the same team they were at the end of last season, except that their young stars are still improving. There’s a good chance they’ll remain on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders.