By Sean Hartnett
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Head coach Alain Vigneault delivered the goods last season during his debut campaign, guiding the Rangers to the first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1994.READ MORE: Gabby Petito Search: Authorities Combing Wyoming Wilderness For Missing Woman, Fiancé's Whereabouts Remain Unknown
His calm demeanor and penchant for up-tempo, possession-based hockey transformed the Blueshirts into an assured, confident group that are stingy with the puck.
If the Rangers are to return to the Final, Vigneault will have to work some more magic.
They will open camp on Thursday, but will not begin on-ice testing until Friday. On paper, this team appears weakened in a number of areas. The Rangers’ depth at center has taken a significant hit. Penalty killing ace and faceoff expert Brian Boyle opted to leave via free agency and the Blueshirts bought out Brad Richards’ expensive, cap-hindering contract. The Rangers also lost two players who were particularly strong in possession in two-way defenseman Anton Stralman and winger Benoit Pouliot.
Stralman and Boyle were the unsung heroes of last season’s Eastern Conference champions. For all of Vigneault’s intelligent decisions, it was surprising to see him not plug in Stralman on the power play and move Boyle up the depth chart when Richards’ game went south.
Now, they’re suiting up for a team that could rival the Rangers for the conference championship in the supremely-deep Tampa Bay Lightning. On breakup day, Boyle sounded like a goner.
“I think everyone knows how I feel about New York and the New York Rangers and what that means to me and has meant to me and what Glen (Sather) has done for me,” Boyle said on June 16. “But I want to make an impact going forward. You want to have more responsibility sometimes.”
Vigneault’s deployment of Boyle was extreme. The 6-foot-7 center’s offensive zone start percentage was only 23 percent.
“I was on the fourth line, and I didn’t really like it, but it wasn’t the fourth line I was used to,” Boyle said on breakup day. “We had three lines that could score on any shift — it was different, it was just different.”
“I’m really going to miss Brian,” Brassard said. “He was really good for our team. Guys like that with big bodies are pretty hard to find. He’s hard to play against and blocks a lot of shots. The guys around here are going to miss him a lot. You wish him well in Tampa. He’s going to a good team there and he’s going to do a good job, for sure.”
In Stralman’s case, the Rangers simply allowed him to walk to Tampa. The Rangers signed power play specialist Dan Boyle as Stralman’s replacement.
“New York came up with an offer, and we came up with a counter offer and after that we were prepared to negotiate, but there was nothing,” Stralman told a Swedish newspaper. “They did not even come back to me.
“I’m extremely disappointed with what happened,” Stralman added. “I think that you could have the respect to tell me earlier that you wanted to go a different route.”
In the case of Pouliot, it wouldn’t have been wise for the Rangers to match the five-year, $20 million pact he agreed to with the Edmonton Oilers. Despite enjoying tremendous chemistry with Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, Pouliot has been an unbelievably streaky player throughout his career aside from his lone season in New York.
BRASSARD, HAGELIN LIKE PLAYERS BROUGHT IN
Brassard is impressed with Sather’s offseason additions. The 26-year-old center said the signings can fill the void left by the departures of Brian Boyle, Stralman, Richards, Pouliot, Derek Dorsett and Dan Carcillo.
“It’s tough because it’s not every year you have the chance to go all the way to the Final,” Brassard said on Monday. “Guys are leaving. Everyone has a different contract situation. We lost a few guys, but we have some new guys in. They’re going to step up. We added some really good depth players.”
Those depth players include recently signed winger Ryan Malone, gritty winger Tanner Glass, veteran forward Matthew Lombardi, scoring winger Lee Stempniak, depth forward Chris Mueller, depth defenseman Mike Kostka and Matt Hunwick.
The signing of Kevin Hayes has excited the Rangers’ fan base. Hayes has auditioned at center during the Traverse City prospects tournament. The 6-foot-3 forward possesses impressive tools and goal-scoring ability. He has the size to develop into a strong possession player at the NHL level.
Nine forwards – Derek Stepan, Brassard, Dominic Moore, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, Glass, Martin St. Louis and Zuccarello are considered locks to make the opening night roster. There are spots open at forward and one additional healthy scratch spot up for grabs.
Hayes will compete alongside Lombardi and prospects J.T. Miller and Oscar Lindberg for the last center spot. Stepan is likely to center the top line with Brassard behind him. Moore will return as a checking line center.
Even if Hayes is beaten out at center, he would stand a solid chance starting the season in New York at wing. Hayes also could compete with Stempniak, Malone, Mueller and prospects Jesper Fast, Ryan Haggerty, Chris McCarthy and Danny Kristo. Additionally, both Lombardi and Miller are capable of playing on the wing.READ MORE: Teen Stabbed To Death After Dutchess County High School Football Game, Former Student Charged
As for the penalty kill, the losses of Brian Boyle and Stralman loom large. Boyle played an important role as a dependable faceoff man and frequent shot-blocker. Stralman formed a rock-solid defensive pairing with alternate captain Marc Staal.
Winger Hagelin said he isn’t sure which players will assume penalty killing roles, but he’s confident that the new additions have the right mentality and attributes to play in shorthanded situations.
“I think the PK is just a matter of having chemistry between the players and having players who are ready to sacrifice the body,” Hagelin said on Monday. “I believe we do (have the players needed). I don’t know what the combinations are going to be yet on the PK. We have great centers from last year that we know are going to be good on the PK. Winning the draw – that’s where it starts. We have Hank (Lundqvist) in net – he’s our number one penalty killer.”
RANGERS HOPE DAN BOYLE SIGNING WILL PAY OFF
The Blueshirts will be counting on 38-year-old defenseman Dan Boyle to jump-start their power play.
“Dan obviously is an experienced player and has been an elite player for a long time,” Vigneault said during a July 1 conference call. “He will bring experience and help on the PP and he has been able to log important minutes on a good team the last few years. We are happy to have him on board.”
“I was really ecstatic when I heard that we had got him,” McDonagh said last Thursday. “Knowing his past experience and him playing at this level for so long, any time you can pick up a guy with that kind of experience you try to learn from him.”
McDonagh has been impressed by Boyle’s work ethic during informal skates ahead of training camp.
“Right away, you can see his work ethic,” McDonagh said. “He’s determined to keep himself in good shape and be a difference-maker every time he’s out there.”
Boyle suffered a down year in his final season in San Jose, with his production slipping to 36 points in 75 games. Between 2008 and 2012, Boyle averaged 53 points per season. He registered 20 points in 46 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
Even at 38, Boyle is still an excellent skater and a very capable power play quarterback. He could be the player who holds the key to whether the Rangers regress, maintain last season’s success or perhaps even surpass their sensational run from last season.
Boyle is the kind of player who could make a tremendous difference for a team that’s long lacked someone who can run the power play with smoothness and efficiency.
NEW CAPTAIN DECISION IS FORTHCOMING, MCDONAGH THE FRONTRUNNER
The 2014-15 Rangers will be different both in roster makeup and leadership. Vigneault is scheduled to speak to the media for the first time since breakup day at noon Thursday.
He could opt to name a new captain at that press conference.
“I’ll let training camp unfold, or maybe I’ll make the decision prior to it,” Vigneault said on June 16.
McDonagh is the clear favorite to be named the 27th captain in franchise history. Last Thursday, McDonagh spoke about being an example of professionalism to teammates.
“My focus is to make sure I’m working hard and trying to do the right things on and off the ice to prepare us to win games. As a teammate, guys look up to you and expect that out of you. They expect you to perform at the right level and bring the right attitude,” he said
Last season, Dan Girardi and Staal were alternate captains. Nash occasionally wore the “A” and was captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets between 2008-12.
McDonagh’s greatest rival for the captaincy is likely St. Louis. Prior to the March 5 “captain’s swap” that sent St. Louis to New York and Ryan Callahan to Tampa, St. Louis served as Lightning captain during the 2013-14 season. St. Louis has often demonstrated vocal leadership on the Rangers’ bench.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey
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