Thursday, September 30, 2010

Breaking the Ice

I figured this would be a fitting title with it being the first post of our little collective here AND it be about the upcoming hockey season. This is what we aim to do here - spare your time with some efficiency.

So how 'bout them Rangers huh? No, not the AL West Champs, the New York uh, Hockey Rangers. I know I probably just lost half of my readers (read as: half of zero to ten) to the little "X" in the top right hand corner, but WAIT! If you're still reading give this a chance. I'm a realist. I know I will not convince the majority of you wanting to stop reading right now to love, like, moderately dabble in, or even keep hockey on the tube as background noise. Much like you can't put me down in front of a premier league soccer game and expect me not to begin A) slitting my wrists or B) making fun of your primitive brain. BUT, those of you that are leaving because of heartbreak after heartbreak season at MSG, I will inform you of what is so great about this year's team.

For those learning the sport, or who are simply casual fans, let me catch you up quickly. The Rangers were the hottest team to start last season, and finished it equally as hot. I won't bore you with stats or the hole in my heart from their play in a good chunk of the middle, but the team missed the postseason by one game, losing to the Philly Flyers in the last game of the season. The Flyers actually went all the way to finish as first losers in the Stanley Cup to the Chicago Blackhawks.

This offseason, after some non-resignings, and a recent waiving of the contract of Wade Redden, a lot of new faces have shown up at training camp. However, unlike previous years, these faces are not overpaid veterans at the end of their career ropes that general manager Glen Sather plucked from the free agent market. In fact, the Rangers are one of the younger teams in the NHL this year. A couple of guys have come into the preseason competing for jobs that were once slated to be theirs. For salary cap room, the team was willing to bury Redden's 6 million dollar hit in the minors. Because of some other departures via free agency or trade, there are some spots still open for competition. This of course leads to what some would call "no name players" competing for regular spots on an NHL roster. However, with the highly touted (by fans and scouts, not just one or the other) minor leaguers, and a few key role playing veterans signed - competition has been surprisingly high. For the first time in several seasons, I still have no idea who will fill out the roster of this team.

Coach John Tortarella has already designated a few hopefuls to the minors to start the season, but two notable rookies Ryan McDonagh (D) and Derek Stepan (C) are still with the team and playing their hearts out. These kids are young enough to have been in “The Mighty Ducks,” if their acting talent was as good as their hockey talent - and they're both from Minnesota too, go figure. While spots are not guaranteed or even projected for these two young guns, it is refreshing to see the intensity, finesse, and hockey sense they provide to the group they're skating with each shift they've taken. It is good to know the team has the depth and luxury of young ones either with the team or in the minors in case of injury or flat play. You can tell they are taking advantage of every opportunity they are getting to impress, and that characteristic is going to stay with them as they mature as hockey players.

The last thing I’m going to cover are the two sophomore defensemen Michael Del Zotto and Matt Gilroy, who seem to have taken great strides after their first season with the Blueshirts. Del Zotto as a 19 year old rookie last year, ran point most times of the team’s inconstant power play attack, and Gilroy logged mostly third and sometimes second pairing minutes as an even strength/penalty killing player. He was a healthy scratch down the stretch, showing a steep decline in play. Both of these guys showed tons of promise, but also made an equal amount of tons of rookie mistakes. Like the team’s play in general, they would show up for a few games, look brilliant, and then would disappear into the boards, only showing up blowing a key assignment, or misplaying the puck in the defensive/neutral zone. So far, in the small sample of four preseason games, both have looked pushed by the competition and have stepped up to answer the bell. Del Zotto and Gilroy have skated very well together and apart on the power play, and it should be a fun thing to watch all season how these guys are utilized to maximize their growth as players, and talent to help the club.

So you’re thinking, we read this far, where the hell are your predictions for the team? Well I had to get you to the bottom of the article somehow didn’t I?

While the Rangers are pretty hard to call a cup contending team, it is hard to root against these kids out on the ice, or look past all of the potential that is skating together out there. Barring any ridiculous front office moves, this team is built to gain strides in the season(s) to come, and it starts now. My prediction: Rangers are back in the postseason, but are lucky to get out of the first round if they play a team like Washington or Pittsburgh. If they manage a higher seed and don’t have to face these teams until later, you can expect them to be a prime candidate to upset a favorite. Their best player after all is between the pipes in King Henrik. However, even with what I will call improved scoring (improvement from hardly any isn’t too hard to call, I know it’s a question of how improved), and an all around defensively good, gritty team, these guys on the Penguins and Capitals just simply overpower any depth the Rangers might have in terms of heart and youth with pure scoring ability.

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