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.