"Shooting From Angles Not Covered By Any Other Blogs"

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Will the Rangers go 'All the Way'?—Size Does Matter

In addition to staying True Blue to my tagline of “Shooting From Angles Not Covered By Any Other Blogs”, I am going to be just a little forward and fire my rubber load (so to speak) in the direction of a subject that I have yet to see mentioned on any Ranger blogs, websites, message boards, newspapers or magazines. And if this subject has been covered in any of the aforementioned forms of “social intercourse”, its coverage has been scanty.

While the main focus continues to be (and justifiably so) on the Rangers sizzling summer, double-dip splash into the UFA pool—A.K.A. Scott Gomez and Chris Drury—other ubiquitous Ranger topics include:
  1. Draft day’s Russian Heist (Alexei Cherapanov),
  2. The relatively peaceful signings of Henrik Lundquist, Brendan Shanahan, Petr Prucha and Marcel Hossa,
  3. The signing of Sean Avery after an ornery arbitration hearing (and its long-term consequences),
  4. The trading of Matt Cullen and who his replacement will be,
  5. The potential impact of Marc Staal and other highly touted prospects,
  6. What will become of the current glut of defensemen and how the defense corps will ultimately pan out,
  7. General opinions on the Rangers chances of winning the Stanley Cup, etc.

What never seems to be brought up is a very simple question: Are the Rangers physically equipped to be capable of winning the Stanley Cup? One of the reasons this potent poser should be a timely one is the urge that some of the league has had to enlarge since the events of last spring.

Once the Anaheim Ducks consummated their season with hockey’s ultimate gratification, the Stanley Cup, some NHL teams have chosen to “go with the flow” and mimic the mighty Ducks. This was evident in the 2007 entry draft, where some teams refused to succumb to the temptation of raw talent, and instead decided to reload their pistols with brawnier ammunition. After all, in this copy-cat league the physically dominant Ducks have become the envy of all their gamey rivals in the hunt for next year’s big prize.

One might argue that the league’s rules favor fast, skilled teams—not necessarily big ones, and Anaheim’s championship was more an aberration as opposed to the beginning of a new trend. This argument would be supported by the fact that no Stanley Cup winner has repeated in 10 years, and that historically a size advantage in the playoffs doesn’t necessarily become the deciding factor.

The Philadelphia Flyers, in their Bobby Clarke days, are the probably the best examples. On the other hand, had the Flyers actually added an elite goalie to the mix for many of these years, their physicality might have been the force that carried them over the top to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The biggest difference between today’s hefty hockey teams and those of yesteryear is that some of the current NHL teams, namely Anaheim and San Jose, have a frightening combination of size, strength, speed and youth. Anyone, who was watching the Detroit-San Jose series, would have bet the family fish tank after game 3 that the Sharks were going to swim away with this one.

But despite being seemingly over-aged, out-muscled, out-skated and out-matched for much of the first 3 games, Detroit proved in a stunning 3 game turnaround that a “strength of character” advantage can sometimes offset an entire host of physical deficiencies. Should the Sharks be able to overcome their character issues this year, their daunting endowment of assets might make them the favorites to sink their teeth into the Cup.

Anaheim is dealing with a number off-season issues often encountered by defending Stanley Cup champions, such as players contemplating retirement and an increase in their players’ perceived value (and salary demands). This often leads to the loss of some players, who are lured away by other teams willing to overpay for their services.

So depending on how things shake out for Anaheim, they could be headed for a fall this spring. On the other hand, should Anaheim eventually be able to get their Ducks in a row without ruffling too many of their franchise feathers, they will be every bit as formidable as they were last year.

What about the Rangers? As much as I enjoyed their brilliant resurrection late last season, which climaxed with an improbable surge to the playoffs and a first round thumping of a throttled Thrasher team, I knew that they realistically had no chance of “going all the way”. Although the Rangers inevitable encounter with the Buffalo proved to be a much closer contest than I could have ever anticipated, ultimately they were destined to succumb to the Sabres wealth of weapons.

But even if the Rangers could have pulled off the humongous upset against Buffalo and had the stamina to outlast the Senators (in what would have been a tough and evenly matched series), their bubble would certainly have burst against a physically superior Western Conference foe.

In the playoffs, much of a team’s success depends upon which opponents they are pitted against and how well they match-up against them. The Rangers had plenty of skill and speed, but not nearly as much as Buffalo.

The Rangers certainly had enough size and grit to physically stand up to any Eastern Conference team that made the tournament, but not nearly enough to withstand the perpetual pounding that they would have received at the hands of the Ducks or Sharks. Had the Rangers encountered either of these teams in the Finals, they would have been eaten alive—as Duck soup for Anaheim or as Shark bait for San Jose.

In fact, the Rangers were fortunate that Philadelphia and Toronto didn’t make the playoffs last year. In the regular season, even though the Rangers could compete with these teams, it was obvious that both the Flyers and Leafs were more broadly built than the Blueshirts. Had the Rangers faced either squad in the post season, they would have had trouble holding their own in hit-for-hit hockey.

Of course, the more drawn-out a series becomes and the further into the playoffs the match-up occurs, the more difficult it is for a smaller team to cope with the carnage inflicted by their colossal counterparts. This means that the Rangers would have a better chance of surviving this kind of clash had it occurred in the first or second round, as opposed to the final two rounds.

Relatively also enters into this equation. Certainly a team can more easily overcome a disadvantage, if the disadvantage is a minor or moderate one. A real mismatch can arise when one team has substantial supremacy in size, speed, or skill.

As teams continue to assemble the off-season pieces to their respective puzzles, it’s hard to say for certain how much of a relative advantage/disadvantage each club will have next year in the desirable attributes of size, speed, and skill. We won’t know the answers until each team’s internal competitions have been decided in league-wide training camps and all their final transactions have been made.

Aside from particular line combinations and defensemen pairings, the Rangers really have only a few spots that remain in question. I'm assuming that Ryan Callahan and Daniel Girardi have completed their post graduation requirements from the Hartford Academy and will remain in New York, along with two year veteran, Hossa. That leaves only one center position, a couple of fourth line positions, and one or two defense positions remaining in limbo (assuming no further trades).

Therefore, we have a pretty good picture of how the Rangers breakdown in some of the key physical categories. They would appear to have good (but not excellent) team speed and plenty of skill that would probably allow them to stay competitive (in this sense) with just about any team in the playoffs—especially since the Sabres machine lost two of their main cogs in Briere and Drury.

Although the Rangers parted with a very speedy center in Matt Cullen and a very skilled center in Michael Nylander, they picked up two very fast centers in Gomez and Drury—with Gomez possessing excellent playmaking skills and Drury bringing a host of intangible qualities (one of which bit the Blueshirts in the butt in game 5 of the Sabres series).

As far as size and strength goes, they’re simply not among the Rangers strong suits—notwithstanding a couple of players whose physical force could potentially wear down their playoff opponents, such as Jaromir Jagr and Hossa.

This is not to say that the Blueshirts don’t have some gritty players, as well as some other players (aside from Jagr and Hossa) of impressive stature—at least 6’1” and over 210 lbs. It’s just that Shanahan, Marik Malik and Paul Mara don’t play a physical style that wears down the opposition, while Colton Orr and Jason Strudwick are fringe players who are often not dressed.

Brad Isbister, whose offensive capabilities could never be confused with Joe Thornton’s, did provide the Rangers with some well-needed bulk late last season and in the playoffs. His ability to work the boards, cycle the puck and compliment Jagr made him an effective player, and in that sense, he will be missed.

I should also mention that if the question mark at center is answered by Brandon Dubinsky, then on top of the other talents he brings to the table, his ponderous proportions and feistiness would definitely be a welcomed addition to the team.

Overall, I would say that the Rangers could physically endure a playoff series against most teams, but would very likely get blown away by the power of some of the jumbo jets they could engage in battle.

The reason that I’ve barely touched upon the “joys of youth” is because a Stanley Cup championship team is generally composed of a nice blend of young bucks and wily vets. Next season, the Rangers will probably have the right mixture of those ingredients.

Perhaps the most important factor in determining whether the Rangers have a chance to “win it all” is chance itself. Who knows if the elements that GM, Glen Sather, compounds will result in good chemistry? Who knows how healthy the team will be, especially heading into the playoffs? Who knows if a topsy-turvy season will be topsy or turvy in late April? And finally, who knows in the pursuit of the ultimate conquest, what sequence of opponents will need to be conquered?

So with size being one of many uncertain variables, will Lady Luck scorn the Rangers for their physical shortcomings? Or will the Rangers have the goods to get the gold (silver in this case)?

These answers will go a long way in determining how deeply they can penetrate into the big dance come next spring. The final score will either show the Rangers living large as Stanley Cup champions, or being pre-maturely humbled as inadequate also-rans.

Postscript: Should the Rangers surmount all the obstacles and defy all the odds this season to hoist hockey’s Holy Grail, then next summer they would be wise to beware of invaders from the Great White North (Edmonton). For if “Kevin the Poacher” aims his next Lowe blow at the Rangers family jewels, they must prepare themselves by defending their Cup.


Shall Be The Conqueror said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Hockey Humorist said...

Let's try not to "cross the line" on these comments. The last one was outright obscene and had to be deleted.

The Dark Ranger said...

No mention of the Lord's Cup....sshhhh....bad luck to talk about THAT.


The Dark Ranger said...

HOckey Humorist, need a little support here:

New Hope 2007-2008 said...

Your article is a very good assessment of our team. Nice job! While it would be ideal to have an equal blend of speed and size, we increased our speed greatly. We also showed that we can take the hits in the Atlanta series last year. Overall, we should be fine offensively and, other than a third line center, we are set. As for the defense, we need five men coming back to help out our guys on the blue line. A shot at the cup? Maybe ... there are so many variables.

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