New York Rangers Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
Bryan Trottier failed his chemistry class last season. Much like Ron Low, John Tortorella and John Muckler did before him.
Now it will be Glen Sather's turn to take what amounts to the most challenging chemistry test ever administered.
The chronically underachieving Rangers have missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons, but a seventh spring in a row without postseason hockey in Manhattan appears unlikely if the Blueshirts can stay healthy.
"I think with Glen Sather behind the bench for a full season and the rest of the coaching staff that we have, we'll be as strong as anybody," assistant general manager Don Maloney said. "We are very, very optimistic that we'll have a terrific season. Even last year, I don't think anybody would've wanted to face us if we got to the playoffs. But that's the age-old story -- we still have to get there."
The Rangers are loaded on defense with the addition of Greg de Vries from Colorado, and the return of Brian Leetch from a brief exile in Edmonton. OK, so he never actually left Manhattan -- the Rangers traded his rights to the Oilers on the eve of free agency, meaning they now must give compensation in the form of a 2004 draft pick to Edmonton for re-signing Leetch.
Pavel Bure's slow recovery from a knee injury throws a monkey wrench into the Rangers' planning for their forward units. With Bure, the Rangers have the deepest corps of right wingers in the league, with Alex Kovalev and Anson Carter joining the Russian Rocket. Without Bure, Kovalev and Carter each jump up a line, affecting the team's depth and the scoring punch the third line is capable of delivering. Recent reports suggest Bure may never return to the ice after suffering a series of setbacks this summer in his rehabilitation.
The 2002-03 edition of the Rangers essentially paralleled the life of an underfunded Broadway show. The curtain came down early, the marquee went dark and the director was let go for his poor artistic vision and lack of control. But money wasn't the problem in the Rangers' instance, other than that it raised the level of expectations.
Now it is Sather who is in the spotlight, knowing full well that his high-priced roster is talented enough to compete for the Stanley Cup, not just sneak into the playoffs.
Alexei Kovalev, RW -- With a payroll that was close to $80 million last season, the Rangers should be a team filled with go-to guys. It hasn't worked out like that, however.
With Bure able to play in just 39 games, Eric Lindros mired in a career-worst season and Bobby Holik playing a defense-first role on the third line, the Rangers traded for Kovalev in February in a desperate move to try to make the playoffs.
Lindros can't possibly be as bad as he was a year ago, when he recorded just 19 goals and 34 assists in 81 games. The Rangers are counting on "The Big E" to return to his point-per-game ways, which surely would help the team avoid another early April tee time.
Kovalev had 10 goals and three assists in 24 games with New York, but his role will increase as long as Bure remains sidelined. Kovalev always has done well when paired with a big, creative center who can allow him to find open spaces from which to unleash his incredible wrist shot. Of course, that would mean a return to form by Lindros would go hand-in-hand with Kovalev's emergence as the Rangers' main man.
Left wing -- The Rangers have more people on the right than a Young Republicans convention, and boast a more impressive bunch in the middle than the Swiss Parliament.
Few teams have more depth at center and at right wing, but the Blueshirts have some serious concerns on the left side. So much so that they are hoping to sign Magnus Arvedson, Jan Hlavac or Martin Rucinsky to boost their scoring punch and all-around play.
"We're still throwing around some free-agent names," Maloney siad. "I'd rather not get into the specifics of it, but those are three names we are still sort of kicking around a little bit. It's an area that we think we need to be a little stronger at. We're getting it worked out and trying to fill those holes."
Hlavac and Rucinsky would improve the team's depth, but Arvedson would provide an equal offensive threat in addition to a significantly greater defensive presence.
Jamie Lundmark is a natural center, but he has played left wing in the past and likely will be forced to do so this year if Messier re-signs. Matthew Barnaby proved to be extremely versatile last year while playing with all four lines at various times, something he could do again this season. And free-agent signee Chris Simon offers similar versatility, with experience playing on a scoring line on a Stanley Cup champion (Colorado in 1995-96), but also the toughness and grit to do the dirty work on the bottom two lines if need be.
Adding Arvedson, Hlavac or Rucinsky would be a big step to shore up the team's most glaring weakness, but even with one of those three it would still remain a big step behind the center and right wing positions.
Can the Rangers end their six-year postseason drought?
There hasn't been playoff hockey at Madison Square Garden since May 23, 1997, but that should change this season. A full season of Kovalev on the power play and Sather behind the bench should increase goal scoring enough to get New York into the top eight in the East.
Despite their ignominious run, the Rangers have been in contention late into March in most of those years. But every season they have stumbled down the stretch.
In last year's case, a three-game losing skid from March 10-15 was a critical difference. The Rangers are ready to shed the label of being the most disappointing team in the NHL, something playing in the wide-open Eastern Conference should help them do.
"On paper, I like the team that we've put together," Maloney said. "Then again, I've felt the same way each of the past six seasons. But I like this group that we have assembled, and I think we may be even stronger by opening day."
Sather posted an 11-10-4-3 record behind the bench after canning Trottier on Jan. 29. He wasn't able to back up his Jim Fassel-like playoff guarantee, but he probably would be pretty safe calling his shot to begin the 2003-04 season.
Fedor Tjutin, D, 6-3, 215 pounds
Tjutin is an impressive two-way, puck-moving defenseman who can jump up on the rush and key a counterattack with his excellent skating ability. He has a terrific shot and should eventually emerge into a guy who plays in all phases of the game.
Maloney said Tjutin was among the standouts at a recent prospect camp in Calgary and appears ready to challenge for an NHL job. But if the Rangers strike a deal with Mironov, Tjutin's chances of making the big club might be lessened because New York would have seven blueliners with NHL experience.
"He's smart and he's a very good skater," Maloney said. "The question is if he's mature enough to play with the big boys at a tough position. It's a tough position to break into the NHL at when you are 20 years old. I think he'll have a strong camp and will make a serious bid to play in New York this season."
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.