A pre-season prediction by TheHockeyNews.com pegged New York to finish as the conference’s seventh seed—just barely good enough to sneak into the Eastern Conference playoffs.
With the addition of the prior off-season’s ultimate prize—Brad Richards—the Rangers finished with an overall record of 51-24-7, garnering the top seed in the Eastern Conference and shocking the hockey world along the way.
For all of the disappointment that accompanies falling to the New Jersey Devils in a hard-fought, six-game Eastern Conference final, the season was an indubitable success of which the John Tortorella-led Rangers hope to build upon in 2012-13.
The battle for Eastern Conference supremacy was primarily contested by two divisional foes—the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers—who finished the year with 108 points and 103 points respectively, just shy of the 109 point pace set by the conference-leading Rangers.
Grueling negotiations regarding a new NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement permitting, the fierce rivalry is poised to feature much of the very same throughout the new season. This year, however, the Rangers no longer possess the element of surprise while the three Atlantic Division heavyweights jockey for a shot at earning the title, "Class of the Eastern Conference."
A late season surge propelled the Devils into the Stanley Cup final but with another year of wear and tear on the hall-of-fame-bound Martin Brodeur, along with the absence of Zach Parise, the team is sure to experience some regression.
With a target ironed firmly on their sweaters, the Blueshirts will begin the new season seeking to defend their Eastern Conference dominance. Let’s take a look at what Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have done to preclude such an occurrence:
In spite of their well-documented goaltending struggles, the Flyers completed an impressive 47-26-9 campaign in 2011-12. Six of the losses can be attributed to the Rangers who swept the season series over their Atlantic Division-rivals for the first time in 40 years.
The Broad Street Bullies took what appears to be a potential gamble by flipping the talented James van Riemsdyk—still just 23 years-old but coming off a disappointing 2011-12—in exchange for promising young defenseman, Luke Schenn.
Sacrificing the offensively gifted van Riemsdyk for the defensive-minded Schenn should help to shore up a Philadelphia group that allowed a pedestrian 225 goals last season, but replacing the team’s loss in production is improbable. Between the recently departed Jaromir Jagr, van Riemsdyk and Matt Carle, the Flyers have 116 total points to account for.
It’s unreasonable to expect new faces like Ruslan Fedotenko—formerly of the Rangers and Penguins—to be up to the tall task.
Even with a new, defensively oriented roster, the play of netminder Ilya Bryzgalov will determine the team’s prosperity. Unless Bryzgalov can somehow recapture the former ability that made him a $51-million-man, the Eastern Conference is simply out of reach.
In a draft day blockbuster, Pittsburgh sent the NHL’s youngest Staal brother away to join forces with big brother Eric Staal in Carolina. In exchange, the Penguins received the effective two-way center, Brandon Sutter, promising defenseman Brian Dumoulin and a first round draft pick.
Losing Jordan Staal’s production certainly hurts, but a case can be made that the team has managed to improve on last year’s mediocre defensive play.
When it comes to the Penguins, the bottom line is that they possess, arguably, the two best players in hockey. For as long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are skating, Pittsburgh presents the Rangers with a more-than-worthy challenge for the conference’s top spot.
In the end, Pittsburgh will have no trouble putting the puck in the net, but Fleury’s inconsistencies will assure the team’s eventual undoing.
What This Means
The NHL offseason was a chaotic one for a variety of reasons. While the Flyers and Penguins each made their own calculated moves to improve on last year’s on-ice product, was it enough to supplant New York?
For the second consecutive year, the New York Rangers completed the blockbuster deal of the offseason, inking superstar forward Rick Nash in exchange for top-nine forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov, along with NHL-ready defensive prospect Tim Erixon.
The Nash move alone should pay instant dividends for an offense that ranked just 13th in the league's goals scored (226) category, while the Penguins finished with an NHL-best 282 goals scored and the Flyers came in at 3rd with 264 tallies.
But make no whims about it, the Rangers are anchored by Vezina winner Henrik Lundqvist and one of the NHL’s most reliable defensive units.
Replete with shutdown blueliners like Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and the sorely-missed good health of Marc Staal, the team will live and die in accordance with their ability to keep pucks out of Lundqvist’s net. Even with the addition of a playmaker like Nash, the key to the success of the Rangers begins with a hard-nosed, defense-first philosophy.
Though rather understated, the signing of Jeff Halpern will factor greatly into the Rangers quest for the Eastern Conference. A renowned face-off specialist, Halpern will undoubtedly improve a team that ranked just 18th in the NHL in face-off percentage at 50.0 percent, which left much to be desired.
Halpern’s 58.4 percent on face-offs last season would have been the best percentage on the Rangers, by a long shot.
With an improved offense, a healthy defensive corps and valuable new experience under the belt of youngsters like Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto, the 2012-13 Rangers should be even better than last year’s version.
No team can score without the puck. With Halpern in the face-off circle, you can bet that the Rangers will have the puck in their possession for far longer. This means more opportunities for Nash and Marian Gaborik and an easier workload for the Rangers defensemen—a fact surely welcomed by Girardi and McDonagh who were among the NHL leaders in TOI/G.
Come this season, the Eastern Conference will belong to the New York Rangers, yet again.