TIME TO STEP UP

New York R(Howlings is glad to welcome Micki Peroni who will be adding his thoughts on things he sees in the Rangers’ universe from time to time.)

BY: Micki Peroni

The past six years have been an emotional roller coaster ride for the Rangers, and their fans as they’ve been treated to some memorable personalities and some big stars too.

Ever since the lockout fans have seen Jaromir Jagr, The Swedish Gretzky before his skills eroded quickly and he was left to leave for the KHL. His center, Michael Nylander had his best years in New York and made taking shootout attempts an art form. Marek Malik came and scored one of the most memorable goals in team history against the Washington Capitals and finally one of the game’s greats, Brendan Shanahan, wore the red, white and blue and put in his 600th goal at the World’s Most Famous Arena.

The antics of Sean Avery and his memorable battles with  Martin Brodeur that came to a head when his stick waving in front of the Devils legendary netminder forced the league to create the “Avery Rule” that forbade it, but that sealed his place in team history as a fan favorite.

Henrik “The King” Lundqvist came in as an understudy to veteran Kevin Weeks, but quickly won the hearts of the Garden Faithful and assumed his throne and his place in Rangers goaltending history. The the arrival of the future captain and fan favorite Ryan Callahan. If not for the stellar play of Lundqvist, Callahan would be the team’s MVP.

Fans have seen a beat down of the New Jersey Devils in the playoffs bringing back great memories from years prior when the Rangers defeated their cross state rivals in post-season hockey.

Visions of Stanley Cup silver and parades down the Hall-of-Heroes danced through Rangers’ fans minds with the arrivals of free agent centers Scott Gomez and Chris Drury brought with them. Gomez didn’t fit in and was sent to Montreal and it appears Drury is headed for a buy-out as the consummate teammate could not bring the team out of the first round.

They missed seven straight post-season dances, but after the lockout, the Blueshirts delivered four straight playoff appearances only to see that streak stopped on a shootout goal in Philadelphia. And then this year the Rangers lose in the first round to a Caps team that was crushed by the Tampa Bay Lightning this post-season leaving fans scratching their heads and wondering how they lost to such a team.

But not everything is disappointing in Ranger-land.

The Rangers have spent the past six years building a good nucleus of young players and after spending their past couple of seasons hovering the eight seed in the Eastern Conference are poised to get better as they continue to emerge as playoff contenders.

The “Core” as Head Coach John Tortorella is want to call them, are fun to watch and are a talented group. The youth injected into this team have become something to behold. The “Core” has not been seen like this in a Rangers’ uniform in well over a decade. Henrik Lundqvist, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Artem Anisimov, Derek Stepan, and Mats Zuccarello have proven to be good young forwards.

The defense seems to be even deeper with Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto and Michael Sauer and even more names filling out the roster in Hartford. The possibility of having a defense made up of players developed through the team’s own system is a real possibility.

Then there are the additions to their own drafted/signed youngsters who were acquired via trades. They include Brian Boyle, Brandon Prust, Ryan McDonagh, and Wojtek Wolski

The fact that they can dress nine of their homegrown skaters for over half a season shows that the plan is starting to take shape?

Young, talented, and hard working Blueshirts, there are the proper words that describe the Rangers core nucleus. They have been the main reason the Rangers have made the playoffs, twice, in the past three years and came ever so close to it in 2010.

These players deserve more support and are bound to get some. It is time to get past the stage of signing risky players like Alex Frolov, or inconsistent and problematic players like Erik Christensen. It is time to stop hoping for a reclamation project to turn into a sudden top six forward. Brian Boyle has had a fabulous season, but in terms of pickups, he was the exception for the Rangers and not the rule.

While no one was doubting the acquisition of Marian Gaborik and two seasons ago he was fabulous for the Blueshirts, this year was underachieving and unacceptable to say the least. His bad season seemed to have several factors. No doubt he was not 100% healthy, and he was not surrounded by the kind of talent to make him even more dangerous to the opposition. Those were certainly factors. He was also expected to play more of a two way game than what he’s used to playing. The Rangers will need to find him linemates this off-season that he can gel with to regain the form he had two seasons ago and give the Blueshirts a definite shot at the Cup.

In it’s current configuration, the team would seem to have plateaued. It’s a team that will battle just to make it to the playoff dance but doesn’t have enough to go much further than that.

Steps will need to be taken to climb higher.

Brad Richards seems to be the player the Rangers have in the cross-hairs for their off-season shopping list. Acquiring the 31-year old center will be a costly cap hit. However, it would be the first time in years that the Rangers would find themselves with recognized real first line playmaking center. Having Richards could, if they have any kind of chemistry, open up Gaborik on the power play. Acquiring Richards and teaming him with Gaborik would give the Blueshirts a powerful presence up front.

What if the Rangers do not get to stitch the name Richards and number 91 on a jersey for a press conference, though? The free agent pool is thin on Grade A talent, but solid on depth players. The Rangers would need to go via trade route in order to acquire a first line center, or maybe an opposite first line winger for Gaborik that matched with a current Rangers center would be good enough. After all, Brendan Morrison was really a second line center in his Vancouver Canucks days, but a dominating Todd Bertuzzi and the finesse of Markus Naslund did the trick. THe Rangers could learn from that example.

But the bigger question comes in the form of a decision that management would need to make. “Would it be worth it to trade youth, prospects, and-or draft picks to find a player like that? The obvious answer is, “it depends” on who it is the team would target, but keep the following factors in mind to a potential acquisition:

1) The CBA expires in summer of 2012. Would it be worth it to trade for such an asset and lose a year out of him while the prospects traded would gain more development?

2) Will the cap ceiling be lowered?

3) Would it be worth it to have prospects develop without being rushed in pro hockey (Del Zotto, Chris Kreider, Christian Thomas)?

4) The 2012 free agent pool is richer, but one cannot rely on it either as players can re-sign before July 1.

5) Go for it. Winning the Cup at all costs is worth possible future losses.

Rangers hockey fans would agree that it is time for the Rangers to take the next step and avoid yearly risks of missing the playoffs. The truth is that from top to bottom the team’s leaders know what they need to do to make this group into Stanley Cup contenders.

For right now, we can only hope that next season will end the now 17 year Stanley drought.

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