Thursday, March 24, 2011

Homegrown Rangers Leading New York Playoff Push

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Through the years of struggling to make the playoffs and the failed big name free agent moves New York Rangers fans have clamored for a rebuilding process that would see more young homegrown talent on display at Madison Square Garden.  As the Rangers are in the midst of a five game winning streak and charging towards the playoff race they are being led in that effort by that homegrown talent fans have yearned for.  At the forward, defense and goaltending levels the Rangers are led by players they have managed to develop.

Up front the best line for New York and the real engine of the offense is that of Brandon Dubinsky (2004, 2nd round), Artem Anisimov (2006, 2nd round), and Ryan Callahan (2004, 4th round).  This line has combined for 63 goals, 77 assists and 140 points in 197 games this season.  If the season totals were not enough in the last four games the trio has combined for 7-12-19 and the Rangers have won all four.  The beauty of this line is that their offense is how defensively responsible all three of them are.  Two-way hockey is a staple of this Rangers team which might lack elite skill, but they play hard, intense hockey on both ends of the ice and they are led by this trio in that effort.

In addition to those three up front the Rangers boast Derek Stepan (2008, 2nd round) and Mats Zuccarello (UFA) as two more young players they are developing for the future while getting contributions in the present.  Stepan’s adjustment from college to the NHL has exceptional (19-21-40) and the fact that he will likely hit the 20 goal mark as a rookie bodes well for his future.  The combination of vision, passing ability, timely goal scoring and maturity make Stepan another piece for New York to build around.  Mats  Zuccarello (6-16-22 in 39 games) has been making all sorts of adjustments this season.  Adjusting from the SEL and the bigger ice surface in Europe to the size and style of North American hockey is Zuccarello has done at varying levels of success, but he has shown flashes of his abilities for the future.

On defense the Rangers boast three core pieces to a defense that have been brought through the organizational ranks.  They can thank the 2005 NHL Entry draft for two of those guys who have helped form the foundation of this year’s defense.  Marc Staal (2005, 1st round) has elevated his game to an All-Star level this season to go along with his long held standing as one of the best shutdown defenders in the NHL.  It is not easy to find a clear cut number 1 defenseman in this league and the Rangers were lucky enough to draft and develop Staal into being just that and will build their defense core around their assistant captain for years to come.

Also take in the 2005 draft was Michael Sauer who the Rangers got in the second round.  While it has taken Sauer longer to get to the NHL his impact on this year’s Rangers team cannot be understated in terms of his positioning, smarts, vision, physicality, mean streak and defense of teammates that he has displayed.  Coming into training camp as a bubble player and the season as part of a rotation Sauer has taken many leaps forward and made himself into a core piece of this defense with his top four play all season long.  The argument can certainly be made that he has been the most consistent of all Rangers’ players.

Dan Girardi is another undrafted gem for Glen Sather and company as someone who blossomed late and has become a very underrated defender around the league for his solid play.  Girardi is never flashy, but he blocks shots, hits and just finds ways to get the job done like the team as a whole. 

The leader of them all and the backbone of the club in terms of both a playoff push and their success in the tournament is Henrik Lundqvist (2000, 7th round).  Lundqvist is a world class goalie who keeps this team in just about every game and down the stretch is back to his form of stealing them when necessary.  When you have an elite goalie like Lundqvist you are never out of a game or a series and that kind of foundational piece allows the Rangers to focus on tinkering in other sections of the ice.

As the Rangers make this push to get into and succeed in the playoffs the reason the thoughts about this season are so positive is because of the level of young and homegrown talent that are playing key roles in the team’s success.  In the past appear to be the days of buying the big name and hoping they can handle the pressure of Broadway and wearing the Blueshirt sweater and here are the days of a “Black and Blueshirt” mentality formed and led by homegrown players that are just willing to do whatever it takes to get this team to where it wants to go.  The fans can stop wishing for a rebuild because over the course of time the Rangers have already done the bulk of it and come out with key pieces to becoming a championship contender.