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Defense and Top Line Questions Key To Rangers' Offseason

April 30, 2011
Alex Silverberg

The New York Rangers defied the expectations of many hockey analysts finishing in eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 93 points despite their top sniper only netting 22 goals and the team losing 294 man-games to injury. Although making the playoffs was a great relief, the Rangers lack of talent and experience really cost them their first-round series with the Washington Capitals. As the months grow warmer, here are the top questions that the team needs to address.

Is Brad Richards really the cure-all for this offense?

Brad Richards is no doubt an exciting player and a game-breaker, netting 77 points in 72 games but the Rangers really need to consider if he is the one player they need to go from first-round losers to Stanley Cup contenders.

The Rangers are banking that he will be the same, effective player after having concussion issues this season. As we all know from the case of Sidney Crosby, there is nothing guaranteed once head injuries are involved. The Blueshirts are also assuming that Richards' playmaking ability will set Marion Gaborik on fire again. I for one think Gaborik will have a bounce back season whether or not the team signs Richards but even if they do, what does that mean for the rest of the lines?

The top line would probably look like Gaborik-Richards-Dubinsky. After that line, if our current roster doesn't improve through miraculous trades, you have a group of guys who mostly grind and battle their ways to the net. Granted, the team does have a bunch of could-be skill guys in Zuccarello, Wolski and Christensen but the consistency has not been there for us to expect big years.

So what you have is one dangerous line and three grinding lines. Stanley Cup champions aren't built like that. Successful teams have 2-3 lines that can score at any given moment. The Rangers will not have that even if they do sign Richards, so if the price isn't right, perhaps they should go back to the draft board and invest in their scoring future.

Who makes the third defense pairing?

One of the true bright spots of the season was the blossoming of Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer as a legitimate second defense pair, posting a plus-16 and a plus-20 respectively. For years the Rangers have had to worry about defense but now there seems to be a glut of it.

With Marc Staal and Dan Girardi established firmly as the first-pair and McDonagh and Sauer looking like a legitimate coupling, the Blueshirts have to make a lot of tough decisions when it comes to filling those final spots.

Steve Eminger, while not the flashiest defenseman, provided a physical edge that was effective against skill teams like the Capitals. Bryan McCabe was counted on to be the mid-season power play savior with his big shot from the point and while he did have his moments, his stay in Manhattan was largely marginal. Matt Gilroy showed some of the offensive prowess in the playoffs that made the Rangers draft him but it may have been too little, too late. Michael Del Zotto floundered in the early part of the season and was sent down to Hartford where he broke his hand and did not return to the team.

All these players are battling for those two spots. I say that they have to give one spot to Del Zotto as he has the best potential out of any mentioned and will undoubtedly use his minor league demotion as motivation to make it back to the big club. The other spot could be used on McCabe as he still has a big shot and is not that big of a liability in the regular minutes he plays. Gilroy may have earned himself a contract with his playoff performance but if he does make the team I can easily see him as the expected healthy scratch on most game days. However, these spots could be made even more crowded if Pavel Valentenko, a nasty d-man with a big shot, performs well in training camp or if a miracle happens and the Rangers' top prospect, "The Undertaker" Dylan McIlrath, is ahead of schedule in his development as the crease-clearing juggernaut that the Rangers have sorely needed for years.

These questions are at the forefront this summer and GM Glen Sather will have some tough decisions to make before the Rangers face-off against the Los Angeles Kings in Sweden on October 7th.

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