Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Rangers Rebuild Lowers Expectations

For years, Ranger fans have wanted to see the team rebuild. With mostly overpaid vets underperforming the past seven seasons to miss the playoffs, there was an outcry for change.

At the '04 trade deadline, GM Glen Sather finally awoke, giving the public what they wanted. Gone were classic underachievers Alexei Kovalev, Petr Nedved and Vlad Malakhov. With a change in philosophy, Sather also unloaded Matt Barnaby, Chris Simon and Greg de Vries.

The biggest change was trading popular Ranger defenseman Brian Leetch to Toronto. The '94 Conn Smythe winner was a perennial All-Star who won two Norris Trophies and became one of the best Rangers in their history. He scored 240 goals and 741 assists for 981 points in 1129 games during his Ranger career. But ultimately, he'll always be remembered for his '94 performance where he led all scorers with 34 points (11-23-34) and a +19 rating, dominating in every facet to help the Rangers break a 54-year Cup drought.

In exchange for Leetch, Sather received Maxim Kondratiev, Jarkko Immonen, an '04 first round pick (Lauri Korpikoski-from Calgary) and an '05 second round choice (Michael Sauer). When the deal was announced, there was plenty of backlash from fans, particularly about the fashion in which Sather dealt Leetch. Not even informing him that he could be traded.

A year and a half later removed from the lockout, that blockbuster trade might produce early returns. Kondratiev is expected to make the Rangers and could see time as a fifth defenseman. Immonen will start at Hartford. Meanwhile, Leetch left Toronto to sign with Boston. He'll make his Garden return on November 20th in what should be an emotional scene.

One star who survived the purge was Jaromir Jagr. Jagr, acquired from Washington for Anson Carter on January 23, 2004, scored 15 goals and 14 assists for 29 points in 31 games as a Ranger. The two-time Cup winner ('91, '92 Penguins) and 10-time All-Star is one of the most dynamic forwards in the game. Since his rookie season in '91 when he tallied 27 goals, Jagr has scored 30-or-more in 13 straight NHL seasons. He's also won a Hart Trophy ('98-99), five Art Ross Trophies (led league in scoring) and an Olympic gold medal (Czech Republic-'98 Nagano).

Forwards: The Rangers need Jagr to dominate games this season if they want to compete. Sather added former Pen Martin Straka, who played with Jagr. They should play together with Michael Nylander. Nylander is a playmaking center who can setup goals.

Back for his third stint is Martin Rucinsky. Rucinsky registered 42 points with the club in '03-04 before being dealt to Vancouver. He re-signed with the club August 3rd. He should see time on the second line, power play and in shorthanded situations. Most likely, he'll play with former Anaheim captain Steve Rucchin. Rucchin is a two-way center who was acquired for Trevor Gillies. Either former '99 top pick Jamie Lundmark or recent acquisition Marcel Hossa could play with them.

Blair Betts, Jed Ortmeyer and Ville Nieminen should comprise the checking line. All played well in the preseason.

One rookie who could push for extra ice-time is Petr Prucha. The former '02 eighth round pick showed flashes of brilliance, notching a highlight reel goal against the Devils Martin Brodeur.

Dominic Moore, Ryan Hollweg and Jason Ward also could see time on the fourth line.

Defense: Darius Kasparaitis will be looked to for leadership. At the moment, the Blueshirts don't have a captain but Kasparaitis could be next in line following retired legend Mark Messier. He'll anchor the blueline with Fedor Tyutin. Tyutin got into 25 games in '03-04 and didn't look out of place. He's a solid skating stay-at-home defenseman.

If the Rangers are to surprise, they'll need Tom Poti to step up. Poti has plenty of offensive skills. He possesses a big shot and is a solid puckmoving D. He'll be asked to carry the load on the power play. If he can play well in his end, it would go a long way to the Blueshirts having any success.

Poti will play with free agent pickup Marek Malik (Vancouver). Malik finished second in plus-minus (35) in '03-04. He has struggled so far and must improve to justify the three-year $7.5 million contract Sather gave him.

Kondratiev and Michal Rozsival could round out the blueline. Both are solid skaters who can move the puck. Jason Strudwick or Dale Purinton also might see action.

Goalies: Kevin Weekes will be the number one to start the season. The 30-year-old Toronto native should see plenty of rubber and will be called upon to keep the Rangers in games. He's gotten better during exhibition, which is a good sign. If he falters, rookie Henrik Lundqvist will finally get a chance to prove how silly other GMs were in the 2000 Draft. Selected in the seventh round, Lundqvist has starred overseas in Sweden for Frolunda leading them to the championship in '04-05. He looked sharp in preseason and possesses a quick glove.

Coach: Tom Renney has a tough assignment ahead. Get maximum results from his vets and hope for some younger players to come through. He coached Vancouver from '96 to '98 going 39-53-9. He's supposed to work well with younger players. How he handles this situation will go a long way to determining if he's the right choice.

Prediction: Aside from the top two lines, this team will have trouble scoring. Jagr is the only legit 30-goal threat. Teams will try to shut him down forcing other Rangers to pick up the slack. The defense is very shaky. Poti has never been known to play well in his end and Malik could be a victim of the new rules. If Purinton or Strudwick play regularly, this club is in big trouble. Weekes and Lundqvist are a solid duo in net but how many times will they be hung out to dry? Barring a miracle, it will be the eighth straight season without playoffs.

Last in Atlantic, 14th East


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