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Keefe To The City: Rangers Building Elite Status

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Artem Anisimov, left, Brandon Prust, center, and Ryan McDonagh of the New York Rangers celebrate McDonagh’s goal against the Carolina Hurricanes at the RBC Center on Dec. 1, 2011. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

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By Neil Keefe
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It’s right around this time every year when the Rangers begin their decline to the lower half of the Eastern Conference and spend the rest of the season jockeying for position between the sixth and 10th spots. The final two months of the season wind up being the Rangers’ postseason to reach the postseason, and settling for the No. 7 or No. 8 seed in the postseason feels like an accomplishment. Well, not anymore.

The Rangers have made the jump from being a middle-of-the-pack team to being an elite team in the first quarter of the season. They have the best winning percentage in the NHL and have lost just two games since Oct. 29 (it’s now Dec. 2 if you weren’t aware).

With the Rangers on top of their game and with the 24/7 series with the Flyers set to premiere in less than two weeks, now seemed like a good time to have an epic email discussion with WFAN producer and hockey writer Brian Monzo. 

Keefe: The Rangers are fun to watch. I’m being serious. It’s not that it wasn’t “fun” to watch the Rangers or hockey in recent years; it’s just that this season feels different. This season isn’t like the last few years when they were only “fun” to watch at the end of the season because every game was a must-win to reach the postseason (right up until Game 82 the last two years) since they blew so many games earlier in the year. This year has a different feel to it. Earlier in the year it seemed like we might just be going down the same old road with the Rangers, but I think that can now be attributed to the insane schedule for the first few weeks of the season and travel overseas and north of the border to open the schedule with MSG being renovated. But it feels like all of this waiting and all of this building is finally adding up to something.

The Rangers just had their best week of the year. They played their hardest three-game stretch of the young season and came away with six points. That’s right, all six points. Philadelphia: defeated. Washington: defeated. Pittsburgh: defeated. And on top of that, the trailer for this year’s 24/7 was released and their Winter Classic jerseys were unveiled. So, I ask you, the “erstwhile” Brian Monzo, how good are the 2011-12 New York Rangers, and how excited are you about the possibilities and potential for this team?

Monzo: Well, the best week of the season got even better on Thursday night with the Rangers’ win in Carolina in a “TCB” game (Take Care of Business game). The Rangers are a better team than the Hurricanes and they needed to win against an inferior opponent even after beating the Capitals, Flyers and Penguins in their previous three games. The Rangers didn’t play a perfect game, but they got the two points they needed.

So far this season, what I like about this team is the fact that the best players, for once, are playing like the best players. Marian Gaborik has been a beast; Brad Richards has had zero issues adjusting to New York; Ryan Callahan is on pace for 30 goals; King Henrik is playing as good as ever.

Another asset has been the ability for the young players to really step it up. Derek Stepan has been better in his second season, and Ryan McDonagh picked up where he left off. After his recent call-up, Carl Hagelin has added speed and offense with four points in his first four NHL games. You also nailed something with what you said in that the Ranges are fun to watch. They are quick, score big goals when needed and fight when they have to.

One issue I’m having with the team is Brandon Dubinsky. It’s OK to struggle, but one goal in 22 games is unacceptable. Fortunately, they have been winning, despite Dubinsky’s lack offense, but he’s one of their main guys, and if they are going to do anything he will need to start burying the puck. In reality this is likely just a slump, but at 14-5-3, imagine what it could be if Dubinsky can get it going?

Keefe: The guy you have a problem with was rumored to be a player of interest to the Ducks in a trade for Bobby Ryan. The rumors were that the Ducks wanted Dubinsky, Michael Del Zotto and a draft pick for Ryan, and I gladly offered to pack their bags and buy their plane tickets for this type of deal. You said you wouldn’t go as far as packing their bags, so all I asked of you was to drive them to the airport to complete a potential deal.

Now the rumor is that Bobby Ryan is off the trade market, and no longer desires to be traded. Is this real life? Was this the shortest amount of time a player has been on the trade market? Not even a complete 24 hours of trade rumors and he’s already off the market? And he doesn’t want to be traded now? His mind changed that quickly? Doesn’t this all seem sketchy?

Let’s break this down into two parts with the first part being the idea of Ryan on the Rangers, which is a phenomenal idea, if you ask me. He’s 24 years old and has posted 31-plus goal seasons in the last three years entering this season. He’s a legitimate scoring threat to compliment Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan. Del Zotto has been better in his third year after a rough sophomore season, but he’s certainly replaceable. And like you said, Dubinsky hasn’t been good. He has just one goal in 21 games, his career high in goals for a season is 24 and he’s two years older than Ryan.

The other part of this Bobby Ryan rumor is the situation in Anaheim. The Ducks are awful, and they fired Randy Carlyle (in his seventh season as head coach). Obviously the losing and the direction of the team played a role in Ryan being put on the block, and the reports of his unhappiness and willingness to want a trade helped fuel the rumors. But are the departure of Carlyle and the hiring of Bruce Boudreau enough to change his mind?

Monzo: You need to look at what the Rangers would be getting, and not just them, but any team that would have the opportunity to land a player like Bobby Ryan. Let’s not forget, Ryan was the guy drafted second to Sidney Crosby in the 2005 draft. There’s a ton of scoring talent with Ryan, and he’s put up 31, 35 and 34 goals in his first three seasons. So, would I make that trade? Yes. Would the Ducks? I don’t think so since now that they have a new coach, Ryan will be part of the solution.

It’s always tough when a good coach like Carlyle loses his job, but that’s part of the game. Boudreau can go back to playing his offensive style of hockey, like he did early in his tenure with the Capitals. He has a ton of talent to work with in Ryan, Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and some guy named Teemu Selanne. Once he gets to know his new team, they should be headed in the right direction. Boudreau didn’t win a Jack Adams Award for his looks. The guy can coach.

Keefe: Some people are opposed to the idea of the Rangers making a blockbuster move like the one that would have possibly landed them Ryan, and that’s because the team has 31 points in 22 games (the best points percentage in the league) and the fewest amount of losses in the league with five. I understand the idea of not wanting to break up what Glen Sather and John Tortorella have built here over the last few years, but a guy like Ryan takes the Rangers to another level.

The reason people spoke out against the rumors is because of the chemistry of this team and because every fan base (no matter what the sport is) always finds it hard to part ways with homegrown talent like a parent watching their kid go to school for the first time. And this group of homegrown talent is the best the Rangers have had in nearly two decades. You don’t hear about draft busts and overhyped talent anymore like we did in the early 2000s with names like Jamie Lundmark and Garth Murray and Hugh Jessiman. And we don’t have to worry about the Rangers signing terrible free-agent contracts like they did with Bobby Holik, Scott Gomez, Darius Kasparitis and Wade Redden. This Rangers team is one that fans can enjoy to watch and be proud of, and the way the team is being run is the way it should have been run for the last 10-plus years.

Monzo: It’s amazing how the organization has been able to develop players like Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Sauer, Dan Girardi and Artem Anisimov and have them immediately pay dividends. And the latest example of this is Carl Hagelin.

I think Carl Hagelin is a name that is going to get more and more attention around the league throughout the season. How can anyone not like what they have seen out of the rookie early on? His style of play and the combination of offense and speed adds another element and weapon, to the Rangers’ game.

He’s flown under the radar behind Gaborik and Richards, but Callahan is soaring with the “C” on his jersey.  He has 10 goals, and is always in the right spot on the ice. He throws his body around, and has been tremendous in front of the net on the power play.

Keefe: As we head into the second quarter of the season, the Rangers have a lot on their plate with maintaining their level of play and position near the top of the conference, as well as dealing with the media and production crews surrounding them for the next month leading up to the Winter Classic. The Rangers have had their share of convincing wins over the other elite teams in the Eastern Conference, and the only team they haven’t seen from that tier is the Bruins, who they won’t see until January. But without a 1-0 or 2-1 Rangers-Bruins game (since they always end in those scores) so far, would you be willing to put the Rangers in the conversation for the best team in the league?

And now that we are under two weeks away from series premiere of this year’s 24/7 featuring the Rangers and the Flyers. HBO showed a preview of the series last week, and the trailer did an unbelievable job of teasing the rivalry between the two Atlantic teams. Last year I analyzed and reviewed the show for WFAN.com, and it will be even better this year with the Rangers being part of the process and the buildup to the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

Maxime Talbot stole the show last season (along with Bruce Boudreau) with his antics at the team holiday party and on road trips. Fans got to see into the locker room of the Penguins during a lengthy winning streak and into the Capitals’ during an extended losing streak. How pumped are you for this year’s 24/7 and who is going to be this season’s Max Talbot?

Monzo: It’s going to be exciting. Last year HBO did an outstanding job with the Penguins-Capitals 24/7, and I don’t expect anything less this year. It will once again give fans the chance to get inside the locker room before, during and after games.

Brian Boyle has a pretty good personality, and I would not be shocked if he is someone that fans see a really cool side of. I also wouldn’t be shocked if John Tortorella does the same thing, but for different reasons that the media is far too familiar with.

It’s tough to say the Rangers are the best team in the league, but I think it’s safe to say they are one of the best teams in the league. The problem is they haven’t done this long enough, and we have seen teams have hot starts and taper off. However, I think the feeling around the league is the Rangers are finally doing all the right things to continue this level of consistency. Now, can they continue this stretch of long winning streaks? It will be tough, but they certainly have the right pieces. If everyone stays healthy (and they are due to get Mike Rupp and Marc Staal back at some point) everything could fall in the right place.

Follow Neil on Twitter @NeilKeefe

Follow Brian on Twitter @BMonzoWFAN