The New York Rangers open training camp today with a different set of expectations and questions than they had a year ago when camp began. Expectations dictate that squeaking into the playoffs and losing early is no longer acceptable as the team is built to finish no worse than 6th in the Eastern Conference and to win at least one round in the playoffs. A large part of the reason for the increased expectations is the acquisition of Brad Richards this summer to fill the void of a top line center as well as a power play quarterback.
Beyond Richards alone, expectations are also higher because of how well young players like Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer performed in their rookie campaigns and the growth that was shown from homegrown players like Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov along with surprising years from Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust offensively. Whether those things will continue during the 2011-12 season will not be answered during training camp itself, but there are questions/things to watch for during training camp.
Chemistry between Gaborik and Richards: Marian Gaborik is looking to rebound from a down season and Brad Richards was brought in for both his own abilities plus the hopes that providing Gaborik with an elite center would facilitate that turnaround. As I have said before, Richards is not responsible for fixing Gaborik, but the development of their personal chemistry on the ice is a critical component to the Rangers ultimate success this season. If they click the Rangers offense takes another step and they truly have the potential to be an elite club because they already possess the complimentary players necessary to win.
Fight to See Who Claims Top Line Left Wing Spot: While the chemistry between Richards and Gaborik is important to watch in camp, the battle to see who is the other winger on the line is the most important factor in determining the rest of the lineup. Wojtek Wolski likely heads into camp as the favorite for the spot, but he will have competition from Ruslan Fedotenko, Derek Stepan, and Sean Avery for the role. Brandon Dubinsky might also be considered, but the draw to leaving Dubinsky with Artem Anisimov and Ryan Callahan probably means he will not play with Richards and Gaborik.
Battle for Final Defense Pairing: The battle on defense to claim the final two spots in the lineup is one that should be very fun to watch. Steve Eminger is going to make the team as a either a 6th or 7th defender, which leaves possibly two spots to be had. Tim Erixon and Michael Del Zotto are the main competitors for the spots with Erixon being the highly touted prospect who just impressed in Traverse City and Del Zotto needing to rebound from an awful sophomore season. Beyond those two Tomas Kundratek, Pavel Valentenko, Blake Parlett and even Brendan Bell could be in the mix.
Carl Hagelin Looking To Beat Out Veterans like Sean Avery, Erik Christensen: With the Rangers having 13 forwards already on the roster and Mats Zuccarello under contract, there does not appear to be a lot of room for a prospect to break into the forward ranks for the 2011-12 season. However, players like Sean Avery and Erik Christensen for differing reasons are players who could find themselves on the outside looking in when training camp concludes and a player like Hagelin could take their place. Hagelin at this stage of his career brings more to the table than either Avery or Christensen, but will need to have a big camp to prove he is ready to be with the team from opening night.
Differential in Rangers Power Play: If Brad Richards did not have enough on his plate already in coming to New York, having to live up to his contract, and being Marian Gaborik’s savior, he is also expected to solve the Rangers abysmal power play. His track record as an outstanding power play quarterback is something the Rangers sorely need, but there are still things to watch for in terms of who plays the other point and if the team changes the philosophy at all now that he is manning one point. The days of Derek Stepan or Mats Zuccarello on the point of the top power play unit are likely over given that Richards is a forward so a defender is likely to be there but will it be Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto or Tim Erixon filling that role?
The New York Rangers open training camp with the roster largely set in terms of players, but the expectations from last season have risen dramatically and the number of things to watch/questions remain high. With the condensed schedule before the team heads to Europe there is much to be done is a short time, but within the next 10 days we will learn a lot about the composition of the 2011-12 Rangers team.