Tuesday, October 5, 2010

2010-11 Preview: Youth the key for Rangers

For years, fans have longed for a youth movement on Broadway. Even with some familiar faces around for the new season which begins in Buffalo Saturday, youth will be served when the puck drops. If it's true that prize free agent Alexander Frolov should relieve pressure from Big Ticket Marian Gaborik, then it's also true that the exuberance of rookies Derek Stepan and Mike Sauer should prove instrumental in what 2010-11 holds for John Tortorella's Blueshirts.

Along with sophomores Mike Del Zotto, Matt Gilroy and Artem Anisimov, how the kids perform could go a long way to whether this new Ranger version is good enough to return to the playoffs. There's also third-year forward Brandon Dubinsky, who's been converted to left wing for increased offense. Alternate captain Ryan Callahan enters Year Four looking to take the next step in his development. The do everything Team MVP had a strong camp and could be in line for 25 goals and close to 50 points. How he and Dubinsky fare along with linemate Anisimov will be vital.

While everyone will be focused on the top line of Frolov, Erik Christensen and Gaborik, it's the secondary scoring that needs to deliver. Last year, they simply weren't good enough. However, early chemistry from the American-Russian Express and the surprise emergence of Tort Tampa student Ruslan Fedotenko has fans excited about this club. In particular, Stepan who looks to make the jump from Wisconsin to the pros. If preseason was any indication, the 20 year-old former second round pick looks ready- playing poised beyond his years. His all around game, vision and smarts reminds us of Devil No.1 pivot Travis Zajac. There's also a slight resemblance to injured captain Chris Drury, who has had a knack for scoring and setting up big goals while doing all the little things which don't show up in boxscores but win games. No wonder he'll trade in the high No.57 for his trademark No.21 likely anchoring a third line between Fedotenko and a motivated Sean Avery, who had a whale of a camp. In order for the Grate One to be effective, he must continue getting underneath opponents' skin while going to the net and playing with the edge which was lacking most of last season.

With both Drury (broken index finger) and Vinny Prospal (knee) sidelined, that should comprise the club's top three lines. Tortorella must also be encouraged by Brian Boyle's improvement. The big forward showed stronger skating and scoring touch in exhibition along with a willingness to get dirty. Can it carry over? Brandon Prust turned out to be better than expected in last year's deal that included failure Olli Jokinen, who reunites with Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay in Alberta. Prust not only can play physical and drop 'em if needed but also is a better skater than given credit for, capable of contributing. With former Gabby Wild teammate Derek Boogaard around to keep opponents honest, figure Prust to do less fighting and more playing. He also can kill penalties. Until Drury and Prospal are back, the club also has former Sabre energizer Tim Kennedy and savvy vet Todd White if there needs to be a shakeup. A marked improvement over last year.

The blueline will also be one of the league's youngest led by 23 year-old Marc Staal and 26 year-old Dan Girardi. Both looked rusty in camp. Hopefully, they got out the cobwebs because if this team is to succeed, that shutdown pair must set the table. Both Del Zotto and Gilroy are still a little green in their end. For all their offensive potential, they can easily hurt the club as well. Both will need to be stronger in Year Two. The good news is they looked potent on a No.1 power play unit featuring the top line. Whether Tortorella pairs them together remains doubtful. Especially with key minute logger Michal Rozsival back. Say what you will about the senior Ranger but he's the second best passer on the back end and plays every situation. If right, he is still an important vet presence on a D that will at times need guidance. As for Sauer, finally the lone holdover from the unpopular Brian Leetch trade gets his shot thanks to an impressive showing. Hard to believe that he's only 23. Something which gets lost when it comes to the development of defensemen. Will Tort show more faith than in that three-game stint two seasons prior? He'll have to unless extra Steve Eminger somehow finds his way in after a shaky exhibition. There are also kids Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko, who both made it a tough decision before being sent down.

Without Henrik Lundqvist, the Blueshirts wouldn't even be mentioned for the postseason. Instead, they'd be in the lottery. Amazingly, King Henrik enters his sixth season having won 30-or-more in all five years, becoming one of the game's elite goalies. Despite little support and a shaky defense that included Hartford deport Wade Redden, Lundqvist managed 35 wins in 72 starts while lowering his GAA from the prior year to 2.38 and improving to a .921 save percentage. His best since the '05-06 rookie season (.922). Even if backup Martin Biron could lighten the load, this team doesn't go anywhere without Henrik. He's the backbone. With a mostly inexperienced blueline in front of him with only Rozsival over 30, the 28 year-old Swede will need to steal some games. This is a prideful man who took last Spring's shootout heartache to heart. He wants to get this team back to the playoffs and surprise some people.

Tortorella gets a second full season to make things right. He has more firepower this time. The fiery former Cup winner has more pressure. How he handles the youth must be watched closely. He doesn't want to lose anyone early. There needs to be trust. If Stepan and Fedotenko get out quick, what happens when Drury and Prospal return? In some aspects, it's a good problem to have. Glen Sather's provided more depth to a team that needed it. So, Tort must show himself capable of getting this club to play firewagon hockey while being more consistent. There can't be anymore winter lulls. Not if they want back in next Spring. It's the coach's job to motivate them.

Prediction: While they should be challenged by improved clubs like the Lightning and Thrashers, this team looks capable of surprising the East. Scoring shouldn't be an issue. They got the goalie. Will the D hold up?

4th in Atlantic, 8th in East, 92 Pts

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