Two quick facts about the Rangers, who open the season tonight in Pittsburgh and have their home opener tomorrow against Ottawa: They finished 25th in the NHL in scoring last year, and three of their top five goal-scorers from that season are now gone. You don’t have to be Don Cherry to know that this is a problem. They made moves over the summer, of course, but for every Marian Gaborik they brought in, a Scott Gomez was shipped out. In short, they’re a new team, with all-new questions, but look to be approximately as good as they were in April, when the Capitals came back from a three-games-to-one deficit to eliminate them in the first round of the playoffs.
Most season forecasts have the Rangers on the bubble of the playoffs, a prediction we’re inclined to agree with. To get there again this year, and especially to make any kind of real run, the Rangers need to hope some things go their way. There’s really no way of knowing if any or all of the following five things will happen this year. But hope is all they’ve got.
1. Hope that Marian Gaborik is healthy. Really, we could stop right here if we wanted to. Gaborik’s health concerns have been well documented — he’s played more than 65 games just once in the last five seasons — and it’s no secret that their season rides on his ability to actually show up and play. Because when he does, he’s exactly what they need: a potential 40-goal scorer who can also improve their woeful power play.
2. Hope that Sweden loses early in the Olympics. Since the lockout, the foundation of this team has been Henrik Lundqvist. But it’s also true that in every one of his NHL seasons, Hank’s hit a slump — sometimes lasting just a few weeks, sometimes a month or two — that’s impacted their seeding, and in some cases, almost cost them a playoff spot altogether. Lundqvist already carries a huge workload, and while we’re sure he’d love to win another Olympic gold, the Rangers are better off if he kills two birds with one stone and slumps in Vancouver, then gets some time to rest.
3. Hope Michal Rozsival doesn’t suck. We’d mention Wade Redden here, but despite an okay playoffs, we think he might be a lost cause. (Feel free, by the way, to prove us wrong, Wade.) But Rozsival was a serviceable defenseman up until last season, when he fell apart and heard the boos from the Blue Seats. (And don’t blame him getting paired with Redden; his previous partner was the equally inept Marik Malik.) With such a young defense corps, the Rangers need a strong veteran presence on the blue line. Rozsival will have to do.
4. Hope their kids grow up fast. If you consider the team’s off-season comings and goings a wash, the Rangers’ best hope to be something more than an eighth playoff seed lies with Mark Staal, Brandon Dubinsky, and Ryan Callahan. Staal’s a star in the making and was a very steady presence last year, though it’s hard to quantify steadiness. Callahan’s a good player who they’ll be counting on more. But with Dubinsky likely getting time centering Gaborik’s line, he’ll be expected to put up first-line-center points — something he just might be capable of.
On a similar note, the Rangers will start the season with two rookie defensemen. One is Matt Gilroy, who impressed us in the preseason with his puck-handling but also scared the hell out of us pinching in as part of John Tortorella’s “safe is death” system. The other is Michael Del Zotto, who tonight, at 19, will become the youngest Rangers defenseman since Dave Maloney, and is on something of an extended tryout: If he plays fewer than ten games, he can be returned to his junior team in Canada for the remainder of the season.
5. Hope Sean Avery and John Tortorella can co-exist. As much as we like Avery, we find it bizarre how much better this team has played when he’s been in the lineup the last couple of years. Tom Renney was mostly hands-off with Avery, but Tortorella likely won’t be. He scratched Avery from game five against the Caps last year after Avery took some bad penalties in game four, and sent a message that there’s only room for one smart-ass on this team, and it’s going to be him. At the very least, if things fall apart this year, these two will ensure there won’t be any dull moments.