By Sean Hartnett
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Last season, the Rangers surprised many by reaching their first Stanley Cup Final since 1994. The 2014-15 Rangers have more of a youthful look after a number of familiar faces moved on to new teams. Repeating last season’s success isn’t going to be easy.

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The salary-cap squeeze forced the Rangers to buy out veteran center Brad Richards, who signed with the Chicago Blackhawks on a modest one-year, $2 million deal. All-around defenseman Anton Stralman and rugged, penalty-killing expert Brian Boyle both joined the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Edmonton Oilers threw a lucrative five-year, $20 million offer at scoring winger Benoit Pouliot that the Rangers simply weren’t going to match.

Effective, agitating winger Derek Dorsett was traded to the Vancouver Canucks on the eve of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. Smooth-skating defenseman Raphael Diaz joined the Calgary Flames. Intimidating but undisciplined winger Daniel Carcillo signed with the injury-hit Blackhawks.

Power-play maestro Dan Boyle, underrated offensive winger Lee Stempniak, physical wingers Tanner Glass and Ryan Malone and prized youngster Kevin Hayes were among Glen Sather’s offseason recruits.

The Rangers will begin their Eastern Conference championship defense on Thursday night against a possession-dominant St. Louis Blues team stocked with size, skill and physicality.

ALL EYES ON DUCLAIR AND THE KIDS

Winger Anthony Duclair, 19, has all the tools to be a game-changing player at the NHL level. Duclair’s package of jet-like speed, sniping ability, excellent hands, positional smarts and enthusiasm means this high-ceiling rookie might be able to force himself into Alain Vigneault’s plans for the entire season.

“When he plays, he has to play on our top-nine forwards. He’s going to get an opportunity to start Thursday and prove that,” Vigneault said on Monday.

After nine games, the Rangers must decide whether to keep Duclair or send him to the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. Duclair scored 50 goals and collected 49 assists in 59 games for the Remparts last season. He is ineligible to play in the AHL due to his age.

“He’s got an NHL skill set,” Vigneault said. “The hands, speed, the thinking with the puck — it’s there. Now, can that continue when the season starts against full NHL lineups and full NHL pace and intensity? He’s going to get the chance to prove that. So far, he’s earned the right to start with us on Thursday. We’ll see what happens.”

It’s vital that 21-year-old J.T. Miller finds comfort at center. Miller spent last season shuttling between New York and AHL Hartford. Top center Derek Stepan will miss a minimum of 10 games now that’s he’s been placed on the LTIR. Once Stepan returns, stand-in center Martin St. Louis will return to his natural right wing.

Both Miller and 22-year-old Swedish speedster Jesper Fast impressed during the preseason. Miller has looked comfortable at the face-off dot and has shown glimpses of playmaking acumen. Vigneault said recently that Fast’s responsible, two-way play has earned the trust of the Rangers’ coaching staff.

“When he is on the ice, coaches and management have a lot of trust that he will do the right thing,” Vigneault said of Fast on Monday.

The Rangers are hoping that these trends will carry over into the regular season.

Hayes is recovering from a preseason shoulder injury. He will not play in Thursday’s opener. Once healthy, the powerful Hayes could figure into the mix both at center and on the wing. Hayes is projected to develop into a skilled power forward and a strong possession player thanks to his great pair of hands and 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame.

Should they stick in the NHL, the speedy trio of Duclair, Fast and Miller will help make the Blueshirts one of the fastest-skating teams in the league. Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider can absolutely fly. Aside from the lumbering duo of Malone and Glass, the Rangers are a quick team along four lines and three D-pairs. Even elder statesmen St. Louis and Dominic Moore remain fast skaters at ages 39 and 34, respectively.

RANGERS EXPECT DAN BOYLE TO IGNITE ORDINARY POWER PLAY

Defenseman Dan Boyle, 38, was brought in by the Rangers to add creativity and organization to the Blueshirts’ mediocre power play. The Rangers’ power play finished 15th during the regular season and 11th among 16 teams in the playoffs.

Boyle is particularly fired up after Sharks general manager Doug Wilson told him that San Jose would not retain him after a six-year stint with the franchise. What the Rangers are getting is a very proud and passionate player who is excited to be a Ranger.

“I want it to be clear that I’m not here to just kind of fade away into the sunset,” Boyle said on the first day of training camp. “I’m here to win. I’m here to work and play, and make a difference on the ice.”

Boyle feels that his mobility and puck-moving ability fits right in with Vigneault’s uptempo, offensive-leaning system.

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“This team likes to play an offensive-type game,” Boyle said. “That’s exactly what I want to do — get the puck out of our zone as quick as we can and spend as much time in the other zone as possible.”

DEFENSIVE DEPTH IS AN ISSUE

Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, Dan Boyle, John Moore and Kevin Klein make up an impressive top six. But the Rangers are in trouble if any of their starting defensemen suffer a long-term injury. Behind these six, the Rangers’ blue-line talent takes a nosedive.

Matt Hunwick beat out all competition to earn a place on the Rangers’ opening-night roster as a spare defenseman. Hunwick was unable to lock down a spot last season on the defensively-mediocre Colorado Avalanche. The 29-year-old only played one game for the Avs last season, spending 52 games in the AHL.

Vigneault opted to keep Hunwick over Mike Kostka and Steven Kampfer because of his skating ability.

“He outplayed those guys by a little bit,” Vigneault said on Monday. “Maybe it was his ability to beat the forecheck on dump-ins; quick to turn, a little shuffle back there to beat the first guy. It seemed that we were out of our end a bit quicker.”

Kampfer was traded to the Florida Panthers on Monday along with minor-league center Andrew Yogan to the Florida Panthers in exchange for 31-year-old winger Joey Crabb.

Should any of the Rangers’ top-six blue liners fall victim to a long-term injury, minor-league defenseman Conor Allen might be the best bet to be recalled from AHL Hartford. The 24-year-old impressed during a three-game audition with the Rangers last season. Allen has a good mix of smarts, feistiness, physicality and mobility. There isn’t anything that stands out about his game. He just seems to handle all aspects well and plays mistake-free hockey.

STAAL NEGOTIATIONS DRAG INTO THE REGULAR SEASON

Last season, Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was clearly distracted by the prolonged contract talks that dragged into December. Lundqvist eventually agreed to a seven-year, $59.5 million extension on December 4. Even though talks were amicable, Lundqvist’s play during the early months of the season suffered due to the distraction of negotiations.

Staal could be in for a similar situation. Staal is in the final year of a five-year contract. The Rangers had all summer to lock down the elite, shutdown defenseman to a long-term extension.

Staal said during training camp that negotiations will not affect his mindset.

“I don’t think it changes anything for me,” Staal said. “I’m going to work hard and try to help my team be successful again. To me, that won’t change anything. I’m excited and optimistic for the start of the season.”

Lundqvist said the same thing throughout last summer and during the early months of the season. The Rangers would be smart to tie down Staal sooner rather than later. Staal could command a seven-year, $7 million average-annual value contract on the open market. Especially after the Washington Capitals threw crazy money at Matt Niskanen and Brook Oprik this past summer.

EXPECTED OPENING NIGHT LINEUP:

Forward lines: Kreider-St.Louis-Nash, Hagelin-Brassard-Zuccarello, Duclair-Miller-Stempniak, Glass-D.Moore-Fast

Defensive pairings: McDonagh-Girardi, Staal-Boyle, J.Moore-Klein

Goaltenders: Lundqvist (starter), Talbot

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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