5 Bold Predictions for the New York Rangers in 2013/’14
The New York Rangers certainly didn’t inspire much optimism in their season opener, losing tamely to the Phoenix Coyotes 4-1. With that in mind, here are five bold (read: optimistic) predictions for the team in the 2013/’14 campaign.
1. Rick Nash will secure his first 100-point season
Rick Nash is poised for a huge season in New York.
Does the foundation of that surprise you a little? It should. Nash, widely considered one of the best goal-scorers in the game and the type of player that skates on the first line for Team Canada, has never notched an 100-point season in his 10-year NHL career. In fact, he has never even eclipsed 80 points in a single season, the closest coming to the 79 he put up in 2008. Much of this, of course, is due to the fact that Nash spent his first nine seasons in Columbus where he wasn’t exactly surrounded by talent. So it came as little surprise that his numbers improved in New York last season, even if his game remained largely the same. Nash scored at about a point-per-game pace in 2012/’13, projecting for 39 goals and 78 points over a full 82-game season. And that was under John Tortorella, a coach who is to offense what water is to fire. With the offensively-minded Alain Vigneault behind the bench this year, the Rangers’ skill players will enjoy more freedom on the ice, more latitude to make plays. Nash, who picked up an assist on the team’s lone goal against the Coyotes, figures to benefit immensely.
2. Jesper Fast will eclipse 50 points in his rookie season
Jesper Fast was still fighting for a spot on the A-Team just a week ago. Thrown into a preseason pool of show-us-what-you’ve-got young guns including Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Danny Kristo and Oscar Lindberg, Fast emerged as one of Vingeault’s keepers. Where in year’s past that may have been a testament to a player’s grittiness or defensive prowess, this year, with AV calling the shots, it’s a reflection of his offensive ability. Fast is with the Rangers, first and foremost, because Vigneault believes he can help this team score goals. And to make room for Ryan Callahan, who returns to the lineup tomorrow, Vigneault sent down Miller and kept Fast. So expect the young Swede to see important minutes and play in offensively-angled situations. Last season, while playing for HV71 Jonkoping of the Swedish Elite League, Fast put up 35 points in 47 games, utilizing his craftiness with the puck and – you guessed it – his speed to raise eyebrows among the Rangers brass. If he can keep his spot on the team when Carl Hagelin returns – and wouldn’t that be a duo? –, the swift-footed 21-year-old can put together a big-time rookie season.
3. Michael Del Zotto will find his way back into the fans’ hearts
It’s no secret that Del Zotto is a favorite whipping boy in Madison Square Garden. Though he boasts a dynamic offensive game, his defensive miscues and general lapses in judgment make him a constant target for hometown derision. (His long hair, well-manicured appearance and general “pretty boy” aura don’t help his cause either, especially in an old-fashioned city like New York.) Last year, when he gave pucks away like it was charity, the Garden faithful put their heads together and deemed him “Del Zaster”, completing quite the fall from grace over a three-year period. Indeed, as a rookie in 2009/’10, Del Zotto’s praises were sung with joy and his name was often linked to that of Brian Leetch, given his penchant for long stretch passes and joining the rush up ice. But the following season he found himself in Tortorella’s doghouse – and ultimately in Hartford – and the young defenseman never seemed to fully work his way out. But Tortorella is gone, the doghouse is gone with him, and the new coach isn’t one known for short leashes. Vigneault, who encourages defensemen to join the offense, will give Del Zotto the flexibility to make plays with the puck, the very thing he does best. If he can keep his defensive game relatively consistent, expect the jeers to turn to cheers by season’s end.
4. Henrik Lundqvist will win 40 games for the first time in his career
That one surprise you too? The 3-time All Star and 5-time Vezina nominee is the only goalie to have won 30 games in his first seven seasons but that 40th one has always eluded him. He’s come close before – 38 in 2008/’09 and 39 in 2011/’12 – but through seven NHL seasons 40 wins is the one goaltending benchmark he has failed to attain. The obvious reason for that, of course, is that Lundqvist has played on many a middling team with the Rangers, who only won as many games as they did because of King Henrik. In fact one has to wonder how many more awards Lundqvist would have if he played for a team like, say, the Pittsburgh Penguins or Chicago Blackhawks. (The season in which he finally captured the Vezina Trophy, 2012, was non-coincidentally the same season in which the Rangers came within a win of the President’s Trophy.) But this year, the Rangers should score more goals for their stalwart netminder and begin to pay him back for all the wins he’s spotted them in the past (it’s an unanswerable debt, but still…). Tack on three or four more wins of that 5-4 ilk to his full season average of 37, and you’re looking at another notch on Lundqvist’s belt.
5. Brian Boyle will score 20 goals again
There’s bold and then there’s reckless and this probably falls in that second category. Boyle has averaged 9 goals over his four seasons with the Rangers, and scored just two last year over 38 games. But he notched 21 in the 2010/’11 campaign to finish fourth on the team in goals scored, which means he has to goods to make it happen again. Given the Rangers depth up front (with Callahan and Hagelin in the picture), he’ll be playing alongside some talented players, freeing him a bit from the checking role he assumed last season. He’s the third center on a center-heavy team, but Boyle should receive important minutes as he always has and combine with a skilled line mate or two to reacquaint himself with the score sheet.