Ah hockey….the Coolest Game on Earth makes its glorious return this week, and of course resuming in that fold are the New York Rangers, one of the National Hockey League’s most exciting…and most frustrating…teams.
With the return of the Rangers, our fine Tri-State area brings hope, anxiety and questions. Below, we take a look at four burning questions, crucial questions the Rangers will have to answer immediately as they open their season on Thursday night…..
Is The Defense Truly Fixed?
It’s generally been accepted that the Rangers’ defense has been their downfall in recent seasons. Henrik Lundqvist isn’t the superstar goaltender he used to be and will be remembered for, but he’s still an elite level where a good number of teams would give their left arm to have him in net. The defenders in front of him, however, have to do their part and make sure that the 35-year old Lundqvist doesn’t have to stand on his head night in and night out.
The Rangers broke open the bank to adjust their defensive lineup this season, buying out the polarizing Dan Girardi and bringing in Kevin Shattenkirk. Touted youngster Anthony DeAngelo was also brought in via a trade with Arizona, joining a unit that includes Ryan McDonagh and Brady Skeji, both of whom have their best hockey ahead of them. If fellow returnee Marc Staal can even somewhat regain the form he displayed prior to his devastating eye injury in 2013…and if head coach Alain Vigneault knows how to use his young talent…the Rangers can show drastic improvement on the blue line.
Is Ondrej Pavelec the Answer Behind Henrik?
Lundqvist, like Eli Manning has shown unparalleled durability and longevity as the Rangers’ starting goaltender, but perhaps not enough credit has been given to the backups behind him. The fact that two of Lundqvist’s former backups, Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta, are now starting goaltenders in Edmonton and Arizona respectively says a lot about the efforts of goaltender coach Benoit Allaire, who also worked with reliable backups Martin Biron and Steve Valiquette.
With Lundqvist another year older, the role of his backup takes on an even greater importance. Moving into that slot is Ondrej Pavelec, the former starting staple in the Winnipeg net. Pavelec historically struggled for the Jets…he posted a 3.55 GAA and .888 save percentage in 8 games last season…but Allaire has shown mastery with Lundqvist and his backups alike. Pavelec more than likely isn’t the heir apparent the King Henrik’s icy throne. But if he can perform well in the 25-30 games he’s called upon this year, it could go a long way in helping the Rangers in the crowded Eastern Conference.
Is Alain Vigneault on the Hot Seat?
If you look at Vigneault’s resume with the Rangers…he has made the playoffs each of his four seasons in New York and reached the Stanley Cup Final in his debut…it’s one that many teams in this league would kill to have. But with Henrik Lundqvist in his potential twilight years and the Rangers spending money to add new talent, simple playoff appearances aren’t going to cut it anymore.
Vigneault’s employment was assumed to be saved when he signed a contract extension in the midst of last season, but that was before his Rangers lost a second round playoff series they really should’ve won against Ottawa. Vigneault’s coaching was called into question, particularly a heavily scrutinized decision to sit Skjei during the final minutes of regulation in Game 5, especially after Skjei scored a go-ahead goal. Vigneault also displayed a steadfast loyalty to players like Tanner Glass and Nick Holden, sitting talented young stars like Skjei and Pavel Buchnevich.
New on the Rangers’ bench this season is Lindy Ruff, a former Rangers defensemen who has made a name for himself in coaching, with nearly two decades of head coaching experience under his belt. Recently let go by the Stars, Ruff has been invited to the Rangers bench as an assistant. If Vigneault falters early, the Rangers could make a drastic move and sub in Ruff if the situation gets truly dire.
Can Someone Step Up At Center?
Derek Stepan’s time in New York was indeed limited, and the clock ran out when he was sent over to Arizona this summer. It did, however, leave the Rangers in a bit of a pickle at center, where the Rangers are now a mixture of youth and inconsistency. Can Mika Zibanejad, the expected top man, finally showcase his true potential? Will Kevin Hayes rebound from a disappointing 2017-18 season? Will Filip Chytil, at just 18, be able to quickly adjust to the NHL game? Will JT Miller stick at wing or will be inserted? THe Rangers have had trouble at the position at recent years…remember the failed Eric Staal experiment? Mark Messier’s not walking through that door, so someone will have to rise to the occasion.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffMags5490