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Off-Season Game Plan: New York Rangers

Scott Cullen
5/16/2010 9:49:43 PM
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After missing the playoffs by a single point, the New York Rangers head into the summer looking to make changes, but maybe not too many.

Off-Season Game Plan examines the Rangers' roster and what they might be able to accomplish this summer in order to better prepare for a playoff berth next season.

Given the Rangers' approach in recent seasons, it's natural to expect them to head to the free agent market for solutions to their woes, but while head coach John Tortorella has indicated he wants changes in the room, he cautions against the Rangers making too many changes.

"When you lose, you don't blow everything up," John Tortorella told Newsday. "You can create more problems for yourself when you say, 'We've got to change this, we've got to change that.' Maybe it's just execution.”

Since the Rangers only missed the playoffs by one point, rolling with the status quo could yield a playoff team in 2010-2011, but it would be irresponsible to not make an effort to provide better support for Henrik Lundqvist and Marian Gaborik, the Rangers' two bona fide stars, who need help if this team is going to do more than merely battle for a playoff spot.

With a decent core of young talent, the Rangers will count on internal improvement as part of the reason that they could be better next season, but there will be a temptation for the Rangers to sign proven talent; it's what this franchise seems to do every summer.

Questionable (to be kind) free agent signings in recent years have left the Rangers in a precarious position under the salary cap.

Wade Redden, Chris Drury and Michal Rozsival aren't producing nearly enough for what they are getting paid and that makes it difficult for the Rangers to provide adequate support to their best players and it's how the Rangers end up with waiver wire pickup Erik Christensen centering their first line down the stretch as they bid for a playoff spot.

However, it looked like the Rangers didn't have a great deal of cap room going into last summer, but once they found a taker for Scott Gomez's contract, there was room to make a move on Gaborik.

Thus, if the Rangers are creative enough, or willing to swallow enough salary, they may still be able to make a big addition or two to help next year's bid for the playoffs.

As Tortorella knows, though, there isn't any single addition that will turn this franchise into a championship contender, so a lot will depend on execution from whomever opens the season in Manhattan.

GM/COACH
Glen Sather/John Tortorella

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Marian Gaborik 90.23 $7.5M
Brandon Dubinsky 78.95 $1.85M
Ryan Callahan 76.51 $2.3M
Sean Avery 70.27 $1.938M
Chris Drury 69.58 $7.05M
Artem Anisimov 65.38 $822K
Brian Boyle 60.24 $525K
Aaron Voros 58.87 $1.0M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Vaclav Prospal 79.22 UFA $1.1M
Olli Jokinen 73.70 UFA $5.25M
Erik Christensen 69.97 RFA $750K
P.A. Parenteau 64.43 UFA $500K
Enver Lisin 63.80 RFA $790K
Brandon Prust 63.14 RFA $500K
Jody Shelley 61.18 UFA $725K

The Rangers took a risk investing in Marian Gaborik, given his history of injuries, but the decision paid off with Gaborik scoring a career-high 86 points and tying his career-best with 42 goals.

Without much offensive support, though, Gaborik must carry a heavy load with the Rangers, but as long as he's healthy, he gives New York a legitimate game-breaking talent.

Though he's not an elite offensive player, 24-year-old Brandon Dubinsky continues to improve and had career-bests in goals (20), points (44) and plus-minus (plus-9) last season.

Dubinsky is a well-rounded player, with good size, who plays both ends of the ice and adds some toughness to the roster, though it may be a stretch to expect him to handle a first-line scoring role. At the very least, though, Dubinsky has proven to be a nice complement to elite skilled forwards early in his career.

For a player that has scored 41 goals in the last two seasons, Ryan Callahan's contribution isn't measured solely by offensive numbers as he plays in all situations and is a relentless checker. At the same time, Callahan's production at even strength dipped considerably (36 points down to 17) from the 2008-2009 season.

Sean Avery remains an enigma; last season he seemed to disengage at times and his game has been at its best when he's committed and playing on the edge.

It's a fine line, because he can easily go from playing on the edge to going overboard, but with the right level of agitation and focus on the game, Avery can be an asset and that presents a challenge for John Tortorella to try and keep Avery in the right frame of mind to maximize his positive impact for the Rangers.

Burdened by the expectations of a huge contract, Chris Drury was already considered something of a disappointment after scoring 58 and 56 points in his first two seasons with the Rangers, then he scored two goals in his first 28 games last season, on his way to a career-low 14 goals and 32 points.

The 33-year-old veteran can still provide leadership, but the Rangers are on the hook for more than $13-million over the next two seasons, which is a lot to spend for solid face-off skills and intangible benefits. A buyout might make some sense (at least theoretically) but, even for the Rangers, that's a lot of money to swallow and not altogether necessary for a team that doesn't seem on the cusp of winning big.

Lanky centre Artem Anisimov played every game as a rookie, scoring 28 points in limited ice time and he has potential to produce more offensively. He'll need to get stronger and improve his skating, in order to handle more responsibility, but it is possible that he could evolve into a scoring centre.

6-foot-7 centre Brian Boyle offers some size and stability on the fourth line, but with 16 points in 107 career games, he'll likely always be battling for a spot on the roster.

Aaron Voros adds some grit to the fourth line and he dropped the gloves 13 times in 41 games last season, but with just seven points, his impact is minimal and he could be supplanted by younger options with more upside.

For the first four-plus years of his NHL career, Erik Christensen couldn't hold a regular spot in the lineup, then once he joined the talent-needy Rangers, he managed 26 points in the last 41 games.

Christensen has good puck skills and had some chemistry with Gaborik and Dubinsky, but how much can the Rangers expect from a player who has yet to score more than 33 points in a season?

Enver Lisin has speed to spare, and looked like he was going to make the most of it in New York, starting last season with eight points in the first dozen games, but with six points in his last 45 games, Lisin didn't do much to indicate that he's actually any closer to fulfilling his potential.

Acquired from the Calgary Flames, Brandon Prust got a chance late in the year to play more than a fourth-line role and he performed well enough that it's fair to consider him at least upwardly mobile as tough guys go.

Prust fought 25 times, ranking second in the league in that category, but may have more to offer in addition to fisticuffs.

Assuming he's re-signed, veteran enforcer Jody Shelley would handle the heavyweight duties.

Of the Rangers' unrestricted free agent forwards, both Vaclav Prospal and Olli Jokinen have been productive players but Prospal is notoriously inconsistent and Jokinen's game is declining, so the Rangers may look elsewhere for scoring forwards.

Some free agent forwards that might be of interest, particularly for noted big-game hunters like the Rangers include: Patrick Marleau, Alexander Frolov, Tomas Plekanec, Ray Whitney or, if catering to Gaborik, maybe Pavol Demitra. Anyone that will help create offence needs to be considered.

At the same time, the Rangers don't appear to have the cap room to sign a major free agent forward without it making for a restrictive financial situation.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Michael Del Zotto 69.16 $1.088M
Michal Rozsival 68.68 $5.0M
Wade Redden 65.41 $6.5M
Matt Gilroy 63.72 $1.75M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Marc Staal 72.48 RFA $827K
Dan Girardi 71.04 RFA $1.55M
Anders Eriksson 62.31 UFA $600K

Michael Del Zotto quarterbacked the Rangers' power play as a teenager and he impressed with his poise with the puck and competitiveness. At the same time, he took some lumps, going minus-20 in a 24-game stretch in November and December when he was rushed into a bigger role.

With more reasonable playing time the rest of the way, Del Zotto wasn't exposed as often and continued to indicate that he'll be a mainstay on the Rangers' blueline for years to come.

There seems to be a disconnect between what the Rangers are paying Michal Rozsival and the production they get in return. Admittedly, Rozsival's power play time has decreased, but it hasn't evaporated altogether and he managed just four points with the man advantage last year.

So long as Wade Redden is around, however, Rozsival won't be the worst return on investment among Rangers defencemen. Redden is basically an adequate fifth defenceman at this stage, playing 17:31 per game last year, but he's paid like a franchise defenceman and that discrepancy leads to rumours of the Rangers simply burying Redden's salary in the AHL, giving them greater freedom to upgrade the roster.

Much like the case with Drury, it's easy in theory to demote Redden when not worrying about the actual cost of paying him $6.5-million per season to play in Hartford.

The motivation for the Rangers to do anything other than make the most of what they have with Redden would be driven by a desire to, or expectation that they will, make other marquee free agent signings.

2009 Hobey Baker winner Matt Gilroy had an adequate rookie season, though he eventually fell out of favour, seeing less time as the seaon went along and not playing in the last eight games of the year. Gilroy can get better and the Rangers need him to be more assertive when he's on the ice.

One of the more pressing issues for the Rangers this summer is getting restricted free agents Marc Staal and Dan Girardi re-signed. They were 1-2 on the Blueshirts in ice time last season and are vital in shutdown defensive roles.

Staal has improved in each of his three NHL seasons, is the Rangers' best and the 23-year-old is due for a healthy raise.

Girardi hasn't missed a game in the last three seasons and plays a sound defensive game. Though he's not at Staal's level, Girardi remains a solid top-four defenceman.

The issue for the Rangers isn't so much that they don't have enough NHL-calibre defencemen, because with Staal and Girardi re-signed they have six competent NHL defencemen, but they effectively need someone capable of fulfilling the No. 1 workhorse role -- a guy that can play in all situations -- and barring a creative trade or a blockbuster signing, that may still be an area of need while the Rangers wait on some of their young blueliners to mature.

Failing that kind of marquee addition, the Rangers could at least look into a more rock-solid defender, with free agents like Anton Volchenkov, Zbynek Michalek, Henrik Tallinder or, if healthy, Willie Mitchell among those who would tighten up the Blueshirts' blueline.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Cap Hit
Henrik Lundqvist 83.37 $6.875M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Alex Auld 58.57 UFA $1.0M

Henrik Lundqvist is one of the most reliable starting goaltenders in the game, having started at least 69 games in each of the last four seasons, posting a goals against average of 2.43 or better and save percentage of .912 or better in each season.

The Rangers would do Lundqvist some good by improving their defensive play, as he's faced an increasing rate of shots per minute in each of the last couple of years.

Chad Johnson is a candidate for the backup job as he fared well (2.35 GAA, .919 SVPCT) in five appearances with the Rangers last season, his first year as a pro, but the Rangers may prefer signing a veteran free agent like Martin Biron, Johan Hedberg, Andrew Raycroft or Peter Budaj.

Top Prospects

Player Position Team/League Stats
Evgeny Grachev LW Hartford (AHL) 12-16-28,-13, 80 GP
Derek Stepan C Wisconsin (WCHA) 12-42-54,+6, 41 GP
Bobby Sanguinetti D Hartford (AHL) 9-29-38,-9, 61 GP
Ilkka Heikkinen D Hartford (AHL) 8-30-38,-2, 72 GP
Chad Johnson G Hartford (AHL) 24-18-2,2.54 GAA, .911 SVPCT, 44 GP
Michael Sauer D Hartford (AHL) 3-9-12,+2, 42 GP
Dale Weise RW Hartford (AHL) 28-22-50,+8, 73 GP
Ethan Werek C Kingston (OHL) 30-33-63,+14, 57 GP
Tomas Kundratek D Medicine Hat (WHL) 2-33-35,+13, 65 GP
Dane Byers LW Hartford (AHL) 25-26-51,-9, 74 GP

20-year-old Evgeny Grachev has a nice combination of size and skill. Though he didn't score much in his first year as a pro, expectations should be higher for him this year and he'll eventually be counted on in a top-six role.

It's entirely possible that Derek Stepan will return to the University of Wisconsin for his junior season, but after an impressive sophomore year and strong World Junior performance, Stepan could be ready for the pro game now. If the Rangers have an opening down the middle, Stepan might be a viable solution.

Bobby Sanguinetti has been a productive defenceman, scoring 80 points in two years with Hartford, but he's also a minus-17 over those two seasons and may need to tighten up defensively if he's going to earn a full-time job in New York.

Like Sanguinetti, Ilkka Heikkinen had a solid season with Hartford and earned a cup of coffee with the Rangers last season. Either the 25-year-old Finn or Sanguinetti could make the jump if needed, but it didn't bode well for them to get bypassed by journeyman Anders Eriksson late in the year.

After four years at Alaska-Fairbanks, Chad Johnson stepped into the Hartford net and quickly emerged as a potential future Ranger. It's possible that the Rangers could sign a veteran next season, but 23-year-old Johnson could be an economical option for a job that might only require 12-15 starts.

Michael Sauer plays a more reserved game than Sanguinetti and Heikkinen, but there's something to be said for safe and reliable. If Sauer is recovered from the injury that cut short his season in January, he's another Wolfpack defenceman that would be able to move up, at least in a depth role, if needed.

21-year-old Dale Weise has size and toughness and scored 28 goals for Hartford last season, his second pro campaign. Weise has more time on his side.

Power forward prospect Ethan Werek has had a couple of solid seasons with Kingston in the OHL. He needs more time to develop before being thrust into New York, but if his skating improves, he's an intriguing prospect.

Czech defenceman Tomas Kundratek has played for Medicine Hat in the Western Hockey League for the past two seasons. He's ready to take his game to the American Hockey League for the next step in his development.

Dane Byers is a 24-year-old tough guy who has shown a decent scoring touch in the minors, tallying 65 goals in three seasons with Hartford. Depending on team needs, he could earn a depth role with the Rangers or remain stuck in the AHL.

Longer term prospects include collegians Ryan McDonagh (Wisconsin), Chris Kreider (Boston College) and Carl Hagelin (Michigan), along with a couple of juniors: centre Ryan Bourque (Quebec) and defenceman Daniel Maggio (Sudbury).

DRAFT
10th - Ryan Johansen, Jeff Skinner, Jon Merrill.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Rangers have approximately $44.2 committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 13 players.

Needs: One first line forward, one top nine forward, one top pair defenceman, backup goaltender.

What I said the Rangers needed last year: Three top nine forwards, three defencemen, backup goaltender.

Who did they add? Marian Gaborik, Vaclav Prospal, Christopher Higgins, Ales Kotalik, Enver Lisin, Donald Brashear.

TRADE MARKET Enver Lisin, Michal Rozsival.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen

 




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