New York Rangers

Blue Jackets’ biggest question: Will Bobrovsky play like an elite goaltender?

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While the Columbus Blue Jackets have become a stronger team offensively thanks to the rise of Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen as well as the recent acquisition of Brandon Saad, there’s no question that they still need a dominant season out of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. The problem is that might not happen.

Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy in 2013 by posting a 2.00 GAA and .932 save percentage in the lockout shortened campaign. In the process, he nearly propelled Columbus into the playoffs. He wasn’t quite as strong in his follow up campaign, but his 2.38 GAA and .923 save percentage were nevertheless impressive as well as good enough to push the improved Blue Jackets into the postseason for just the second time in franchise history.

It seemed like Columbus had found a goaltender that it could rely upon not just to be solid, but play at an elite level. The Blue Jackets’ belief in that was highlighted in January when they signed him to a four-year, $29.7 million deal that will begin this season.

Bobrovsky didn’t play at that level last season though. He suffered a groin injury that cost him part of the season, but even when he was healthy he was inconsistent. Although a late surge partially salvaged his numbers, he did still finish with a 2.69 GAA and .918 to make it the second straight season he declined from a statistical perspective.

There were certainly still positives to be found, but Columbus needs Bobrovsky to be more than a mixed bag. After all, he’ll enter this season with the second highest cap hit in the league among goaltenders, behind only Henrik Lundqvist, so it seems reasonable to describe anything other than a top-tier season as a disappointment. More to the point, anything short of that might not be enough to get Columbus back into the playoffs.

To that end though, the Blue Jackets believe they’ve dealt with the issue by modifying his summer conditioning program and have a strategy in place for how they will continue to handle his conditioning during the season.

“We all know how hard a worker he is,” Blue Jackets goaltending coach Ian Clark told NHL.com. “Some of that was he was working so hard he was exhausted.”

So we’ll see if that’s the magic bullet needed for a comeback performance.

New York Rangers ’15-16 Outlook

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If you’re fascinated by athletes chasing big numbers in contract years, then the New York Rangers have been a go-to source of entertainment in recent years.

It’s difficult (if not nebulous) to try to quantify the impact of “greed is good,” but the Rangers are a hungry team with plenty of motivation in 2015-16. That’s what happens when you mortgage bits of your future via trades and employ some players chasing their next checks.

You never really know how wide open a Stanley Cup window might be.

Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault saw that in action in Vancouver, as the franchise declined from a huge contender to a bubble team in little time.

We’ve asked more than once if Henrik Lundqist’s elite days are numbered. It’s also worth noting that at 31, Rick Nash is in the middle of that age in which snipers see a slide in production.

The contract year situations aren’t of “uh oh, we better re-sign Henrik Lundqvist/our current captain/Derek Stepan” enormity, but they’re still intriguing.

On defense, you have veteran Keith Yandle and fading graybeard (literally) Dan Boyle. Antti Raanta also enters a pivotal year as an NHL backup.

The forward group might be the most intriguing.

Just look at the pending RFAs alone: Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, J.T Miller and Emerson Etem. There’s some fascinating potential for all four of those players.

Even with Boyle’s $4.5 million cap hit set to expire, salary cap gymnastic may be required once again in the summer of 2016.

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Paying players after strong years – and learning to let some of the less essential ones go – has been a pretty rewarding process for the Rangers, even if there’s been the occasional miss (see: Anton Stralman).

Poll: Are the Rangers still Cup contenders?

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Martin St. Louis’ final NHL season is a jarring testament to how quickly someone’s window can close in sports.

After years of being an underrated point producer and consistently defying age, it almost felt like a switch flipped for St. Louis; he looked very much like a 40-year-old during the final stretch of his career.

The New York Rangers need to do whatever they can to avoid a parallel fate.

Granted, the Rangers aren’t rife with older players. Aside from Dan Boyle (who’s 39), the Rangers are well-stocked with prime-age players. Life is pretty good when you’re worried if your 33-year-old superstar goalie can remain the star that Henrik Lundqvist is.

Still, there’s a risk that they could decline. Despite winning a Presidents’ Trophy with two teams this decade, head coach Alain Vigneault can be a little polarizing.

On top of that, there is the possibility that Lundqvist may finally hit a wall. That’s a scary thought for a team that still depends heavily upon their goalie.

Heck, the Rangers may also miss St. Louis, after all.

One would expect to see the Rangers as at least a playoff pick for most prognosticators, but what do you expect from a team still shooting for a Cup?

Rangers’ biggest question: Can Lundqvist avoid a decline?

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Every now and then, we need to remind ourselves that Henrik Lundqvist is, you know, human.

Sure, he looks ageless, and his stats always seem to shine (even amid an up-and-down 2014-15 season).The New York Rangers have gone as far as the stellar Swede could take them for about a decade now, so some probably think his greatness is as inevitable as death and taxes.

The truth is that he’s not infallible, and at 33, you have to wonder if a decline is coming.

Granted, people have been pondering a possible drop-off basically from the moment that he signed that massive seven-year, $59.5 million extension in 2013. Blogger-turned-Carolina-Hurricanes-employee Eric Tulsky provided a great breakdown back then, yet even he seemed to struggle in forecasting Lundqvist’s future.

Blueshirt Banter said it well while giving Lundqvist a B+ grade for last season:

Father Time is undefeated World Champion. But based upon the above, I think we all need to quit our belly-aching about the imminent demise, or decline of Henrik Lundqvist. He’s got some more elite years hiding in that glorious head of hair.

Goalies are a tough nut to crack as far as predictions are concerned, yet that’s what has made Lundqvist’s dominance so daunting: he seems like the one guy you can count on to be great (if not elite). Year in and year out, he gets it done.

The problem is that the Ranger still lean on him too much. With all of their spending and the 2015 Presidents’ Trophy win, it might seem like he’s asked to do less, yet Lundqvist and Cam Talbot camouflaged a defense that was shaky at times last season.

With Talbot gone and Antti Raanta in his place, it’s possible that the Rangers are that much more reliant on Lundqvist. What happens if he suffers another slow start and/or injuries? What happens if his reflexes begin to dull?

Much like the question of decline, the hypothetical scenario of Lundqvist falling off is probably familiar to Rangers fans (who are seasoned at learning that the answer has always been “Nope, he’s still great”).

What happens if the answer is “yes” in 2015-16?

Under pressure: Derek Stepan

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It’s conceivable that Derek Stepan wanted even more than he received from the New York Rangers, but a six-year extension with a $6.5 million cap hit still stands as an enormous deal.

The 25-year-old’s contract is worth a total of $39 million, and he’ll see his highest salary in 2015-16 and 2016-17, as the Rangers will pay him $8 million (and a $1 million signing bonus) each year.

When the deal went down, Rangers GM Jeff Gorton explained that the team wanted to lock up a big-time player.

“[You] want players who can play big in the big moments on the biggest stage — and there is no bigger stage than New York City,” Gorton said, via Blueshirts United. “Derek has proven he can do that.”

Well, now Stepan will face a different kind of pressure: proving that he’s worth the money.

Rangers history is littered with the shattered expectations of Rangers who ended up being cap catastrophes, something that once defined the tenure of long-time GM Glen Sather. On the bright side, the team’s had better luck when they shell out big cash to homegrown talent, most obviously with Henrik Lundqvist.

Stepan’s scoring continues to come along each season. Despite being limited to 68 games in 2014-15, Stepan generated 55 points, nearly matching his 2013-14 output (57 points in 82 games).

Stepan’s been a strong playoff performer, as well, and that will need to continue after some key personnel losses this summer.

One of those changes came in the retirement of Martin St. Louis, a situation that could be quite interesting for Stepan, his frequent linemate.

Stepan’s possession numbers were downright ghastly in 2014-15, but it’s plausible that some of those struggles may be attributed to his veteran partner’s decline.

The American forward is in the prime of his career, so he’s in a solid position to live up to expectations. That’s good, because they’ll rise in a big way with that big contract.