By Antoine Mathieu, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

QUEBEC CITY, QC. — Today’s team is one that most Habs fan are very familiar with since they are the opponents that eliminated our beloved Habs last spring!

2014-15 EASTERN CONFERENCE predicted standings

  1. Tampa Bay Lightning
  2. Columbus Blue Jackets
  3. Boston Bruins
  4. Pittsburgh Penguins
  5. New York Rangers

2013-14 summary: New York Rangers

Regular season record: 45 —  31 —  6, 96 points, 5th in East, eliminated in the Stanley Cup finals in five games.

The New York Rangers surprised many fans by being the team to come out on top in the East, but if you take a closer look at their line-up it makes sense. They have three good lines who can score, some quality bottom-sixers, lots of depth on the back end and arguably the best goalie on the planet. So why exactly didn’t I pick them in my playoffs bracket? Because when filling out a playoff bracket you have to be a homer, that’s why!

But the Rangers lost a lot of their depth this year; they lost Brad Richards, Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett and Benoit Pouliot. They replaced them with: Dan Boyle, Lee Stempniak, Tanner Glass and Matt Lombardi. Are they a better team than they were? No. Are they worse than they were? I think so.

Brad Richards was signed to an albatross contract, nobody is going to deny that, but he was still a serviceable player and a good second line center (he finished 34th among centers for scoring.) I won’t say that it was a mistake for them to use their compliance buyout on him but it definitely hurts their depth down the middle. Now they have Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard and J.T. Miller as their top three centers, which is not bad, but it’s not great either.

Richards definitely isn’t the same player that he was with Dallas or Tampa Bay early on in his career, but he was still the most used forward for the Rangers’ last season. He undeniably brings elements that can help a team: he’s a leader, he can play the point on the power-play and he’s a great passer. Unfortunately for him, his speed has dropped drastically since joining the Rangers. I will be interested to see how Brassard does with tougher assignments and opposition. One thing is certain though, if he plays the minutes Richards was playing on the PP (3:40 minutes a game, by far the most playing time), he should get as many points as the 34-year-old.

I think the loss of Anton Stralman will be the one that hurts them the most. Stralman has really progressed from his time with the Leafs and the Blue Jackets. People used to say that he couldn’t play a lick of defense and that he would only make it as an offensive defenseman. But nowadays if the Swedish defender is praised, it’s not for his offense but for his defensive play. He’s had an interesting career considering before signing with the Rangers, he was cut by the New Jersey Devils when Adam Larsson beat him for a spot on the team.

Although Stralman doesn’t produce as many points as he has in the past, he’s still involved the team’s success. In the last three seasons with the Rangers, he was on the ice for 55.8 percent of their goals at even-strength. In comparison, Ryan McDonagh (or the name that shall not be named for Habs fans) was on the ice 55 percent of the time.

During the playoffs, Anton Stralman averaged over 21 minutes of ice time a game and built a name for himself with a solid showing. It’s partly what got him a five year deal worth $22.5M with the Lighting this off-season. It will be tough to replace the efficiency of Stralman on defense; he was arguably the Rangers’ second best defender during the playoffs. Glen Sather didn’t want to commit to Stralman long term with Dylan McIlrath, Connor Allen and Brady Skjei coming up and John Moore being possibly ready to play a bigger role.

Glen Sather decided instead to sign Dan Boyle who will be a stop gap for the next two seasons. The 38 year-old isn’t the defenseman that he was in his prime but he’s still one of the league’s best quarterbacks with the man advantage. With the departure of Richards, the Rangers will be looking for a new threat at the point and Boyle fits the profile needed. He was 17th among defenders for points on the power-play last season and has a pretty good resume. Also, six of his twelve goals came on the power-play, in contrast, McDonagh was the leader with two power-play goals. He will help a man advantage who desperately needs help (their power-play hasn’t been in the top 10 since 2006-07).

Boyle’s defensive play has taken a hit with him getting older but with the depth of the Rangers’ defense, it shouldn’t be a big factor. Many Rangers fan see Boyle playing alongside Marc Staal who will both complement each other. Staal will take care of the rough stuff and Boyle will move the puck. If he regresses too much, Alain Vigneault can bump him to the third pairing and let Kevin Klein play on the second pairing while Boyle acts mostly as a power-play specialist.

Although the Rangers said they’d get bigger, they did the opposite. The loss of Pouliot, Boyle, Stralman and Dorsett will be felt in the physical department. Boyle was second on their team for hits, Pouliot fourth and Dorsett eighth. Glass will definitely compensate for that lack of toughness but he’s one of the least talented players in the league. He’s a terrible skater, not a great hitter despite his 247 hits this season (seriously go on Youtube and put Tanner Glass + hit and you won’t find a lot of results) and has the worst possession stats for a NHL regular. He’s completely useless with the puck and everywhere he goes fans hate him (Vancouver, New York or Winnipeg fans can confirm that statement.) He has a ton of heart and a great personality but this is the NHL, not a house league.

The Rangers also replaced Boyle and Pouliot with Lee Stempniak and Matthew Lombardi who don’t necessarily scream physicality. I think Stempniak will be an adequate replacement for Pouliot in terms of offense and should fit in well with Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello. But Pouliot, as inconsistent as he may have been, is bigger and more physical. Time will tell if Pouliot has scratched the surface as a top six forward or if his stats were inflated by his teammates and easy minutes.

Matt Lombardi was pretty unnoticeable in his last stint in the NHL; he played 28 games during the shortened season and managed to only score four goals. Lombardi used to be a solid player in the mid 2000’s, think of Darren Helm with the Red Wings. Unfortunately for him, concussions really derailed his career. Despite a pretty good year in the Swiss league where he scored over a point per game, I think his NHL career is done considering his health problems. I feel having Dominic Moore and Matt Lombardi on the same line-up would be redundant since Moore has shown to be the better player in recent years.

As I’ve mentioned in my Tampa Bay article, I think Martin St. Louis is going to experience a drastic change in his statistics. We already witnessed a decline in his production following the trade (0.98PPG with the Lightning to 0.52PPG with the Rangers). As we’ve seen with numerous players throughout the years, players rarely shine in the Big Apple (Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Wade Redden, Theoren Fleury) and considering Martin St. Louis is 39 years old, I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to think that the small winger will have season under 60 points next season.

Many people threw Rick Nash under the bus in the last playoffs but I don’t think he’s as bad as people are making him out to be. He was still creating chances and with his unique combination of size and speed, he’s always a threat on the ice. Plus, even when he’s not producing, he’s still a good player without the puck as we’ve seen at the Olympics. Nash has been the Rangers’ best goal scorer since his acquisition in 2012. Some people might forget this but he’s only 30 years old! Nash should remain one of the league’s premier forwards for another three or four years depending on if his concussion problems continue.

While on one hand some of the Rangers’ players are past their prime (Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis and Dan Boyle), some of them are just starting to break out of their shells. Mats Zuccarello, who was in John Tortorella’s dog house before, proved that he had what it takes to be one of the league’s premier players with his 59 points. With his compete level and his world class hockey sense, I expect Zuccarello to have another great season with the Rangers who will be looking to lock him long term next year.

Another player who had a breakout season was Chris Kreider. The 23 year old who was selected in the first round of the 2009 draft turned a lot of heads last season. His speed is surprising for a guy of his size and he combines that skill set with some grit that makes a ton of teams jealous of the Rangers. Some people were ready to call Kreider a bust after his disappointing 2012-12 season but he did a complete 180 for his career and came close to scoring 20 goals in his first full NHL season. His 13 points in 15 playoffs games is definitely a testament of how talented the Massachusetts native is.

Finally, Derick Brassard is another player who rejuvenated his career in New York. Brassard looked like he had peaked in Columbus and a change of scenery did him some good. The 26-year-old had one of the best seasons of his career and set a personal record for goals (18). Considering he played less than 16 minutes a game, it’s interesting how much of an impact an increase of ice time would have on his stats.

Even though I think the Rangers got worse this off-season it’s hard to place them lower than fifth. If it hadn’t been for that terrible start where the team was getting adjusted to Vigneault’s coaching, they could have finished higher last season. The Rangers have one of the best goalies on the planet, they have Ryan McDonagh who’s arguably a top 10 defender. They also have a good mix of defensive and offensive guys on defense: Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Dan Boyle, John Moore and Kevin Klein. They have six or seven players who could get 50 points (Nash, Stepan, St. Louis, Zuccarello, Kreider, Brassard and McDonagh), that’s depth right there!

Interesting facts about New York:

  • The Rangers were the 4th best team in the NHL in terms of goals against. With their defense and goaltending, I think they’ll remain in the top 5.
  • NYR was 18th in the league for goals for; I think they might fall down to the bottom 10 of the league in that category.
  • They were 15th in the league on the power-play, with Dan Boyle and a full year of Martin St. Louis, I think they could rise a bit.

Tune in Thursday because my article will be habsolutely fun to read if you catch my drift!