We all know that two of the biggest keys for the Rangers' upcoming season are goaltending and chemistry. Lundqvist has to continue to stand on his head. Not just because goaltenders are the most important players for any team (especially in the playoffs). Not just because the Rangers' defense is thin and Lundqvist will have to erase their inevitable mistakes. But also because the Rangers will probably experience some serious growing pains throughout the season as their new faces struggle to adjust. Lundqvist will be called upon to keep the ship afloat during those periods.
The other obvious key to the season is team chemistry. If the team can adjust and come together quickly, it should be a great season on Broadway. If not, well......
There is, however, a third key: Someone's got to step up. I'm not talking about Lundqvist, Jagr, Gomez or Drury. Those players are expected to step up. They must step up or the Rangers' will not have serious success. I'm talking about a "surprise" performance.
Two seasons ago the Rangers surprised the hockey world by qualifying for the playoffs. Obviously Jagr was a huge reason for their success. The other main ingredient that season was a "surprise" performance by a young goalie named Henrik Lundqvist. Let's not forget the 30 goal outburst from a relatively unheralded rookie named Petr Prucha. How about the high energy, high octane performance from the HMO line (Hollweg, Moore and Ortmeyer) that came as a very pleasant "surprise". Two seasons ago, Jagr was phenomenal. He gets paid to do that! Ditto for Straka and Nylander. The "surprise" performances, however, were vital in putting the Rangers over the top.
Let's take a look at last season. The big two (Jagr and Lundqvist) started slowly. Not surprisingly the Rangers floundered. Then Sather pulls the trigger and acquires the controversial Sean Avery. People expected Avery to add some much needed grit and attitude. No one expected the "surprise" performance that followed. Remember Jagr's quote echoed shortly after the Avery trade, "We need more than Sean Avery right now". That pretty much summed up the league's sentiment on Avery's worth. No one expected Avery to totally re-energize the club the way he did. In hindsight, however, it was Avery's "surprise" performance that helped propel the Rangers into the playoffs. On a much smaller scale the Rangers' also got a "surprise" performance from Ryan Callahan. His determined play allowed Renney to ice a highly competitive and energetic third line of Prucha, Cullen and Callahan.
So like I said, someone's got to step up this season. We all know that the top players must perform in order for this team to succeed. There's just no getting around that. However, we also need a pleasant "surprise" or two (or three!). So here's my list of the potential unsung "surprise" heroes to watch for this season:
1. Petr Prucha. I love this kid. He's skilled, gritty and fearless. If Prucha can breakout with a 30 something goal performance (not at all unreasonable), he'll add tremendous balance to the Rangers' forward lines. The stumbling block for Prucha will be ice time. Prucha doesn't seem to be a favorite of Renney's. If he gets buried on the third line without meaningful power play minutes it will be hard for him to produce. If he gets stuck with a rookie centerman like Dubinsky, it'll be even harder to produce!
2. Marcel Hossa. He's not one of my favorites. There's even some talk of him possibly not making the team! However, it's hard to ignore his combination of size, strength and skill. More importantly, Renney seems to really believe in this kid. For whatever reason, he'll probably get more of an opportunity to shine than Prucha. If Hossa responds with a 25-30 goal performance, he may well be the Rangers' "surprise" contributor this season.
3. Marc Staal. I didn't get to watch him play much thus far (a bunch of the pre-season games fell out during Jewish holidays). However, the people that did get to see him play are saying good things. Defense is a tough position to learn and in a perfect world, Staal would get a chance to shine in Hartford before making the jump to Broadway. This is NOT a perfect world and the Rangers' blue line is very far from perfect. So it looks like Staal will at least start the season in New York. If this kid steps up he could provide much needed talent and stability to the Rangers Achilles heel.
4. Blair Betts. No that's not a typo! Everyone has Betts cemented into the role of fourth line center. The Rangers' line combinations are definitely a work in progress. It wouldn't shock me to see Betts work his way to the third line. He plays hard, he skates fairly well and he's not at all lost in the offensive zone. Admittedly, this is not plan "A" for the Rangers third line. However, don't discount the possibility of Betts stepping up and solidifying the third line.
5. Nigel Dawes. Dawes may not survive the final cuts which should be announced soon. I was unimpressed by what I saw of him thus far (although admittedly, I didn't see much!) He seems to get knocked off the puck too easily. That being said, there's no denying that he's got the skill and determination to succeed. If the Rangers can figure out a way to get him some quality minutes he could be this years pleasant "surprise".
6. Brandon Dubinsky. As of now (with the final cuts not yet being announced), Dubinsky looks to have the inside track as the team's third line center. I like the kid. He's big and strong and not afraid to mix it up. Personally, I wouldn't give him the job though. The Rangers need a quality, reliable third line center. First, the team will already rely too heavily on its top two lines, those guys need a rest from time to time. In order to give them that rest, the team needs a solid third line. Second, Prucha and Callahan look to be on the verge of break out years. Is it fair to either player to saddle them with a rookie centerman not known for his offensive capability? Don't get me wrong, I like Dubinsky. He's my kind of player. However, I'm not sure that the timing is right. Nonetheless, if given the opportunity I hope he can "surprise" me.
It should be a great season on Broadway. Especially if someone unexpected can step it up.