This feels familiar, doesn't it? On the eve of the regular season — the Rangers open tomorrow night in Buffalo — most preseason forecasts once again have the Rangers as a borderline playoff team. The principals from last season have by and large returned — unlike last year, when the team lost three of its top five goal-scorers in the off-season — and that squad was the very definition of a bubble team, missing the playoffs in a shootout on the last day of the season.
In fact, the feeling of déjà vu is so strong that we reread our preview of the 2009-10 season and found that a good deal of it holds true for the 2010-11 season: The Rangers absolutely still need Marian Gaborik to stay healthy, for example, although this year he'll get to play on a line with Alex Frolov, who we've been slowly talking ourselves into. (Production from Frolov will be especially important given the condition of Vinny Prospal's injured knee.) Finding a center for that line won't be so easy, though. For now, it'll be Erik Christensen. (In order, the opening-night centers will be Christensen, Artem Anisimov, the promising Derek Stepan, and Brian Boyle.)
And, of course, Henrik Lundqvist's workload is once again a concern, after starting a Brodeur-like 72 games last season, not counting the Olympics. At least he's got a veteran backup this year in Martin Biron. And Lundqvist will once again have a young defense in front of him, but at least guys like rookie standout Michael Del Zotto and (should he crack the top six) Matt Gilroy have a season of NHL experience under their belts. (Gilroy, especially, broke down at the end of last year.)
A year ago, we called out Michal Rozsival, and though not much has changed on that front, the assignment of Wade Redden to Hartford, besides the cap relief, at least means (a) a chance for a younger guy like Michael Sauer (or perhaps Ryan McDonagh, eventually), and (b) a generally more likable defensive corps. (That counts for something, no?) Plus, the uncertainty of the third defensive unit may mean the Rangers consistently carry a seventh defenseman this year, which should help hold the regulars accountable. If John Tortorella can scratch Sean Avery from the lineup when he underperforms — incidentally, we're really looking forward to Avery versus Kovalchuk six times this season — he should be able to scratch Rozsival, too.
This team isn't significantly better than last year's — if you haven't already noticed, this blog's outlook on the Rangers isn't quite as sunny as its outlook on the Knicks — but as we learned last year, even being just a point or two better could make a big difference.