Give Glen Sather seventeen months and this
is what you get. After four consecutive playoff misses the Rangers general
manager has overhauled not only this floundering franchise, but the entire
organization. Sather has found a way to add both talent and depth, two
things sorely lacking on Broadway during their four year playoff hiatus,
while ridding the team of malcontent mercenaries that had become an
albatross around the throat of this once proud franchise. The Blueshirts,
who reached the halfway mark against the Kings in Los Angeles on Saturday,
have transformed from a laughingstock to a hardworking, hard hitting team
that actually comes to play each and every night.
Kudos to Ron Low who is finally finding a
way to coach some defense out of a team loaded with offensive minded
players. The head coach has responded quite well in the face of adversity,
mixing and matching lines and finding niche's for role players who have
filled in quite nicely when the injury bug has bitten.
This squad is still a work in progress and
the Rangers are by no means a great team. What they are is a resilient,
mentally tough bunch that on most nights won't beat themselves. The
Blueshirts have become a more cohesive unit that seems to be gaining
confidence with each victory. They're getting contributions from role
players, something that has lacked on Broadway since the days of Stephane
Matteau and Brian Noonan. In this NHL that makes you a playoff team.
It's actually quite remarkable, the strides
this years edition has been able to make in just half a season. Last years
team stood at 16-22-2-1 at the halfway mark, compared to this season's
eastern conference leading 22-14-3-2 record over the same 41 matches.
That's an improvement of 14 points from a year ago, no small task when you
consider the past four disastrous seasons.
Will the Blueshirts be atop the eastern
conference or even the Atlantic Division for that matter when the regular
season comes to a close in April? Probably not, but thanks to Sather, this
team has what it takes to qualify for the playoffs for the first time
since the 1996-97 season, the health of Mike Richter and Eric Lindros not
Given the current landscape in the eastern
conference, qualifying for the postseason should be just as difficult as
advancing far into the NHL's two month playoff marathon. If the Blueshirts
continue to receive the type of goaltending they've benefited from early
on this season, the Rangers will be a tough out come playoff time.
Lets take a look at some individual
performances over the first half of the season.
MATTHEW BARNABY- Grade- INC. Pesky forward
was acquired from Tampa Bay in exchange for free agent bust Zdeno Ciger in
what could turn out to be yet another coup for GM Glen Sather. Barnaby
adds size and toughness to a group of forwards that was sorely in need of
such an infusion. A willing fighter, Barnaby stood up for linemate Petr
Nedved taking on pugilist Kelly Buchberger in Los Angeles. He was
averaging less than six minutes of ice time a night in Tampa and seems to
thrive with increased responsibility. Needs to be more responsible
in his own zone as Barnaby has lost his check several times resulting in
goals in his short tenure on Broadway. Has gone 0-3-3 and is a -3 in 8
matches with the Blueshirts.
BRYAN BERARD- Grade- C. Comeback kid has
finally started to find his game. After struggling mightily at both ends
of the ice over the first 25-30 games, Berard has vastly improvement over
the past 10 matches. His improved defensive zone coverage and new found
ability to jump into the play have coincided with Berard switching sides
upon being paired with Sylvain Lefebvre which has done wonders for
Berard's confidence. Has become more dependable in his own zone and has
enjoyed a mild increase in ice time over the past 10 games. Still
misses the net way too often and is searching for that elusive first
goal. Recorded 11 assists and posted a +9 rating while playing in
all 41 matches during first half.
DAN BLACKBURN- Grade- B. Rangers first
round draft pick has been sensational during his first season as a pro. A
forgone conclusion to be returned to juniors in the preseason, Blackburn
had an outstanding camp and outplayed veteran Peter Skudra to earn the
right to back up incumbent Mike Richter. Has struggled handling the puck
at times and needs to work on controlling rebounds. Had two tough outings
vs Washington but bounced back nicely winning his next start both times.
Has posted a 6-6 record in 13 appearances.
RADEK DVORAK- Grade D. Speedy winger has
been a huge disappointment over the first half of the season. After
recording 31 goals last season, Dvorak has managed just 7 in 39 games this
season. Seems to be fighting the puck and is always looking to make a pass
when a good scoring opportunity presents itself. Creates opportunities but
his shots seem to hit the goaltender in the chest all too often. Must
produce in the second half for Blueshirts to challenge for Atlantic
Division title. Has gone 7-14-21 along with disappointing -1 rating over
first 39 matches.
THEOREN FLEURY- Grade A. Diminutive winger
has come back from his well documented personal problems to play some of
the best hockey of his distinguished career. Has teamed with Mike York and
Eric Lindros to form the team's top line. Has been able to finish more
consistently than in past seasons on Broadway having already equaled his
goal total for entire 1999-2000 season with 15 in the first half. Has a
whopping 141 PIM at the halfway mark, Theo must play with more discipline
and stay out of the penalty box more in the second half. Is third on the
team in scoring going 15-24-39 and is +18 over first 41 matches.
ANDREAS JOHANSSON- Grade B. Waiver pickup
has been more than Ranger brass could've hoped for. Defensive specialist
has found a way to chip in offensively, recording 11 goals during the
first half. Has incentive clauses in his contract that kick in if he
scores 20 goals, is a plus player and if the Blueshirts qualify for the
postseason. All three seem quite attainable. Year in Switzerland seems to
have done wonders for AJ's confidence, has become an important role player
for eastern conference leading Rangers. Went 11-1-18 and posted +10 rating
over first 40 matches.
DAVE KARPA- Grade C+. Tough, rugged, stay
at home defensemen has been pretty much as advertised during his first
half season on Broadway. Not flashy but dependable blueliner has been a
steadying influence for this defensively challenged bunch. Usually makes
the easy play and has knack for completing the first pass out of the
Rangers defensive zone. A willing fighter, Karpa has added toughness to a
primarily puck moving Rangers defensive corps. Has gone 0-5-5 and is a -3
over first 36 matches.
TOMAS KLOUCEK- Grade C. Hard hitting
defensemen has struggled at times in attempting to return from off season
re-constructive knee surgery. Kloucek started off strong but seemed to
lose the edge to his physical game and was subsequently sat down by the
coaching staff. Should figure to see increased role in second half.
Appeared in 26 games while recording one assist.
BRIAN LEETCH- Grade B+. Former captain is
once again a Norris Trophy candidate. Has been superb early on, teaming
with Vladimir Malakhov to form Rangers top defensive pair. Hasn't been
jumping into the play as often as in past years but has been excellent in
his own zone while still chipping in offensively. Leads all defensemen in
scoring with 31 points and is rated highly in +/- with a +20 rating. Has
benefited from the return of #11, seems to play better without the weight
of the "C". Has gone 7-24-31 over first 41 matches.
SYLVAIN LEFEBVRE- Grade INC. Member of ill
fated summer of '99 free agent spending spree. Was a major disappointment
during his first two seasons on Broadway but has bounced back nicely
sliding into head coach Ron Low's defensive rotation alongside Bryan
Berard. Sather may still deal the overpaid 4th or 5th defensemen, but no
doubt Lefebvre's stock has risen since his return from exile in Hartford.
ERIC LINDROS- Grade A. Eric has been so
much more than anyone in the Rangers organization had a right to expect,
yet with one hit it's easy to see that any success enjoyed by #88 is a
house of cards at best. After steamrolling through the first half of the
season Lindros was forced to sit out two games on the Blueshirts current
road trip due to feeling woozy from what the Rangers say was Eric getting
"his bell rung" against the Sharks in San Jose. The teams
offensive leader went 19-20-39 while posting a +19 rating over the seasons
first half. Any degree of success the Blueshirts hope to enjoy this season
will be predicated on the health of #88, he is the single most player on a
team that hasn't qualified for the postseason in four years. At least this
time, if there will be any errors made in the handling of Lindros' medical
situation, they will be made on the side of caution.
VLADIMIR MALAKHOV- Grade A. Of all the
comeback stories surrounding this team, probably the most impressive and
the one that receives the least amount of fanfare is that of Vladimir
Malakhov. The oft-injured Russian has been outstanding following
reconstructive knee surgery that forced him to miss all but three games
last season. Has been much more physical than in years past constantly
finishing his checks and clearing the front of the net. Malakhov, who has
teamed with Brian Leetch to form the teams top defensive pairing, has
appeared in all 41 games going 6-13-19 and leads the NHL in +/- with a
MANNY MALHOTRA- Grade C-. The former first
round draft pick may be getting his last best chance to prove he should
stay on Broadway. Malhotra has gotten sporadic ice time over the half of
the season, and was even a healthy scratch on several occasions. But due
to a recent rash of injuries Manny has gotten a chance to play and has
capitalized on that opportunity, recording goals in back to back games on
the Rangers current roadtrip while finally getting more involved
physically. The 21 year-old must play a more physical game and show the
coaching staff he can sustain intense play at both ends of the ice if he
wishes to land an increased role with the team. Malhotra has gone 2-3-5
and is a +5 in 31 matches.
SANDY MCCARTHY- Grade D. The Sandman has
been a mild disappointment thus far, after a career year last season which
saw him set career highs in every offensive category going 11-10-21 while
playing in 81 games last year. This season hasn't gotten off the start
McCarthy had hoped as the Rangers enforcer has gone 3-5-8 and is last on
the team in +/- with a whopping -12 while piling up 109 PIM. Granted
McCarthy has played a much lesser role this season but his reluctance to
drop the gloves early in the season coupled with the emergence of Steve
McKenna has cut into Sandy's ice time. With several divisional games
coming up on the schedule you can look for McCarthy to play a more
prominent role in the second half.
STEVE McKENNA- Grade C. Off-season free
agent pickup was recalled in early November after spending a month in
Hartford. McKenna has helped lift the burden off of an aging Sandy
McCarthy and has taken on all comers in his first year on Broadway. Is
great in the dressing room and will always come to the aid of teammates.
Went 1-1-2 over first half and compiled 100 PIM in 26 matches.
MARK MESSIER- Grade B. The Rangers leader
both on and off the ice has been slowed by injuries early in the season
missing seven games due to a myriad of bumps and bruises. The Captain has
accepted a lesser role, centering the third line between checking wingers
Mikael Samuelsson and Andreas Johansson but has still managed to chip in
offensively going 7-15-22 in 35 matches. Mess still gets plenty of time on
the power play and is a regular on the penalty killing unit. The decrease
in icetime should benefit the soon to be 41 year old Messier down the
stretch, the Rangers will need #11's leadership come playoff time.
PETR NEDVED- Grade B. The annual slow
starter once again stumbled out of the blocks struggling through the first
20 games, but the Rangers offensive leader the past 3 seasons has picked
it up of late. Nedved has begun to benefit from being kept away from the
other teams top centerman and put up respectable numbers in the first half
going 13-12-25 over the first 38 games. Missed the first two weeks of
training camp due to a contract holdout and then was sidelined for 4 games
with a concussion. Offensive production has been hurt by the struggles of
countrymen Radek Dvorak. Is a key piece to the puzzle if the Blueshirts
hope to qualify and advance in the postseason. Has impressed the coaching
staff recently playing a more physical style.
DALE PURINTON- Grade INC. Rangers pugilist
seems to have lost a bit of his edge following seven game ban for high
sticking handed down by disciplinary czar Colin Campbell early in the
season. Has been a victim of the numbers game as the Blueshirts are
carrying an abundance of defensemen and has been a healthy scratch for 5
of the last six matches. Has gone 0-2-2 and piled up 52 PIM in 22 games.
MIKE RICHTER- Grade A. Where would the
Rangers be without the play of #35? Mike Richter has been more than anyone
could've asked and has stolen points for the Blueshirts at least half a
dozen times this season. Richter has gone 16-11-3 posting an impressive
.917 SP and a 2.76 GAA. The Rangers MVP has also benefited from the play
of rookie sensation Dan Blackburn who has afforded Richter an occasional
night off which should aid Richter down the stretch.
JEFF TOMS- Grade C+. Career AHL'er has been
given an opportunity to show what he can do at this level and has
impressed the Ranger brass to the point that he has earned himself a spot
in the everyday lineup. Has earned the nickname "putty" in that
he has filled several holes created by injuries thus far this season. Is a
big centerman who can be used as a checking center and can be thrust into
an offensive position when needed. Has been a pleasant surprise and
conjures up memories of Mike Eastwood who has forged a successful career
in St Louis as their fourth line center.
IGOR ULANOV- Grade D-. Off-season free
agent signee has been a colossal bust in his first year with the Rangers.
Seems slow in his own end and is constantly losing one on one battles in
the defensive zone. Often takes himself out of the play trying to deliver
a big hit that more times than not doesn't materialize. Could very well
find himself elsewhere if GM Glen Sather can find a taker. Has gone
0-5-5 and is a +1 in 31 matches.
MIKE YORK- Grade A- Has fit in wonderfully
on top line with Lindros and Fleury. Tireless worker has already surpassed
last year numbers in leading the Rangers in scoring going 15-25-40 during
first half. Has found a much needed scoring touch of late and remains one
the teams top penalty killers. Was named to US Olympic team and is tied
for third on team in +/- posting a +19 rating. Rarely has an off night and
seems primed to top his previous best 26 goal output reached in his rookie
season of 1999-00.
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