We've seen our ups and downs so far this season, fellow Rangers' fans… Almost every team has them. But, what can we really garner from the 45 games played thus far in the 2009-10 season?
A few certainties are very clear. Firstly, Marian Gaborik is an elite talent. While initially there were question marks surrounding his injury-prone career, Gabby has definitely won over the Rags faithful. For much of the season, he has led the league in goals, and has stayed virtually injury-free for a change. He is on pace (yes, I hate using that term) for 52 goals and 100 points, which would both be career bests. The guy is simply a dynamo out there, and can be used in any situation thanks to his defensive awareness – likely in no small part a result of his time served under Jacques Lemaire in Minnesota. His production of late, at least in terms of goals, has dwindled a little bit, but he has helped his linemates improve their own games, especially Erik Christensen, who was claimed off of waivers from Anaheim on December 2nd.
The addition of Christensen was originally viewed as a depth move, but an injury to Vaclav Prospal saw him get the nod to center the top line between Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky, who had originally centered the top line. The move has panned out for head coach John Tortorella, as Christensen has put up 7 points in his last 6 games since being promoted. Incidentally, those are his only points in his 23 games played thus far in the season.
Brandon Dubinsky has also benefitted from Prospal's injury, as he was moved over to the wing. In his last 2 contests, he has 3 points. He definitely appears more comfortable playing on the wing, and I believe Prospal's return will not end up changing his position, given the recent success. Dubi is a player who does very well in corner scrums and on the cycle game. He's a relentless forechecker, and he belongs on the wing.
The problems have been there, however. As everyone knows, Wade Redden (a Glen Sather boo-boo of epic proportions) has seen some press-box time already this season, and many are calling for his demotion to the Rangers' AHL affiliate in Hartford. Personally, I would support this move emphatically, having watched Redden blunder through his last two years in Ottawa and the ensuing stint in the Big Apple. Simply put, if there is one player in the NHL who isn't earning his salary, it's Redden. He eats up so much cap space ($6.5M per year for 4 more years) that it has handcuffed the organization in terms of seeking outside help. He is virtually un-tradeable (mostly because of his salary to performance ratio, than his limited NTC), and he offers nothing but disappointment. Even Michael Rozsival has managed to turn his game around somewhat of late, while Redden continues to do nothing but make costly mistakes in all 3 zones of the ice. Demoting Redden, however, would mean the Rangers would either have to find a reasonable trade for an experienced shut-down defenceman, or call up another rookie to play with current newbies Michael Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy.
Speaking of the latter two rookies, I must say that I'm fairly impressed overall, although I'm not entirely sold on Gilroy just yet. Gilroy played forward through his entire career until he got to college, and the transitional shortcomings are very evident. He has all the tools to be a great puck-moving defenceman, but lacks a little bit in the positional awareness department and judgment skills. He is often very gung-ho about carrying the puck into the opposition's zone, but ends up behind the other team's net as a turnover is commited, causing a forward to have to play defence. I have stated many times that I believe if Gilroy continues to struggle with his play in his own end, that he should get a shot as a 3rd line forward, just to see if it boosts his confidence and maximizes the return on his skills the Rangers banked on when signing him to a UFA contract over the summer.
On the flip-side of the rookie equation, Michael Del Zotto has been a very pleasant surprise. In an age where the Rangers are implementing Torts' all-out offensive system, MDZ has stepped up and shown that he is an incredibly talented passer. While he has been somewhat reluctant to shoot the puck (something Tortorella has asked him to do more of), he has been a premier setup man considering his age. He, like all rookies, has shown some growing pains in adjusting to the speed of the NHL, which is indicated in his -14 rating (oddly, Gilroy is a +4), but his positional awareness will come with time. as long as he continues contributing on the scoresheet, I'm sure he'll get some leniency from the coaching staff. He currently leads all Rangers' blueliners with 6 goals and 22 points. Keep it up kiddo!
One alarming thing that is often discussed among Rangers' fans is the team's lack of overall toughness. Sure, Glen Sather went out in the summer months and signed “Mighty Joe Young” Donald Brashear, but he has rarely used his pugilistic skills, and even more rarely in situations where it would be considered coming to a teammate's defence. Sparsely used Aaron Voros is a middleweight fighter, but hasn't really done much other than embarass himself in his limited opportunities to fight. Sean Avery, who is more known for starting fights than finishing them, has also not been his normally abrasive self for much of the season, and the rest of his game seems to be suffering as a result. Avery is at his best when he gets under the other team's skin, and whether he's been asked to tone it down by the coaches or the league itself, he simply hasn't shown much of the irritating qualities that make him a success this season. I'll make a note to say that the recent game against the Dallas Stars was vintage Avery, and it resulted in him scoring a key goal and totally 4 points with 12 PIMs. That is what we need to see more of from him.
No Rangers' blog post would be complete without mention of the King. Henrik Lundqvist has been a workhorse yet again for the Blueshirts, especially since the demotion of backup Steve Valiquette to Hartford. Without a proven, reliable backup, Hank has essentially carried the entire load by himself, with the exception of one start by callup Chad Johnson (no, not Ochocinco). Hank's numbers haven't exactly been great, and he's fallen victim to at least one bad goal per game for the most part, but the reality is that the team in front of him hasn't exactly played the defensively tight system that vaulted Lundqvist to stardom under Tom Renney. However, Hank has been solid, and has stolen at least a dozen points in the standings for the team on nights where they simply didn't deserve to win. He is among the best, and will only get better once the Rangers fully acclimate to the up-and-down system employed by Tortorella. The issue is, especially in an Olympic year, will King Henrik abdicate the throne by tiring out due to over-use?
Some quick points on other players:
Artem Anisimov – While the stats sheet doesn't immediately impress, “AA” has been a great two-way center for the Rangers. Sure, he only has 7 goals and 8 assists through 45 games, but he's young and will develop over time. My theory is that his stats would be far better if he were consistently used on one of the two top lines.
Chris Higgins – When Sather signed Higgins, I was very happy. I truly believed he was a no-brainer for 20+ goals. That has not happened. Unfortunately, it's impossible to tell whether he's simply the unluckiest player in the league, or if he's just not that much of a scoring threat. The guy misses more empty nets than anyone since Sergei Zholtok, and has clanged the irons so often that you could could make a wind-chime out of his highlight reel.
Ales Kotalik – Buffalo fans warned me about him, but I didn't listen – largely due to knowing him more from the Czech national team. Well, I'm eating crow now, as Kotalik has been an absolute bust. Sure, he's used his howitzer of a shot to score some powerplay goals, but his defensive play is attrocious! A team-worst -16 rating is all I need to say about that… Maybe Torts could use him exclusively on the man-advantage, and spare us some stress…
Chris Drury – How this guy was named to the USA's entry to the Olympics is beyond me. While he does hustle a lot, he simply doesn't make plays. One could argue that he's decent on the penalty kill, but that's simply not enough for someone who was once a clutch goal scorer. Remember, he scored the decisive goal against the Rangers in the 2006 playoffs!
Ryan Callahan – After a slow
start, Cally has picked up his game of late. The intensity was there all along, but lately pucks are going in for him. He is the only player other than Gaborik to have double-digit goals (10), and continues to be a forechecking beast. His combination of speed and willingness to go into high-traffic areas make him a very valuable asset to the Rags, and I'm happy to see him also getting the nod for Team USA.
Marc Staal – Earlier in the season, Staal was struggling in a major way. He seemed confused as to his role on the team, and tried to do too much. Lately, though, he has been asked by Torts to focus on his shut-down play. It seems to have lit a fire under him, and he's become probably the best all-around defenceman on the team. No surprise with that Staal blood flowing through his veins!
Anyway, as of this writing, the Rangers are sitting in the 6th seed among Eastern Conference teams. They have a chance to climb into the 5-slot with a win tonight against the New Jersey Devils. The 5th seed is likely where this team will top-out, as there is a gap between there and the top-4 which is likely too great for an inconsistent team like the Rangers to bridge. I'm not saying it's impossible, especially if they keep up the pace they're on now (8-1-3 in their last 12 games), but it's unlikely.
So, keep the faith Rangers' fans! What looked to be a doomed season is, in reality, turning itself around. A few more bounces going our way and we're right back on our horse.
About the Author
Written by Dan Rakusan
A huge Rangers (NHL), Falcons (NFL), PGA Tour and soccer fan, I have been writing semi-professionally for about 7 years now. I try to impart information with some degree of humour, and always have an opinion. PSB is another feather in my cap, and am really proud of the team assembled here, and look forward to the long-term journey PSB is embarking on in terms of establishing itself as the best sports blogging collective on the net! Look for articles such as 4-Play, Rangers blogs and PGA Tour updates, along with my NFL handicapping service!