John Kreiser at NHL.com took a look at the biggest questions surrounding each team in the Eastern Conference for the 2011-12 season. Here is what Kreiser had on the Rangers…
Is Brad Richards a difference-maker?The Rangers are committed to Richards -- they inked the 31-year-old center to a nine-year, $60 million deal, reuniting the 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner with coach John Tortorella, his boss on the '04 Cup-winning team in Tampa Bay. Richards averaged better than a point a game in his three-plus seasons in Dallas, and the Rangers are counting on his to be the playmaker who revives Marian Gaborik and the No. 1 center they haven't had for several years. If that happens, it lets Tortorella drop players like Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Derek Stepan into roles for which they're more suited -- and makes the Rangers more than just a team competing for a playoff berth.
There is no question that Richards is going to be the focal point for many this season as he was the biggest free agent on the market and he signed under the spotlight that is New York. I would dispute that whether Richards is a difference maker is the biggest question the Rangers have to answer for the upcoming season. Other questions that still have to be answered include:
Who is going to play with Richards and Gaborik to form the top line?
This decision is the one move that will have the most impact on the structure of the New York Rangers lineup. The only line that is probably cemented together, at least to start the season, is the Dubinsky, Anisimov, Callahan line. If Wolski can win the job on the top line, then Derek Stepan is your third line center and the Boyle line is likely moved back down to the fourth line. If Stepan ends up being the first line left wing, then Boyle’s line moves up on the roster and it impacts not only who the fourth liners are, but the chances of a player like Mats Zuccarello making the team. Zuccarello and Ruslan Fedotenko could also be candidates to try and earn the spot. Regardless of who gets the assignment to start the year there will be a domino effect created throughout the lineup and roster because of it.
Who will win the final two defense spots?
The final two spots in the defense corps are yet to be decided and if Erixon and Del Zotto win those jobs the Rangers are entering the season with only two defenders in the main lineup that have over 127 games of NHL experience. Eminger is there as insurance and showed over different stretches last season that he can be a solid defender, especially on the third pair, but he was also benched for Matt Gilroy.
Can players who had career years repeat?
The Rangers were able to survive the large number of injuries and down years from Gaborik and Del Zotto because they had so many players have career seasons. Boyle and Prust broke out in all phases of the game, but their offensive increases were substantial from prior levels. Ryan Callahan and Artem Anisimov also had significant jumps in their production from previous seasons and Derek Stepan broke onto the scene with a 45 point season. Add in the unexpectedly solid play of rookies Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer and the Rangers have to wonder if all of these players can repeat let alone improve on last season.
Lesser questions include:
How will the Rangers solve the logjam of forwards before the season?
Will any prospects other than Tim Erixon be on the team this year?
The play of Brad Richards will be critical to the Rangers ultimate success and scrutinized more than any other question because of his contract, but that does not by default make him the biggest question the Rangers have this season. He will have his impact in aiding an under-performing power play, aiding in the bounce back of Marian Gaborik and producing his own offense to help give the lineup more balance, but other questions will have to be answered to allow Richards to show if he is the difference maker in the end.