The New York Rangers have had an offseason of few changes, but the changes that were made were of great impact, as they move into the 2013-14 regular season with the goal of making the playoffs and contending for the Stanley Cup.
The changes to the Rangers roster and the team will have an effect on the New Jersey Devils and their notorious rivalry. Those games are so big and so intense just hearing the words: “Rangers versus Devils” gets me excited. I mark those games on the calendar, like most other fans of both respective teams do, every year the games against the Rangers are the most anticipated of the season.
The Rangers won 26 games in the lockout shortened 2013 season and made the playoffs. The team advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but they lost to the Boston Bruins, 4 games to 1 (www.nhl.com).
The loss in the playoffs, plus many other factors involving the prior performance of the team compelled the Rangers front office to make a coaching change. The team fired John Tortorella and hired the former head coach of the Vancouver Canucks, Alain Vigneault, as his replacement.
Vigneault is very talented and well respected throughout the league, and in my opinion, he was a smart choice by the Rangers as their next head coach. He was very successful in Vancouver and brought that team to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2009-10 (they would lose to the Bruins).
The Rangers offseason to this point has been conservative. They have not brought in any major free agents from outside of the organization. The Blueshirts focused on signing their own players such as Carl Hagelin, Ryan McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello, and Michael Del Zotto (www.si.com).
According to reports, including by Sports Illustrated, the Rangers are also close to agreeing to a new contract with restricted free agent forward Derek Stepan. Stepan is a crucial component of their offense, and a new contract for him should be a top priority.
The team added Benoit Pouliot and Dominic Moore both to low risk, short term contracts, but they should both fit in nicely on this roster. Moore sat out the 2013 season due to a personal tragedy, his wife, Katie, passed away in January following a nine month battle with a rare form of liver cancer (www.nhl.com).
The Rangers have one area of deficiency, if you can call it that, and it is with the right wing position. They have Ryan Callahan, Derek Dorsett, Rick Nash, and newcomer Dominic Moore. The team looks thinner there than at other positions and that could be an issue for them in the upcoming season.
The reports in the media are that Callahan could miss the first month of the season due to injury (www.nhl.com). That news creates a situation where the Rangers look even more tenuous at that spot in the short term.
Now, compare that to the Devils at right wing, who line up with Jaromir Jagr, Steve Bernier, Krys Barch, and Michael Ryder (www.si.com). The two teams are pretty even here, but without a healthy Callahan, I have to give the edge to the Devils.
The Broadway Blueshirts line up at left wing with: Hagelin, Taylor Pyatt, Zuccarello, and Pouliot (www.si.com). This is a solid group of players lead by Hagelin who had 24 points last season.
By comparison, the Devils line up with Patrik Elias, Ryane Clowe, Andrei Loktionov, and Rotislav Olesz (www.si.com). I think that both teams are even in this positional match up.
This is, in my view, the deepest position for the Rangers, assuming they get Stepan signed to a new deal, which looks promising. The Rangers line up down the middle of the ice with: Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan, Brian Boyle, and Brad Richards (www.si.com).
This group is talented from top to bottom, and these players are versatile, which is a key attribute to good center ice play. The group is led by Stepan, who had 44 points in 2013 (www.si.com).
The Devils line up with: Dainius Zubrus, Travis Zajac, Adam Henrique, and Jacob Josefson (www.si.com). That is a strong group of center ice players as well. The Devils also have a good blend of youth and experience at this position, but in the end analysis, I would give the Rangers the advantage at this position.
The Rangers defense is a very strong unit on this team with top notch talent: Dan Girardi, McDonagh, Del Zotto, Marc Staal, Anton Stralman, and John Moore (www.si.com). McDonagh received a 6 year contract extension, and is a key player to their team, in 2013 he had 19 points and a +13 (www.nhl.com). Del Zotto had 21 points and a +6 (www.nhl.com).
Comparatively, the Devils protect their end of the ice with: Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky, Anton Volchenkov, Adam Larsson, and Mark Fayne (www.si.com). The Devils also have some younger defensive players who could see considerable playing time this season: Peter Harrrold, Eric Gelinas, and Alexander Urbom (www.si.com).
In the context that the Rangers have one of the best top 4 defensive pairings in the NHL, and the Devils have some experienced players that are all (with the exception of Greene) coming off disappointing performances in 2013, the Rangers would get the edge in this area. Overall, I think the Devils have the deeper group and better younger defensive players than the Rangers do at this point.
The goaltending for both teams is excellent. Henrik Lundqvist has played very well at points for the Rangers, and is a well-respected goaltender throughout the league. Unfortunately, Lundqvist is in a situation where he often gets too much blame for the losses and too much credit when the team is playing well. He is also compared, some think unfairly so, to Martin Brodeur of the Devils.
Martin Biron is the backup for the Rangers, he is a veteran who does not get much playing time. He is in the later stages of his career.
Brodeur is a future Hall of Famer with multiple Stanley Cup victories, and is the owner of several goaltending records. His new backup is Cory Schneider, who is a top notch young goaltender who put up great numbers last year in Vancouver.
The goaltenders always seem to play a huge role in the outcome of the Rangers vs. Devils games, and Schneider will get introduced to that great rivalry and the intensity of those games in a couple of short months from now.
The Rangers are a team that made the playoffs and a run all the way to the conference semifinals. The Devils are a team coming off a tough 2013 season with losses of key players, they missed the playoffs, and are looking to bounce back in 2013-14.
Both teams are in different stages at this point, but when they get together and play each other, it is one of the best rivalries in the NHL.
A press conference was just held a few days ago to announce a special outdoor game between the Rangers and Devils in Yankee Stadium on Sunday, January 26th at 12:30 PM (www.nhl.com). I do not think Yankee Stadium is big enough to contain the intensity of this rivalry, but that is certainly going to be a fantastic event for both the players and the fans. Another historic chapter will be written in a contentious rivalry, and that is what hockey is all about.