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Mid-Way On Broadway

Posted By Dan Rakusan On Jan 15 2009 @ 5:35 pm In New York Rangers | No Comments

Okay, so we're a few games past the mid-way point of the NHL regular season, but we're close enough, so it is time to evaluate the season so far for the New York Rangers.

Looking back to October, the Rangers looked like a juggernaut team, posting a 10-2-1 record and taking a sizeable lead in the Eastern Conference. Of course, much of that was an illusion, as they also played more games than anyone except perhaps Tampa during that month (the two teams started against one another a week earlier than most other clubs, due to a “home-and-home” in Prague, Czech Republic).

However, when we look at the standings now, and see the Rangers in 3rd place, we can safely assume that this team needs to change something if they are to be considered legitimate Cup contenders.  It all starts with the players.  Let's take a look at some of the additions the Rangers made in the past offseason first.

NIKOLAI ZHERDEV:  With the departure of Jaromir Jagr to the sunny climes of Siberia, the Rangers needed to add some scoring punch, and found a willing dance partner with the Columbus Blue Jackets in terms of effectuating a trade.  Sent packing were defencemen Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman, and incoming were Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche.  For his part, Zherdev has not disappointed, leading the team with 37 points at this time.  He was considered “enigmatic” during his time in Columbus, but the feeling is that he didn't see eye-to-eye with Ken Hitchcock and wanted out of the Jackets.  So far in New York, he has shown a willingness to work every shift, as well as a very high skill level.  This kid can dangle with the best of them, and should only continue to improve as he gets more familiar with his surroundings.

MARKUS NASLUND:  To be honest, I was rather shocked when Naslund signed with the Rangers.  I figured he'd be a Canuck for the rest of his career, but I guess he saw things changing in Vancouver and opted to check out a different place to play.  Naslund has been very solid for the Rangers, leading the team in goals scored with 14 lamp-lighters.  He's a trigger-man, there is no doubt, and while it took a bit of time for him to find chemistry with Scotty Gomez and/or Chris Drury, he seems to have settled in and is now really looking rejuvenated.  He'll be a critical component on the powerplay for the balance of the season, but could use some help from the back end.

WADE REDDEN:  I'm still confused by the contract awarded to a defenceman who was allowed to walk from Ottawa for no return.  The Senators had implied they'd be interested in keeping Redden if he were willing to take a salary in the $3M per season range, but of course the Rangers had to open up the purse and hand him $6.5M.  Hard to imagine when Redden seems to have lost his fire, maybe because of his mother's passing last season.  Still, as long as he doesn't make his errant pinch-attempts, his poor first passes or his woefully timed decisions, he is an adequate defenceman.  Sadly, if he's not producing offensively, as has been the case this year, he is of little to no value on the ice.  He doesn't hit, isn't a shut-down guy, and isn't much of a leader.  For the record, Redden has 2 goals and 14 points so far, and is a -7.

Now, let's take a look at what the Rangers might need to improve their chances heading towards the trade deadline and beyond…  (please keep in mind, I have no way of gauging a player's availability, so when I drop a name, consider it to mean “a player like” that guy…)

1 – A top shutdown defenceman with decent mobility:  If the Ottawa Senators were willing to let Anton Volchenkov go, I'd say he's the perfect fit, but I am fairly confident they don't want to move him.  Essentially, we need someone on the back-end who will do the dirty work.  Paul Mara is passable in that capacity, but the Rangers would really benefit from a stud defensive defenceman.  Perhaps a Niclas Havelid would be available come deadline day…

2 – The Rangers are heavy down the middle, with Drury, Gomez and Dubinsky all potential top line pivots in other situations.  They would be best served complementing that depth with some better scoring wingers, but that isn't likely to happen without cutting one of the centers loose.  Unfortunately, both Drury (NMC) and Gomez (NTC – he gives the Rangers a list of 3 teams he would NOT accept a trade to at the end of each season) have movement clauses that could make moving their large salaries in any potential trade very difficult.  Now, we can only guess as to which 3 teams Gomez has on this season's list, but I'm guessing that those teams would fall under the “seller” category this year.  So, do they trade Dubinsky to shore up the wings?  Doubtful, as Dubie has shown plenty of promise, even in his reduced role this year.  At any rate, maybe someone will take a flyer on Redden, although his contract makes him virtually untradeable.  So, where do they look?  My guess is that Slava Kozlov might welcome a change of scenery, as Atlanta is heading nowhere fast.  Or potentially Martin Havlat might be available, although his ressurgence of late makes him a valuable player for Chicago.  If Colorado is out of the hunt come March 4th, the Rangers might want to approach them about Milan Hejduk.  Either way, without scoring depth beyond Zherdev and Naslund on the wings, the Rangers will continue to win on defence and goaltending alone…

Anyway, the Rags are on pace to finish the season with roughly 102-112 points, and are a virtual lock to make the playoffs.  The key is that they keep improving their post-season showings.  After missing the playoffs for several seasons, they finally got back into them two years ago, only to be dispatched after the second round.  Last year, they repeated that effort, bowing out to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a highly controversial series.  This year, they need to get to the third round, or the season can be considered a failure.

Upcoming Games & Predictions:

Friday, January 16 – @ Blackhawks:  I'm going to say the Rangers lose to the upstart Hawks by a 3-1 final score.  Chicago has so many offensive weapons clicking for them right now, and with Khabibulin and Huet finally both playing solid hockey for the most part, I think Chicago takes it on their home turf.

Sunday, January 18 – @ Penguins:  With all the Penguins' injuries right now, plus the shaky play of Marc-Andre Fleury, I'm going to take the Rangers to win this game 4-2.  The Pens still have enough offensive weapons to score, but they are struggling defensively.  Crosby's situation won't affect this result much.

Tuesday, January 20 – Ducks:  A home game that I believe will be close, but that the Rangers will eke out.  I'm going to go out on a limb and even say that this one will finish in a shootout, with the Rangers coming out on top by a 3-2 score.  I'm simply not a believer in the Ducks, and think the home-town crowd will buoy the Rags to victory.

Well, that's it for now!  More to come as the games are played!

Na Zdravy – Dan aka Czechmate

danrakusan@sportstalkbuzz.com

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