Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Looking Ahead: Nash, Rangers aim for Cup

A day later and the hockey world is still buzzing about yesterday's trade for Rick Nash, who after months of speculation finally landed on Broadway. The 28-year old power forward will team with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik to bolster an offense that struggled during the Rangers' run to the Eastern Conference Final.

It's a whole new ballgame for Nash, who's lived in obscurity playing for one of the league's worst franchises in Columbus. Now, he must do better than the 30 goals, 59 points and career worst minus-19 rating in his last as a Blue Jacket. Glen Sather acquired the All-Star to fill a hole. How quickly he adjusts to life under the bright lights will determine whether the blockbuster trade is a home run or just another failed attempt by Slats at a star who's trending downward.

Nash should have plenty left in the tank. Only 28, he figures to be rejuvenated playing with actual players who can get him the puck. First, John Tortorella will try his new star with Richards and probably Carl Hagelin if it's our guess. As noted in Monday's post, it makes sense to keep the All-American trio of Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan intact and let them build off last Spring. They play a North American forechecking style that the Blueshirts will need to get through a tough division. By no means is it a cake walk when the Flyers potentially could be getting Shea Weber and the Pens with a full year of Sidney Crosby. The defending East champion Devils shouldn't be underestimated despite the subtraction of Zach Parise. The Islanders are at the basement by default despite emerging star John Tavares. It's possible for all five Atlantic teams to finish with 80-or-more points. The Isles missed 80 by one point last year.

So before you go annointing our team as Cup champs, there's still much work to be done. It's not easy to reach consecutive Conference Finals. It'll also be a challenge to finish as the top seed two straight years. As we've learned, seeding means nothing. The Kings had no problem taking out Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix before being crowned champs over the lower seeded Devils. It becomes a different game in the playoffs. One Nash isn't accustomed to unless you actually count that time his team got swept by Detroit. The Rangers could breeze through the regular season and it won't mean didly squat if they don't win the Cup. That's what this trade is about. Bringing a fifth Cup to one of the most unsuccessful franchises in NHL history. One championship in the last 71 years. 1994 is a distant memory. Only Alex Kovalev still plays back home in Russia. Mark Messier and Adam Graves work for the Rangers and Conn Smythe hero Brian Leetch for MSG.

For Henrik Lundqvist, the mission remains the same. He wants to win a championship. The first-time Vezina winner had a nice run finally ditching the one round playoff label. Without him, the Rangers don't make it out of the first two rounds. He did falter against nemesis Martin Brodeur but the team in front of him also wore down possibly due to two extended series. It was still a valuable experience that should prove beneficial to remaining holdovers Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Ryan McDonagh, Mike Del ZottoStu Bickel, Richards, Gaborik, Callahan, Stepan, Hagelin, Kreider, Brian Boyle and Mike Rupp. Assuming Anton Stralman is re-signed and why wouldn't he be, that's 15 Rangers from last season. The bitter taste of being so close should be a motivating factor.

Adding Nash to a roster that often lacked consistent secondary scoring should help. His size (6-4, 216), strength and speed are game breaking. One area he must improve on is the power play. His numbers have slipped. In each of the past two seasons, he's scored six. For full breakdown of Nash's pros, cons and power play numbers, please refer to a previous post I did two weeks ago. Part of it has to do with who he played with which wasn't much unless you think R.J. Umberger is a first line player. Here, he'll be surrounded with better talent including playmakers Richards and Stepan. Del Zotto isn't much of a power play quarterback but is a great passer with superb skating ability. If there's one thing the team still lacks, it's a true No.1 defenseman who can run the man-advantage. Otherwise known as the powerless play. Hopefully, the combo of Gaborik and Nash along with Callahan will drastically improve our output.

At even strength, Nash only had seven more points than Artem Anisimov. He probably won't be as solid overall as Anisimov or Brandon Dubinsky but that's not why he was brought in. He's here to score big goals and help win a Cup. If the Blueshirts are to go all the way, figure it to be a three-year window with Callahan, Gaborik, Girardi and Lundqvist all due raises following '13-14. In other words, the pressure is on the team to win now. Anyone who thinks differently is foolish. This is about maximizing the prime years of our best players before things get tricky. With Nash ($7.8 million) signed through '17-18 and Richards ($6.67 million) here for another eight years, who knows what the cap will look like. That's the unknown until a new CBA gets done. Hopefully, sooner rather than later.

The Rangers are banking on Nash to return to the form that saw him score 40 goals twice. If it works out, pencil him in for at least 35 and 70 points. We'll see how he does when lights shine brightest.

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