Why it might not be safe to expect a significantly improved Rangers team

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People love to trot out the Albert Einstein quote that insanity involves “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Yet in some ways, it’s almost as dangerous to assume the flip side of that: doing the same thing and expecting the same results.

Many New York Rangers fans probably had this thought at least a few times last year: “If only our team had more talent.” The 2010-11 squad seemed short on talent – and arguably their most gifted skater Marian Gaborik experienced one of the worst years of his career – but they hustled and scrapped their way to a playoff spot (along with a surprising +35 goal differential).

Those same fans must have been delighted when GM Glen Sather tried to answer that hypothetical question by hauling in the biggest fish of free agency: Brad Richards. Even weary Rangers fans likely rejoiced because unlike Chris Drury or Bobby Holik, Richards already showed that he could produce as a top-line forward.

It’s tempting to think that Brad Richards + 2010-11 Rangers = division title (or more), but there are a few crucial reasons why that’s a risky assumption. Let’s count them down, then.

Why Richards might struggle

Signing a 31-year-old playmaker to a nine-year deal is always risky, even if it’s a cap-circumventing contract. There are two other reasons that the Richards deal is even more worrisome, though:

  • Richards and Gaborik’s health: As you may remember, Richards dealt with concussion issues right as rumors heated up the most around last season’s trade deadline. One can only assume that he’s OK, but it’s not exactly the most promising sign – especially since his partner in crime is renowned for being wildly injury prone.
  • The inherent problems with free agents: Richards developed fantastic chemistry with Loui Eriksson during his time with the Dallas Stars. A passer like Richards should make most linemates better, but there’s no guarantee he’ll make the same great music with Gabby.

That being said, the Rangers should feel happy that they landed a player as talented as Richards. Most likely, he’ll be a difference-maker on most nights. He might be asked to do too much, though.

Breakout players already got paidsource: Getty Images

The Rangers saw a staggering array of important players hit free agency this summer. Mysteriously enough, they experienced career years just in time for their next contracts.

The most notable players who received fat raises were Marc Staal, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan and Brian Boyle. Most expected Staal to be in line for a huge bump entering the 10-11 campaign, but the other three – particularly Boyle – raised their profile considerably.

How sure can we be that they’ll be able to achieve at the same rate next season? Dubinsky and Callahan were particularly vital to the Rangers and certainly bring some great energy to the ice (especially Callahan), but it might be a little tougher for them to lay down in front of a slap shot now that their mortgages are settled. Then again, in Callahan’s case, that might be a good thing; he suffered two injuries after blocking shots last season.

Staal’s concussion issues

The Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t the only Atlantic Division team whose outlook is blurry because of a major player’s concussion problems. Staal might not be a marquee player like Sidney Crosby, but he’s extremely valuable to the Rangers. Their defense drops off substantially from their top guys to depth defenders, so his current prognosis is very troubling.

Henrik Lundqvist is used to bailing his over-matched teammates out, but with Staal sidelined for an unknown amount of time, the Swedish stopper will need to be even better than last season. (Unless Richards & Co. meet some lofty expectations on offense, that is.)

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This doesn’t mean that the Rangers are hopeless. Still, it might be wise to temper expectations about a team who overachieved last season, even if they added a hugely talented player.

A big night for the rookies and a big win for the Maple Leafs

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William Nylander helped get Toronto started on Thursday, extending his point streak to 10 games — a new Maple Leafs franchise record for a rookie.

Connor Brown finished it with his 17th goal of the season, securing a 4-2 win for the Maple Leafs over the New Jersey Devils.

Toronto has won three in a row and moves three points clear of Boston for third in the Atlantic Division, with a game in hand, which further helps the Maple Leafs’ playoff chances with nine games remaining on their schedule.

Just another big night for Toronto’s impressive crop of rookies.

Auston Matthews had a pair of assists.

— Nylander had a goal and an assist. He set one and tied another franchise rookie record on Thursday.

Mitch Marner had an assist, giving him 40 helpers this season, which ties the franchise rookie record set in 1943-44.

“They’re good players,” said coach Mike Babcock, per the Toronto Star. “I didn’t know Marner would make the team. I knew Matthews and Nylander were good players. I knew Brown and (Zach) Hyman were relentless. I had no idea (Nikita) Zaitsev was as close to how good he is.

“We have lots of good players.”

In May of 2015, Babcock predicted at his introductory press conference that the Maple Leafs would, during their massive rebuild, endure “pain.” This was, he said, to be a long process — a “massive, massive challenge.”

Approaching the two-year anniversary of that event — after all the losing that franchise and its fan base has gone through, which obviously helped them with the Matthews lottery last year — the Maple Leafs are poised to make the playoffs with a nucleus of young players that present even more promise for the future.

“We just want to get in to the playoffs, and give ourselves a chance,” continued Babcock. “We’re playing well, and finding a way to win games. That’s what we have to continue to do.”

Capitals defeat Blue Jackets in clash of Metropolitan Division powers

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WASHINGTON (AP) T.J. Oshie scored the shootout winner as the Washington Capitals overcame a stellar performance from Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to beat the Blue Jackets 2-1 Thursday night.

Despite 44 saves from Bobrovsky, the Capitals reached 104 points and extended their lead atop the Metropolitan Division and NHL standings. Oshie engendered memories of his Sochi Olympic shootout performance by again beating Bobrovsky, the goalie he scored on four times in six chances that day.

Dmitry Orlov finally cracked Bobrovsky early in the third period on Washington’s 35th shot of the game. Orlov’s goal tied the score after Seth Jones beat Braden Holtby on a wild scramble early in the third for his first goal since Feb. 7.

Holtby had 29 saves in regulation and overtime and three more in the shootout to pick up his 38th victory of the season, one shy of Bobrovsky for the league lead.

A showdown between two of the top three teams in the league jockeying for position atop the Metropolitan Division lacked a playoff feel. But the matchup of two likely Vezina Trophy finalists lived up to that billing as Bobrovsky and Holtby went back and forth with big saves.

Bobrovsky entered the night first in wins, goals-against average and save percentage with Holtby second, second and third in those categories. The 2013 Vezina winner could also be an MVP contender this season given his value to Columbus’ third playoff berth in franchise history.

“When he’s in his game it’s very hard to score on him,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who had eight shots stopped by one of his Russian national teammates. “He likes the big moments, he likes pressure. His worth ethic is unbelievable. … In my opinion he’s one of the best goalies in the league right now.”

Methot ‘out for weeks’ after suffering a shattered finger from Crosby clash

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The Ottawa Senators lost defenseman Marc Methot for the bulk of Thursday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it seems he’ll be out for quite a while longer, too.

Methot was injured on a Sidney Crosby slash across the hand in the first period. He didn’t return to the game and there was no penalty called on the Penguins captain.

Footage showed the gruesome aftermath of the slash — Methot’s finger on his left hand bloodied and injured as he skated back to the bench.

“His finger is shattered and he’s out for weeks,” said Senators head coach Guy Boucher, per the Ottawa Sun.

Methot immediately confronted Crosby after the slash, which occurred as the Sens blue liner went to dump the puck into the Pittsburgh zone late in the first period.

The Senators got revenge, scoring a 2-1 shootout victory to move within a point of Montreal for the Atlantic Division lead. Crosby was also denied in the shootout.

NHL to make ‘special announcement’ in China next week

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The National Hockey League has announced it will make a “special announcement” at the LeSports Center in Beijing, China next Thursday.

In January, the league’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly made it clear the NHL has interest in playing games in China — likely starting out with pre-season games before potentially adding in some regular season contests in the future, as well.

Just after the league made its announcement on Thursday, the L.A. Kings tweeted out that they will participate in next week’s event, along with the Vancouver Canucks.

In January, hockey insider Darren Dreger reported that the Canucks and Kings were likely to play NHL pre-season games in China this upcoming September.

Last July, members of the Boston Bruins visited China, specifically Beijing and Shanghai, to host hockey clinics in those cities.

Beijing will also host the 2022 Winter Olympics.