Michael Del Zotto acknowledged what was evident: Everything has changed for the New York Rangers.
“It’s still an adjustment,” Del Zotto said after the Rangers’ 2-1 preseason loss to the Devils last month. “The coaching staff is harping on the need to get the puck as much as possible. Everything's different.”
The Rangers enter the 2013-14 season with a new coach in Alain Vigneault and his favored puck pressuring and puck possession system. Vigneault was introduced as the 35th head coach in franchise history on June 21. He replaces John Tortorella, who was fired four days after the 2013 Rangers season ended in Boston.
Vigneault’s first act of business was to announce that what happened in the Tortorella era would remain in the past.
“If you see the guys, they’re walking around with T-shirts that [say], ‘Clean Slate, Grab It.’ Everybody’s got a clean slate. Everybody’s got a chance. It might not be a long chance but they’re going to get a chance, they’re going to get an opportunity. It’s up to them to grab it,” Vigneault said on the first day of training camp. “There are little things here and there that need to be pushed in a certain direction. The atmosphere, the environment that I want to create — professional, positive environment — is something ... I want [the players] to feel good about coming to the rink and trying to get better every day.”
Breaking down the roster ...
Forwards: Outside of the specialty units, no grouping is more of a question mark than the corps of forwards. The Rangers enter the 2013-14 season without Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin, both of whom are expected to miss the first month while recuperating from offseason left shoulder surgery. Derek Stepan missed the entirety of training camp with a contract dispute with the organization, prompting general manager Glen Sather to tell MSG Network during the Sept. 23 preseason game he hoped the center “Starts to get a little wiser about this decision. Every day he misses is going to hurt him.” But Stepan is now back, signing a contract extension on Sept. 26.
Without the trio that made up the Rangers’ top line last season, the coaching staff has spent much of training camp looking at organizational prospects and the trio of Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Chris Kreider.
That Richards returned for a third season can be categorized as a surprise. The center struggled badly during the truncated 2013 season as he totaled 11 goals and 34 points in the regular season, leading Tortorella to scratch Richards for the final two games of the series against the Bruins.
Following an offseason in which he worked out with Martin St. Louis and others, Vigneault believes Richards will have a strong season.
“Every time I’ve seen him, he seems real positive, real upbeat. It’s a new season and I’m sure he’s going to put his best foot forward,” Vigneault said. “He’s been an elite player for a long time. Sometimes in a career there [are] ups and downs. He’s very motivated right now. He’s had a real good summer of conditioning. He’s focused. What I’ve seen so far tells me he’s going to be real good.”
Defensemen: The Rangers return all six defensemen from last year’s group in essentially the same roles. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh will make up the first paring. They will be followed by Marc Staal-Michael Del Zotto and Anton Stralman-John Moore. The only job up for grabs is the seventh defenseman role, with Justin Falk, Aaron Johnson and Stu Bickel competing for the role.
Staal, who suffered a gruesome injury when he was struck near the eye by a Kimmo Timonen slap shot on March 5, told reporters after the Sept. 16 preseason game he “felt good.”
Goaltending: This is another area of strength. The Rangers are set in net with Vezina Trophy finalist Henrik Lundqvist and reserve Martin Biron. Vigneault said “that’s a pretty safe bet,” when asked if Lundqvist would remain the starter.
On the first day of training camp, Vigneault left no doubt about his objective.
“I have a little Stanley Cup on my desk. For sure, the 30 teams that are starting their training camp, that’s our quest, that’s our goal, that’s our long-term goal,” Vigneault said. “To get there, though, there’s a daily process, there’s other goals that you need to attain before you can win the Stanley Cup. If your intention and our intention is to compete for the Cup in June, then you have to do the right things from the very beginning and that starts with training camp.”
Still, the question that has yet to be answered is which Rangers team was the aberration — the 2011-12 group that finished with an Eastern Conference-best 109 points or the team that struggled for most of 2013 before losing in five games to Boston in the second round.
That remains to be seen. What should not be a shock is if the Rangers struggle in the early part of the season while getting accustomed to a new coaching staff and new system. The Rangers should make playoffs but a Cup seems unlikely.
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.