2002-09-21 / Sports

Lace Em’ Up!

A Metro Hockey Update:
A New York Rangers Preview
By Andrei Petrovitch

Lace Em' Up!
A Metro Hockey Update:
A New York Rangers Preview
Hockey Columnist

It's become sort of an annual ritual for me.

On a breezy weekday afternoon in midtown, I often like to walk by Madison Square Garden. I pause for a moment and take a long, wondrous look at the majestic multicolored marquee before making my way through the cavernous walkway leading to the front window of Gerry Cosby's.

There are new names embroidered on the bright blue nylon on display this year, as there are every year. In the recent past, the jerseys were painstakingly stitched with such names as GRETZKY, FLEURY, and LAFONTAINE. On other occasions, I would see names like QUINTAL. KEANE. SKRUDLAND.

Every year, I look through the fingerprint smudges and see a new "big name" staring at me. More often than not, these "world class" players would arrive with the sort of fanfare that would justify having their jersey on display. Sadly, most sink into the predictable quagmire of Ranger mediocrity while some, like Gretzky and LaFontaine, play long enough to see their God-given talents squandered.

This year, the names BURE, KASPARAITUS, and HOLIK stare back at me. Will this year be different? Will these "big names" finally justify the hype?

Here's a look at the team by position.

Forwards: Let's look at the positives first - matching up at center ice will certainly NOT be a problem for this year's squad of blueshirts. Eric Lindros and Bobby Holik have the size to take on the toughest names in the NHL's Eastern Conference. While Lindros is more talented offensively, Holik gives the team the strong defensive play and toughness it badly lacked last season. Mark Messier is back to center (presumably) the third line. While his skills - and legs, and lungs, and joints - have diminished at the age of 42, he can still be an effective player if used correctly; he should not, MUST not, be killing penalties in the final minutes of a 6-1 blowout win in November.

The wings are full of question marks. Can converted center Petr Nedved recapture that good ole' Penguin magic (45 goals as a left winger for Pittsburgh in 1995-96)? Maybe, but a better question is whether Radek Dvorak can score at least 25. The Rangers need more production from him if they're gonna seriously compete. Pavel Bure promises to shatter Adam Graves' team record of 52 goals in a season, but one consistent winger with speed does not a team make. Ultimately, scoring must come by committee if the team is to succeed. Hell, a half decent power play could mean the difference between fourth place and eleventh!

(This reminds me....SHOOT THE PUCK PETR, SHOOT THE PUCK!!!)

Defense: Don't believe the (negative) hype. Despite the fact that the Rangers had the second worse defense in the league last season, the Rangers do have a decent set of blueliners. The problem was in the team's defensive strategy...or lack thereof.

Such a responsibility, of course, falls on new head coach Bryan Trottier. He has plenty to work with; Brian Leetch and Vladimir Malakhov are still effective in their mid-thirties, and Tom Poti and Tomas Kloucek are big, young, and full of potential. Poti in particular will be interesting to watch, as many predict that he will eventually inherit Leetch's role as the team's offensive breakout catalyst.

But the most interesting d-men on this year's squad are Darius Kasparaitus and Sylvain Lefevbre. The Metro Hockey Update predicts good years for both. The former adds more toughness in front of the crease and against the boards, while the latter finally has a chance to play in a system that, if Trottier comes through, can actually take advantage of his sound positional play.

If injuries or slumps take their toll, the good news is that the Rangers have stockpiled enough competent defensemen to fill in. That's gotta be good, right?

Goaltending: The good news is that the Rangers will use Mike Richter and Dan Blackburn in nets this year.

The bad news is that the Rangers will use Mike Richter and Dan Blackburn in nets this year.

Why the dichotomy? For starters, Richter is coming off of three straight seasons marred by injury, while Blackburn is only 19 years old.

However, Richter did put up a decent .906 save percentage while playing behind a team that simply refused to either back check or clear his crease.

Blackburn also showed remarkable poise and a lightning quick glove hand.

Neither has any reason to be playing 60 games, but both can split the season evenly and accommodate each other's style.

Outlook: The season hasn't even started yet, and already there are worries. Can Nedved be effective on the wing, or should General Manager Glen Sather trade him for a winger? If so, whom? Can former first-round pick Jamie Lundmark make an impact and provide the team with the youthful energy it so desperately needs, or will he turn out to be the second coming of Peter Ferrarro? Will Holik and Kasparaitus live up to the hype, or disgrace the jersey like Skrudland and Quintal before them?!?!?!?!?!?

Take it easy-it's unlikely that things will get tooooo bad. Still, the team does have some significant holes.

With Sandy McCarthy, Matthew Barnaby, and Kristof Oliwa, toughness is not a problem. But can any other winger not named Bure score? Maybe. You can bet on one thing: the team will certainly have a few new faces come trade deadline if the situation on the wings becomes dire.

As it stands now, the Rangers have enough for the eighth playoff seed -but for now, nothing more.

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