The Real Rangers

The nine-game road trip to start the season is long gone. The Rangers team that started the season 1-4 and was then 2-6 is gone too. The team that was outscored 20-5 during a three-game losing streak from Oct. 8 to Oct. 12 is gone as well. The team that lost consecutive games to the Devils and Flyers and were outscored 6-1 in those two losses … also gone. The Rangers we have seen since their come-from-behind win in Detroit on Oct. 26 are the Rangers we expected to see in 2013-14. They are the Real Rangers.

The Real Rangers are the Rangers we thought we would be getting when they traded for Rick Nash and then when they traded Marian Gaborik for depth. And last Thursday when they played their frequent trade partner in Columbus we were allowed somewhat of a glimpse into what life would be like if the Rangers kept their conference finals losing team of 2011-12 together. And with that glimpse came the chance for former Rangers to air their grievances with their New York departures and what happened with John Tortorella. Here’s what Brandon Dubinsky said about his relationship with Tortorella, who seemed to have a deteriorating relationship with every player on the team:

“I think my relationship with Torts fell apart the last year that I was there (in New York). I just felt like his relationship with some of the other players could be doing the same thing. So I guess that pretty much sums it up. I wasn’t completely surprised that it happened.”

As for Dubinsky’s trade?

“The hardest part for me was that we went from growing up together and taking a team — and I wasn’t there the first year of the lockout, but after that I was there every other year— we went from taking a team that hadn’t made the playoffs in forever to a team that was in the conference finals. And I guess when you look at it — not only my trade and sending Artie and Timmy here, but I guess all of the moves as a whole — I didn’t understand it quite that you would want to bring so many new guys in after you’ve had such a successful season and such a successful playoff run.”

As I have said countless times, the Rangers reaching the conference finals in 2011-12 wasn’t indicative of who they were. Yes, they were the No. 1 seed in the East that year, but they backed their way into the playoffs and if the season were 83 games instead of 82, the Penguins would have been the 1-seed. The Rangers won an inordinate amount of games in 2011-12 through comebacks and late goals and overtime and shootout wins and relied heavily on Henrik Lundqvist, the eventual Vezina winner in an historical season. It’s why they needed seven games to get past the Senators in the quarterfinals and the Capitals in the semifinals and why they needed to overcome 3-2 series deficits in both of those series just to reach the conference finals. I don’t usually agree with Glen Sather, but he knew that the 2011-12 Rangers weren’t good enough to win the Cup in 2012-13 and that they weren’t really as close to winning it all as being two wins away from the Final and six wins away from winning it made them seem. It’s why he wanted Rick Nash that February and why he got him that July.

“Sometimes that’s just the way New York is. They like the flash and the dash and they want a new toy, I guess. And that’s no disrespect to the organization or anybody, of course, because they were so great to me. But that was the hardest part.”

It would have been harder for the Rangers to trade Dubinsky in the Nash deal if he didn’t score just 10 goals and 34 points in 77 games in 2011-12 (he didn’t score his first goal until Nov. 11, which was his 15th game of the season, and he didn’t score his second goal of the season until Dec. 22, which was the 32nd game of the season). New York doesn’t need a “new toy” they just need one that works. And trading for a Team Canada first-liner, a 40-goal scorer and one of the game’s best offensive players even if it includes Dubinsky, who has as many goals in his career as Nash had when he was 21, is always the right decision.

The Real Rangers beat the Central Rangers on Thursday with Cam Talbot in net after Lundqvist stopped 28 of the 29 shots his potential next team (Pittsburgh) took the night before. Then the Rangers won again on Sunday night against Tim Thomas and the Panthers to improve to 7-2 in their last nine games. It’s only been 14 days since I wrote “The Last-Place Rangers” but since then the Rangers have turned their season around without their best player and are currently hold the 6-seed in the Eastern Conference thanks to the screwed up playoff format created by the geniuses in the NHL front office and realignment. How did they get back to .500 and over it in two weeks? Let’s see.

Brad Richards
Remember the days of the amnesty buyout talks? Those were fun. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Rangers buying out Richards’ contract. That funny thing is that Richards was given a coach who values offense and not having his scorers muck it up on the corners and a system that is built around scoring since the objective of the game is actually to score more goals than your opponent and not play for one goal and then hope your goalie makes that one goal stand.

Richards leads the Rangers in goals (6) and assists (9) and therefore obviously points as well (15). He is every bit of the free agent center I wanted before the 2011-12 season and the one we saw that season (25-41-66) and nothing like the one we saw last season (11-23-34) before his postseason benching and healthy scratching. Richards is getting several high-quality scoring chances each game thanks to AV’s use of him by putting him on a line with the speedy Carl Hagelin, who we’ll get to now.

Carl Hagelin
Who’s that averaging 1.14 points per game? Why it’s Carl Hagelin! You might not recognize or remember him from the Tortorella era because he was playing with a governor on his wheels thanks to Tortorella’s defense-first (or really defense-only) system that didn’t allow Hagelin to use his speed to create scoring chances and highlight reel goals, which seem to come once a night now, that we are only used to seeing being scored against the Rangers by the Penguins and Capitals. It no longer seems to be a question of whether or not Hagelin can be a true top-six forward in the NHL, but rather whether or not he can sustain this level of play. Right now Hagelin looks like a completely different player under AV and that’s because he is.

Chris Kreider
On Oct. 29 in “The Last-Place Rangers” I said:

Kreider is now 22, which doesn’t seem that old, but he has two career regular-season goals in 26 games and 15 of the 18 players drafted ahead of him in 2009 have had better production. If he was drafted in the first round for a reason and hyped as much as he was and sold to us that he is a top-six forward in the league and a potential dynamic scorer then let him try to be that. There aren’t any better options right now.

Since then, Kreider has two goals and five assists in seven games and it’s the first time I have understood the decision to not include him in a February 2012 trade though I still don’t agree with it (and likely never will).

Henrik Lundqvist
Welcome back, Henrik. Like Annie telling her father (Nicolas Cage) at the end of The Family  Man: “I knew you’d come back. ”

After battling through an injury that led to him putting up Ilya Bryzgalov-like numbers, Lundqvist has allowed just nine goals in the six games since returning from his injury (three of those goals came on Sunday) and in four of the six games he has allowed one goal or less. I don’t think anyone expected Lundqvist to continue to allow three-plus goals a game like he was doing on the West Coast Embarrassment Tour and I don’t think anyone thought that the idea of being in a contract year was playing a part in his early-season failures either, but the thought of the Rangers trying to get by with an average Lundqvist was scary.

When the Rangers lost Nash and opened the season looking like they would be in a basement battle all season with the Devils and Flyers, the last thing anyone wanted to do was worry about the possibility of Lundqvist leaving a team with a losing future. Now there are reports that Glen Sather is expected to meet with Lundqvist’s agent Don Meehan in Toronto this week with the timing of the Hall of Fame inductions, which would seem like a good idea since it’s just a tiny bit important that Lundqvist doesn’t leave the Rangers for a better future and a better chance at winning with the Penguins or Islanders or a team that’s ready to write a blank check for him. If they continue to be the Real Rangers, he won’t have to.