Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Daily Recap: The Future In Focus With Stepan, Anisimov, Zuccarello, McDonagh; Previewing Ottawa Part 2

Today on the site was really a day about the future of the New York Rangers from a couple of different angles.  The morning in, “Derek Stepan Looks To Prove He Belongs On Top” looked at how tomorrow Stepan is getting another chance to be on the Rangers top line in his second real opportunity to prove that he belongs there.  For my money he showed enough in his first go round that he never should have been separated in the first place but there is always the issue of Tortorella and his panic to change things up meeting his love for giving Erik Christensen more chances.  We will see how long Stepan has the opportunity and I looked at how long I believe he should be there.

In continuing about the future I looked at the idea of the trade rumors that have surrounded the Rangers over the past few weeks and undoubtedly will until the deadline.  In New York Rangers Position Best Trade Is No Trade Is The Best Trade I went through my thoughts on how close or far away the Rangers are from being a legitimate contender, how to this point they have not really proven anything and unless the prudent action is to stay the course.  To me the two keys to that decision are Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov and I looked at how I would use them the rest of the year to better understand what moves the Rangers should or should not make.

Finally in the future watch I turned my attention to the AHL where the best Rangers prospects down there have really improved their play except for Grachev.  Whale Watching: The Kids Are Alright...Are Zuccarello or any of the others NHL ready I looked at the play of each of the main prospects on the club and gave an assessment as to how far away each was.  There have been calls for Zuccarello to be called up and I give my take on the validity of those calls at the moment.

To end the day I took a look at tomorrow’s rematch with Ottawa Senators asking Will The Rangers show up and looking at all the other changes Tortorella has made to the lineup.

New York Rangers vs Ott Round 2: Gaborik Must Be Better and Dubinsky Must Stop Waiting for Marian

The New York Rangers will look to avoid playing down to their opponent as they did against these same Senators on Sunday in their embarrassing 3-1 loss.  You should expect that with the past three days off the team will come out with a lot more fire than the narcolepsy that was the first on Sunday.  This game is crucial with the tough six game stretch the Rangers begin following this one and with their struggles against the better teams they need to collect all the points against this quality of opponent as they can.  The Rangers excellent road record of 10-4 should give the team and fans some confidence that they will play the same style of game on the road they normally have.  A game like this against a team you should beat coming off a lousy performance is one where you expect your stars to step up so the weight and eyes on Marian Gaborik will be even higher tomorrow as this is what he is paid to do.

New York (16-12-1) at Ottawa Senators (12-15-2)

Key Opposition Player: Daniel Alfredsson (8-10-18)

Rangers Lineup:
Ruslan Fedotenko - Derek Stepan– Marian Gaborik
Brandon Dubinsky - Artem Anisimov - Ryan Callahan
Sean Avery – Brian Boyle – Brandon Prust
Alex Frolov– Erik Christensen –Derek Boogaard

Marc Staal -Dan Girardi
Michael Del Zotto – Michal Rozsival
Steve Eminger – Michael Sauer


The Rangers have once again changed their lines; I know it is shocking so take a moment to recover.  Derek Stepan will be on the top line with Marian Gaborik and Ruslan Fedotenko while Artem Anisimov moves back to the homegrown line with Dubinsky and Callahan.  The man dropped most in the lineup is Erik Christensen but Torts will find some excuse to move him back up.  The Stepan, Gaborik combination has shown flashes in their time together and hopefully we will get an extended look at it to see what they can truly do together.  Fedotenko should provide his usual jam and cycle ability to the line and we will see what comes out of the experiment.

The reuniting of Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov and Ryan Callahan will look to reignite the spark all three of them had earlier in the season when that line was carrying the offense as opposed to the slumps all three are currently in when it comes to depositing the puck in the net.  Each of these three needs to stop deferring to the presence of Marian Gaborik in the lineup and play their game as they were when they carried this team in his absence.  That is true of none more than Brandon Dubinsky who has taken his game from rising to All-Star level to deferring as if he is a third liner just happy to share the locker room with the guy on many nights.  It is time for Dubinsky to talk less to the media about guys from the other team and go back to putting his imprint squarely on the scoreboard where he will do more damage to them.

The Rangers are also looking to kick start their power play which has been suspect to say the least as they spent half of today’s practice on it.  I still do not like Stepan on the point as I think there are better positions for him as I laid out in what I would do with the powerplay.  Stepan has done a good job and is getting more comfortable there but the key to the ineffectiveness of the power play right now is the indecisiveness of their star.  Gaborik has to know what he wants to do and from there if his mentality is aggressive it will be for the rest of the unit. 

No word yet on who will start for the Rangers and the assumption will be Henrik but I have to wonder if there is an urgency to get Biron back in there to get the Islanders game out of his head. Note to the Rangers defense would be stop Chris Kelly.

Prediction: Rangers 3-2

Whale Watching: The Kids Are Alright...Are Zuccarello Or Any Of Them Ready For NHL?

The New York Rangers minor league affiliate in Hartford struggled mightily through a 1-9-2-1 stretch over the course of a month which if not bad enough in and of itself the worry for Rangers fans was how badly many of the highly though of prospects were struggling with their individual games.  The former Wolf Pack and current Whale have turned things around over the last three weeks going 6-1-0-2 including an impressive 4-0-0-1 mark since the name change.  The key to this transformation has been a combination of trades and the improvement of some of the Rangers younger talent in adjusting the either the North American or the pro game. 
Leading the charge among the prospects has been Mats Zuccarello who has eight goals and eight assists in the teams last 14 games that has led for many to push for and question when exactly Zuke will be called up to help the Rangers and their inconsistent offense.  I wish I could get on board with the push but the fact remains as impressive as the overall stretch has been Zuccarello has been held scoreless in half of those games and still needs to improve his consistency.  There is no denying the skill that he possesses as he has flashed moments of pure brilliance both in his goal scoring as well as his playmaking for the club.  Give him another month or two to continue in his adjustment to the North American game and he will be better equipped to translate his skills to the NHL level and have an impact. 
The other issue with bringing up Zuke right now is there is no real place for him on the top three lines in the lineup and you cannot bring a player with his skill level up to play a fourth line role.  Sure you could drop a Avery, Fedotenko or Prust down to make room for him on the top three lines but especially in Prust’s case I feel pushing him down when he has earned his spot to make room for Zuccarello in the hopes of catching magic is a bad move.  There is also the impending returns of Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal which while not imminent are said to be within the next few weeks and will only further cloud the lineup situation.  There is no reason to rush Zuke up, just let him keep playing and gaining confidence , there is no doubt his time in the NHL will come soon enough.
Also aiding in the charge for the Whale has been newcomer Chad Kolarik who is looking to move himself into consideration for a call-up if the Rangers have the need.  Since he was acquired for Dane Byers Kolarik has produced give goals and four assists in his 11 games.  At 24, Kolarik is not necessarily young for a prospect but he does bring speed and creativity that could make him a more viable short term test than Zuccarello as a third line forward now if people are truly urging for someone to get a call.
The biggest reason for the turnaround in Hartford/Connecticut other than increased team unity and increased scoring has been the growth of three of the Rangers top defensive prospects.  Ryan McDonagh, Pavel Valentenko and Tomas Kundratek all went through a bit of an adjustment phase, which was to be expected, but the level of struggle for McDonagh especially had many concerned.  For McDonagh after being scoreless and a wretched -8 through his first 14 games this season he has turned it around to have 3 assists and a +7 rating in his last 13 games.  McDonagh is never going to wow the fans with highlight plays but he is getting back to the solid positional game that he must play to be successful and he will bring a little bit of nasty as well.  Valentenko has a solid start, slid a little bit in his play in early November but has gotten back on track including a nice contribution offensive with 4 points in his last 7 games.  Kundratek has been the steadiest of the three playing solid hockey all season and showing that he might actually be the most NHL ready of the trio right now. 
The most controversial of all the prospects in Hartford at the moment is Evgeny Grachev who has had a spotlight on him the last two seasons with Rangers fans holding out huge hopes for his development.  Overall the production has not been there again for Grachev who only has three goals and five points in 27 games combined between the AHL and NHL this season.  On the bright side though Grachev does have two goals in his last four games, so maybe he is starting to get his game going; we can hope at least.
If Hartford is going to continue its recent results it will take the improved play off all of these prospects and if both of those things happen Rangers fans will be very happy as it means their future players are improving their games and getting ready for NHL roles.  None of the guys are probably ready to have a legit impact at this moment but for the Rangers needs Weise and Kolarik might be the most ready if the need arises followed by Zuke.

In New York Rangers Position Best Trade Is No Trade At All

There are certain givens following a team in New York and one of them is that your team is going to be named by just about every reporter across the country when it comes to trades and free agency.  This kind of thing happens whether it your team is in it, out of it, contending or rebuilding; just part of the nature of the beast.  So as a follower of the New York Rangers seeing the team pop up in trade rumors for the biggest name that could potentially be on the market is no surprise.  In fact it would probably be shocking if the Rangers were not mentioned as having interest in a player like Brad Richards.  It is also expected that any other team looking to make a move will at some point be connected to the Rangers so I expect a lot more rumors to come.  That is not really the point of today’s discussion though as today I have a simple question, “Are the Rangers one player away from being a contender?”  To me the answer to that is a resounding no.

As I chronicled on Monday the Rangers have not proven enough to this point that they are even a legit playoff team let alone a contender to go making a trade at this point for anyone if it means giving up anything of value either from the current team or the future ranks.  Maybe come the trade deadline the Rangers will have proven something different as a lot can happen in the course of two months on the hockey schedule but until that point comes even thinking about making big moves that could put assets important to the present and future on the line for anyone is premature and a mistake.  As likely as the Rangers morphing into a contender over the next two months is the Rangers falling out of it and being in a position where they should sell what they can to bring in more assets in terms of prospects and picks.

For now what the Rangers should be focused on as I discussed this morning is letting Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov play as much as they can as the top 2 centers for their own personal development, the development for the future and to get a better understanding of what they have in those two talents.  Let them gain as much experience as is possible at this level and it will pay off in spades down the road and both have shown they can handle the big competition and Stepan has shown he can handle playing with Gaborik when he does not get removed from the line every other game.  Chances are if the Rangers are a playoff team or even a contender by the time a trade would have to be made at the deadline for a Richards it would be because of the development of Stepan and Anisimov.

There is no denying the talent of Richards as I have said he would be the best player on this team, but it goes against everything that this teams has fed its fans over the past few years about building from within and having a young core to build around because as we found out last night in the Stars set their asking price you do not get Richards without severely denting that future.  So the Rangers should stay the course and if the landscape drastically changes in terms of the team proving it is legit and looking like maybe they are one player away from truly competing for a title this season then we re-evaluate the situation at that point, but until then the best trade for the Rangers is making none at all.  For years the fans have clamored about how we never let the youth play and build that way, well now is the time to put up or shut up quite frankly because we have it and in my opinion way too many are willing to once again sacrifice what took years to rebuild for yet another quick fix.

Let me know what you think.

Derek Stepan Looks To Prove He Belongs On Top

Based on the lines we saw at practice yesterday, tomorrow night, Derek Stepan, a 20 year old rookie, will be back with the New York Rangers best offensive weapon Marian Gaborik on what is presumably the team’s top line.  This will not be the first time that the rookie is tasked with the opportunity and responsibility that comes with the position, but for Stepan looks to prove it is the last time they have to change centers for Gaborik.  Playing on the top will not be his only responsibility in the game as to try and fix a broken power play unit and due in large part to the struggles of second year defender Michael Del Zotto it is Stepan who is being asked to quarterback the play with the man advantage.  It certainly is a lot to ask of a 20 year old who just eight months ago was playing in the NCAA title game, but at every turn this season Stepan has shown he is up to any task that the coaching staff puts on his stick.  Given that fact I have no doubt that Stepan will create chances on the top line as he has in his other opportunities with Gaborik my only question is how long it will be before coach John Tortorella pulls the panic button and moves him around again.