2010-11 NHL season preview: New York Rangers

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for lundqvistpads.jpgLast season: (38-33-11, 87 points, 4th in Atlantic Division, 9th in Eastern Conference) The Rangers fell a shootout win short of making the playoffs then watched as the Philadelphia Flyers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. Ouch. The team depended a lot on young players, Marian Gaborik and Henrik Lundqvist and that formula wasn’t strong enough to win them a cup.

Head coach: John Tortorella is the hot-headed type who’s a great fit for New York … at least from an entertaining press conference standpoint. The jury’s out on him as a coach, though, as that Lightning Stanley Cup victory is looking more and more like an anomaly as every year passes.

Key departures: D Wade Redden, F Olli Jokinen, F Aaron Voros, F Donald Brashear. Technically Redden isn’t out of the Rangers organization, but let’s face it, he won’t play with the big club again at that $6.5 million annual cap hit. If GM Glen Sather looked at Olli Jokinen as an expiring $5 million contract, then maybe Sather deserves a little more credit for being with it.

Key arrivals: F Alex Frolov, F Derek Boogaard, D Steve Eminger, F Todd White. Frolov isn’t the most consistent player, but the Rangers got him on a solid, one-year deal. He could pay dividends at his price while Boogaard is wildly overpaid at $1.6 million. No big improvements in the Big Apple, but that’s what happens when your salary cap is managed so poorly.

gaborikanddubinsky.jpgUnder pressure: The Rangers’ training staff is under pressure, because if Gaborik goes down with his typical array of injuries, New York’s offense is shot. Gaborik played an unusually high amount of games last year, but can he do it again?

Protecting the house: Lundqvist is a truly elite goalie. The Swedish netminder keeps the Rangers afloat despite the fact that they’re rarely strong in any other area. The team historically leans on him too much, though, so it’s great to know that they added a solid backup in Martin Biron. Maybe Lundqvist won’t suffer from his annual tough patch if he can have a little rest here and there.

Redden isn’t an enormous loss, but this defense is far from elite. Marc Staal is a nice player, but he might not be a great choice for a No. 1 guy. Really, the team is a collection of second and third pairing blueliners beyond Staal, with Matt Gilroy, Dan Girardi and Mike del Zotto being the other prominent defensemen.

Top line we’d like to see: Frolov-Brandon Dubinsky-Gaborik. Boy, are the Rangers weak up the middle or what? Some might put Chris Drury on the top line, but Drury plays better against second or third pairings (something you love to hear about a guy who makes $7 million per year, naturally). Frolov and Gaborik might skate a lot with each other in reality, unless the team wants to spread its offense out.

Oh captain, my captain: Drury carries Bobby Holik’s torch as a character guy getting paid like a megastar in New York. He is above average to great in the “little things” categories like winning draws, killing penalties and blocking shots. That might not make him worth the money, but it earns him clout as a leader.

Thumbnail image for boogaardparros.jpgStreet fighting man: Boogaard is the ‘Boogey Man’ for good reason; he is huge and terrifying. Sure, his punching ability doesn’t warrant a $1.6 million salary, but he should beat a lot of people up in the suddenly staggering Atlantic Division.

Best-case scenario: Lundqvist wins his first Vezina Trophy because Biron lets him avoid the occasional back to back game. Gaborik stays healthy and helps Frolov enjoy a 30-goal rebirth. Sean Avery impedes the progress of other people rather than himself and his own squad. The team makes a nice run to the Eastern Conference finals as some of the favorites are upset by underdogs.

Worst-case scenario: Gaborik struggles with his usual injury troubles while Frolov drifts in and out of relevance. Avery alternates between self-destructing and getting injured. The Rangers defense cracks in front of a beleaguered duo of Lundqvist and Biron. The Rangers end up missing the playoffs but aren’t bad enough to earn a good draft pick, either.

Keeping it real: Lundqvist is strong enough to help the Rangers remain competitive, but the team around him is very weak. I think the most realistic outlook is a slightly peachier version of the worst-case scenario. Chances are they’ll end up just a touch better than the Islanders, with a fourth-place finish in the Atlantic and a 10th or 11th spot in the East.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, having talent like Lundqvist and Gaborik bumps you up one point in my eyes, so let’s give the Rangers a 2. The splendid Swedish stopper will have to play out of his mind for the Rangers to be a serious contender, though.

Heinen over Wingels right choice for Bruins in Game 7

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The Boston Bruins will make one change to their lineup heading into Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night.

Danton Heinen, who was a healthy scratch in Game 6, will be back in the lineup, while Tommy Wingels, who’s played in three of the six games during the series, will watch from the press box again on Wednesday. On paper, this doesn’t seem to be a significant change, but head coach Bruce Cassidy isn’t just making changes for the sake of making changes.

Neither player has made an offensive impact in the series. Wingels has no points and a plus-1 rating in three games, while Heinen has no points and a minus-1 rating in five contests. Even though neither player has popped up on the scoresheet, there’s a significant gap when it comes to their advanced stats. Heinen has a CF% of 49.49, which doesn’t jump off the page, but when you compare it to Wingels’ CF% (39.34), you realize that there’s a significant difference. To further point the arrow in Heinen’s direction, the 22-year-old has zone starts in the offensive zone just 37.5 percent of the time compared to 47.62 percent for Wingels.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

 

So, in terms of offense, neither player has really contributed, but it appears to be pretty clear that the odds are on Heinen’s side when it comes to the way they’ve played this postseason.

If we take a look at the standard numbers during the regular season, it’s obvious that Heinen was the more productive player. The rookie had 16 goals and 47 points in 77 games, which is far from terrible for his first year in the NHL. Wingels, 30, had nine goals and 18 points in 75 games with the ‘Hawks and Bruins.

Getting an extra night off during the series could help Heinen find his game. And based on his comments after Tuesday’s practice, it sounds like the coaching staff made their instructions clear. Heinen mentioned that he needs to be more assertive, stronger on the puck and he needs to win puck battles so that he can have the puck on his stick a little more often.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Amid bevy of head shots, NHL attempts to explain rationale

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Drew Doughty watched other playoff games this season and couldn’t believe that George Parros, the NHL’s discipline czar, had suspended him for a head shot.

”I saw four hits last night that deserved more than that,” the Los Angeles Kings defenseman said.

Doughty’s one-game suspension was the first of several in the first round for a hit to the head of an opponent. Toronto’s Nazem Kadri got three games and Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey and Nashville’s Ryan Hartman got one game each. Washington’s Tom Wilson and Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov were among those who got off without significant punishment.

The criticism, from Columbus to Colorado and from New Jersey to Los Angeles, was loud enough that the NHL’s department of player safety put out a video last week explaining its reasoning for suspending Doughty and Hartman but not Kucherov or Predators center Ryan Johansen.

”The illegal check to the head rule is often misunderstood or misstated,” the league said in the video. ”Illegal checks to the head and legal full body hits often look similar at first glance because the difference between legal and illegal can be a matter of inches in a sport that moves fast.”

Discontent over the goalie interference rule has been grabbing headlines for weeks, but the head shot discussion carries far more serious implications for a league still grappling with how best to protect its players. What’s acceptable has evolved from the early days of hockey through Scott Stevens’ then-legal crushing blow on Eric Lindros in 2000 to today, where checks to the head are parsed frame-by-frame to determine if a line was crossed. The NHL, too, is still facing a federal class-action concussion lawsuit filed by former players alleging it failed to warn them about the health risks associated with head injuries.

Meeting with Associated Press Sports Editors last week, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman insisted there was nothing new about the subject. Asked about player safety, Bettman said Parros is off to good start in the former enforcer’s first season as vice president of player safety. He said he is proud of player safety’s transparency in the form of videos detailing the reasons for suspending a player.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

”Sometimes we get accused of splitting hairs, but that’s exactly what they have to do,” Bettman said. ”I think he’s reached the appropriate conclusion when it’s been a hockey play that doesn’t transcend the rules and I think he’s been appropriately punitive in cases where it warranted it. There’s never going to be a shortage of critics of what they do.”

Doughty, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman, said he hit Vegas forward William Carrier‘s shoulder first before his head in Game 1. Kings coach John Stevens added: ”As long as I’m on the earth, I’m going to agree to disagree with that decision.”

The league video emphasized that an illegal check to the head concerns a player’s head being the main point of contact, not the first point of contact. Based on experience, the league said, a player’s head snapping back on these kinds of hits indicates significant head contact.

Los Angeles general manager Rob Blake, who worked under Brendan Shanahan in the department of player safety from 2010-2013, said it’s a tough job while at the same time reiterating the organization was unhappy with the suspension of Doughty. Columbus GM Jarmo Kekalainen was upset forward Josh Anderson was ejected from Game 1 against Washington for boarding Michal Kempny and called a hit to the head of Alexander Wennberg from Washington’s Tom Wilson that got only a minor penalty ”dangerous.”

Wilson was not given a hearing or suspended. Wennberg missed Games 2, 3 and 4 and the hit was not included in the NHL’s explanation video.

Columbus coach John Tortorella didn’t want to weigh in on the lack of punishment for Wilson, a common refrain across the NHL because nothing can be done after the fact. For a more specific reason, Bettman doesn’t weigh in on suspensions because any appeals go to him. He does look at suspension videos before they are issued.

”I watch as a fan to make sure they make sense,” Bettman said. ”I want to make sure the videos we send out are clear.”

”I think player safety as a whole has done an extraordinarily good job of changing the culture,” Bettman said.” We have players not making certain types of hits anymore. We have players who are more accountable for their conduct and understand it and I believe that they’ve been consistent.”

AP Sports Writer Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, and Sports Deputy Editor for Newsgathering Howie Rumberg in New York contributed.

PHT Morning Skate: Is Tavares to Avs realistic?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Bruce Cassidy has a few important lineup decisions to make heading into Game 7 against the Leafs tonight. Does Danton Heinen come back into the lineup? Should Ryan Donato suit up? (Boston.com)

• It’s no secret that the Canadiens are lacking quality bodies on defense. Winning this weekend’s draft lottery and drafting Rasmus Dahlin would fix a lot of problems. (Sportsnet)

• It was a tough year for Braden Holtby, but he managed to come through at the most crucial time of the season. (Washington Post)

• Bill Peters opting out of his contract with the Carolina Hurricanes was a good thing for his former team because they badly needed a change behind the bench. (Cardiac Cane)

Leo Komarov is healthy, but it seems unlikely that Mike Babcock will play him in Game 7 against the Bruins tonight. (Pension Plan Puppets)

• Two Denver Post writers debate whether or not it’s realistic to think that John Tavares could end up in Colorado. (Denver Post)

Shea Theodore has played some good hockey for the Golden Knights this postseason, which isn’t surprising when you look at his body of work in last year’s playoffs. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• Former NHL goalie Arturs Irbe is going to be honored by the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation. They’ll be retiring his number ahead of a game against Switzerland. (The Province)

• College basketball has a problem with their “one-and-done” rule. To fix it, they should take a page out of the NHL’s book when it comes to college prospects. (Raleigh News & Observer)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Stanley Cup Playoffs: NHL announces second round openers

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We have one game left in the opening round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins will do battle at TD Garden Wednesday night (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in Game 7 with the winner advancing to face the Tampa Bay Lightning.

As we wait for the full second-round schedule, the NHL has released the start dates and times for opening games of each series, including the situations depending on whether the Bruins or Maple Leafs win.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Thursday, April 26

• The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will kick off at 7 p.m. ET (NBCSN) from Capital One Center in Washington, D.C.

• Out West, the San Jose Sharks will visit T-Mobile Arena and the Vegas Golden Knights for their opener at 10 p.m. ET (NBCSN).

Friday, April 27

• The top two teams in the NHL will meet in the first game of their best-of-7 at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN) as the Nashville Predators play host to Patrik Laine and the Winnipeg Jets.

Saturday, April 28

If Boston advances, the Bruins and Lightning will play Game 1 at 3 p.m. ET (NBC) at AMALIE Arena in Tampa.

If Toronto advances, the Maple Leafs will get their Hockey Night in Canada timeslot and visit the Lightning at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN)

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.