2011-2012 season preview: New York Rangers

2010-2011 record: 44-33-5, 93 points; 3rd in Atlantic, 8th in East

Playoffs: Lost to Washington 4-1 in Eastern quarterfinals

Much like in previous seasons, the Rangers landed the big prize in free agency. Only difference is that this time it’s a guy (Brad Richards) that makes them immediately better and they didn’t give up on their farm team to fill out ranks. Has Glen Sather finally figured it all out? We’ll see, but the Rangers figure to be a strong team in the East.

Offense

It all starts with Richards and Marian Gaborik. With these two stars paired up on the first line, it gives the Rangers a definitive offensive threat for all situations. Worries will surround their collective ability to stay healthy, but when these two are on the ice, opponents will have to be ready. They’ll also have an outstanding second line with equally maturing and improving studs like Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan.

If the Rangers can get more out of Derek Stepan and Artem Anisimov they won’t need to make Henrik Lundqvist crazy by forcing him to hold opponents to one goal a game. Guys like Mike Rupp, Brian Boyle, and Brandon Prust will make sure they have lockdown forwards again. If Boyle can score 20-plus goals again, they’ll have offensive threats on all four lines.

source: Getty ImagesDefense

Marc Staal’s health will be an issue to watch all season as he’s the guy that makes it all go there. Dan Girardi has morphed into the Rangers’ best defensive blue liner, absorbing pucks like he’s a mobile goalie. Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer provide solid depth and Steve Eminger is an OK veteran. How they round things out could be an issue, however. Young guys like Michael Del Zotto, Tim Erixon, and Brendan Bell will all get shots to stick around. If the Rangers have a weakness it’s that they don’t have a true power-play quarterback.

Goalies

Lundqvist is one of the best in the league and he’s the guy that makes it all happen for the team. He’s calm, cool, and confident and has been ever since becoming a star in the NHL. Having a healthy Martin Biron to back him up again will help keep Lundqvist from getting worn out. Lundqvist is a Vezina threat any year and with the Rangers’ improvements in offense, he can help make any defensive deficiencies go away.

source: Getty ImagesCoach

If you didn’t know John Tortorella already, you haven’t been paying attention. Don’t worry, with the Rangers being in the Winter Classic and also set to be on HBO’s 24/7, you’ll get to know a lot about him. Tortorella’s the best guy to have in New York and he’s done a solid job of keeping order in Manhattan. With his old pal Richards (they won a Cup together in 2004 with Tampa Bay) expect Tortorella to have things rolling just how he wants. If he doesn’t, bring on the profanity and press conferences.

Breakout candidate

The Rangers had a host of these players last year in Stepan, McDonagh, and Zuccarello. This time around, if there’s a guy that’s going to breakout it’ll be Erixon. With the Rangers essentially holding an open audition for the sixth defenseman spot, someone’s going to show they’ve earned it and the former Flames draft pick has all the upside to do it. Del Zotto still struggles defensively and Bell needs to do more to show he can cut it in the NHL. Let Erixon get a shot and see what he can do and he could surprise everyone.

source: APBest-case scenario

Richards’ arrival helps get Gaborik back above the 40-goal mark and ignites a power play that was mostly feeble last season. Dubinsky and Callahan continue to lead the way and give the Rangers the second-line push to create more offense. Wojtek Wolski avoids slumps and plays the kind of hockey the Rangers need — to score and set up goals. Lundqvist wins the Vezina as the Rangers bully their way deep into the playoffs and help make Sather look like a psychic.

Reality

The Rangers have things in place to be a very good team. They should absolutely be a playoff team and stressing out at the end of the season shouldn’t happen again.  As long as Richards and Gaborik stay healthy and keep the offense rolling, they’ll be a tougher team to handle. The forward roster is deep, and while there’s still questions on defense, Lundqvist makes it all stand up. The question for New York is just how they can manage as a playoff team.

SPHL gets creative, adopts ‘pick your opponent’ playoff format

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When discussion about the NHL’s playoff format comes up, there is a section of fans who would like to see the league allow for an even greater reward for top teams other than home-ice advantage.

That idea has become a reality thanks to the Southern Professional Hockey League.

The 10-team SPHL announced on Monday that they are overhauling their opening round and turning it into what’s being dubbed the “Challenge Round.” The top three teams will get to choose their first-round opponent during a “Challenge Round Selection” event which will be broadcast to fans on Sunday, April 8, the day after the regular season concludes. After the top three seeds select their opponents, the No. 4 team will be matched against the leftover side.

Every playoff series, including the President’s Cup Final, will remain best-of-three with re-seeding taking place for the second round.

The idea for this change came to SPHL commissioner Jim Combs over dinner in June with Axel Bammer, Chief Operating Officer of the Erste Bank Eishockey Liga. When Combs heard that the league’s top teams get to pick their opening round opponent, he could imagine the buzz and interest it would generate. (Sweden’s Elitserien did this in the past as well.)

A week after meeting with Bammer, Combs met with the league’s owners and received zero pushback about the idea. The new playoff format was widely embraced as the group felt this was the future of the hockey.

Feedback has been mixed on the change. But Mike Campos, who covers the SPHL for The Sin Bin, sees it being a big plus for the league.

One of the benefits of being at the bottom rung of the professional hockey ladder (second-lowest, if you consider the FHL a pro league) is there is flexibility to implement radically new ideas other leagues can not. If the “Pick Your Opponent” format change generates buzz among fans and rivalries between teams resulting in a spirited postseason, the decision could be a winner for the SPHL.

As Campos notes, lower levels of hockey allow for plenty of onnovation while not straying far from the fundamentals of running a hockey league. This new format will certainly make the end of the regular season much more interesting and provide bulletin board material for teams and storylines heading into the playoffs. It’s an idea worth exploring, and the SPHL is no stranger to implementing ideas that catch on elsewhere.

It was the SPHL where 3-on-3 hockey began over a decade ago. It was deemed a silly gimmick at first, but now that we’ve seen it at the NHL level for two seasons, it’s clearly a welcomed change — one that’s made overtime hockey must-see television.

Combs said the league will see how it this playoff format idea plays out in April before deciding whether to keep or tweak it in the future.

So what do you think? Would you want to see the NHL go in this direction for the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?

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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.

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With Perreault out four weeks, Jets call on prospect Kyle Connor

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Kyle Connor has been a scorer just about everywhere he has played — the USHL, the University of Michigan, and the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League.

He’s only had a brief taste of life in the NHL, playing 20 games for the Winnipeg Jets last season, scoring two goals and five points.

The 2015 first-round pick hasn’t yet experienced the same success at the NHL level, although he’s about to get another opportunity with the Jets after getting recalled on Monday. The move comes after Winnipeg placed Mathieu Perreault on injured reserve. He’s expected to miss up to four weeks.

Perreault has yet to play a full 82-game schedule with the Jets because of injuries, but he’s been an important player when available, with consistent production and strong possession numbers. That said, the 20-year-old Connor is a promising prospect with the potential for significant upside, especially considering the role he should find himself in.

Per NHL.com on Monday, Connor skated on the wing with Bryan Little and sophomore scorer Patrik Laine. That, it would appear, is Winnipeg’s second line, which gives them a difficult top-six group of forwards — the top line consisting of the red-hot Nikolaj Ehlers, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler — for the opposition to face.

“Speed. That’s the big piece that he can add to that line,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice. “Patrik’s such a great shooter. Bryan’s a really quick player. What Perreault did well was he got in and he got on it. He was quick enough to get in there to create some offensive zone time and allow those guys to do the things they do well and Kyle should be able to add that.”

The Jets have won three in a row, with Connor Hellebuyck giving them a trio of impressive performances in net. They host the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday, although according to Sara Orlesky of TSN, Steve Mason is expected to get the start.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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Eddie Olczyk to return to broadcast booth for Blackhawks-Blues Rivalry Night showdown

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The Chicago Blackhawks visit the St. Louis Blues for Wednesday’s Rivalry Night contest on NBCSN, and there will be a familiar voice on the broadcast.

Eddie Olczyk will return to the broadcast booth for this contest — the first meeting of the season between these two Central Division rivals — just over two months after it was publicly revealed that he had been diagnosed with colon cancer and was undergoing treatment following surgery to remove a tumor.

“We have some dates that we have highlighted and hopefully I will be strong to do the job,” Olczyk told USA Today. “If I am not feeling good, I just have to be honest with everyone and tell them I can’t do it.”

Read more: Blackhawks announcer Pat Foley gives shout out to Eddie Olczyk at Wrigley Field

Olczyk played 1,031 NHL games for six teams, including the Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, New York Rangers, L.A. Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins, from 1984 to 2000, scoring 342 goals and 794 points.

After coaching the Penguins during the 2003-04 and 2005-06 seasons, Olczyk moved to the broadcast booth as an analyst for NBC Sports’ coverage of the NHL and also Blackhawks games on NBC Sports Chicago.

In a statement in August, Olczyk vowed to return to broadcasting after his treatment.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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‘Something didn’t feel right’ — Parise leaves practice early after suffering setback

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The beginning of a new week for the Minnesota Wild started with Zach Parise taking part in practice.

Shortly after, however, the 33-year-old forward, who hasn’t played a game this season because of an undisclosed injury, left the ice and didn’t return, per multiple reports.  

Parise has previously insisted the injury isn’t with his back.

“I talked briefly with Chuck, but he said it was a setback. I don’t know how much of a setback or anything,” said head coach Bruce Boudreau, per the Wild website.

“I know I talked to him before practice and he felt great. That’s why he was in a red color and was ready to go. The next thing I know, somebody told me he went off. I don’t know why he went off. Obviously, something didn’t feel right.”

All part of what’s been a disastrous few days for the Wild in terms of injuries to begin the year.

General manager Chuck Fletcher seemed hopeful this latest occurrence would only be a short-term thing, although there doesn’t appear to be a timetable for when their veteran forward, who scored 19 goals and 42 points last season, may return. The Wild last played on Saturday, and don’t play again until Friday when they visit the Winnipeg Jets.

The news surrounding Mikael Granlund, out the last three games with a groin injury, seemed far more promising at this stage in the week.

The 25-year-old Granlund enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2016-17 with career highs in goals (26), assists (43) and points (69), and eventually cashed in with a three-year, $17.25 million contract extension to avoid salary arbitration.

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Cam Tucker is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @CamTucker_Sport.

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