USATSI_8639221_154158418_lowresThe New York Rangers like a lot about their chances going into the 2015-2016 season and for good reason. They were one win away from going back to the Stanley Cup Final last season and three wins away from winning a Cup in 2014, solidifying their role as a top contender for the ultimate prize. They went 53-22-7 last season, with a dazzling 25-11-5 record at home and just three losses in their last 10.

The Rangers scored 248 goals in 2014-2015, but they really had the edge in allowing just 187 goals against. Only the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks were stingier. Most of the defensive core is ready to rumble, too, with goalie Henrik Lundqvist continuing his elite status and defencemen like Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Ryan McDonagh locked in to long-term contracts.

Core forwards like Derek Stepan, Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello, and Rick Nash are also signed for the foreseeable future, while there’s a compelling crop of youngsters coming up that includes Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes. Things are in good hands for at least the next few years for the Rangers, so they’re going to want to make the most of it.

Offence

As mentioned, this is a solid group of forwards and they’re locked in for a long time. 31-year-old Nash had a terrific season, scoring 42 goals and finishing with 69 points in 79 games. He had six power play goals and four short-handed goals, plus he fired 304 shots on goal. Nash was also effective in the post-season, with 14 points in 19 games while averaging 18:30 of ice time.

Stepan holds the spot at the team’s top centre. He’s coming off a 55-point campaign that included three goals on the power play and three game-winners. The 25-year-old Hastings native is on-point with and without the biscuit, which makes him a dangerous positional player. Plus, he signed a six year deal in the off-season.

The Rangers had to make do without Zuccarello in the post-season after he went down with an injury in Game Five of the first round. He had 49 points in the regular season and is one of the most gifted forwards to ever come from Norway. The 28-year-old is capable of creating plays with the best of him. 27-year-old Brassard also had a nice year with a 60-point performance in 80 games, plus he notched 16 points in the post-season.

Defence

McDonagh leads this defensive group. He had 33 points in 71 games and logs big minutes, averaging over 23 minutes in the regular season. That said, he’s not the first offensive option the Rangers go with from the back end. He can play a shutdown role, though, and that will help balance out the team from the blueline.

Girardi is another minute-munching defenceman and he’ll be up for another season of awesomeness in a shutdown role. The 31-year-old from Welland is part of the shot-blocking core of these Rangers and that makes him invaluable in his own end. Girardi averaged well over 22 minutes of ice time a game last season and can get the puck out of trouble when he needs to.

Thunder Bay’s Marc Staal completes the deadly top three for the Rangers, averaging 21:08 of ice time in the regular season and coming up with 20 points in 80 games. Keith Yandle brings a mobile presence to the blueline, while veteran Dan Boyle can still do his thing. Kevin Klein is also a factor, while Raphael Diaz makes this an incredibly deep group.

Goaltending

Lundqvist has been New York’s best player for the last several years, especially when the chips are down. In 46 games last season, he put together 30 wins with a 2.25 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. He was even better in the playoffs, winning 11 of 19 games with a 2.11 goals against average and a .928 save percentage. He gives the Rangers a chance to win every single night.

Having the Finnish netminder Antti Raanta in the fold doesn’t hurt. He won seven of 14 last season and came over from Chicago, posting a 1.89 goals against average with a .936 save percentage. Raanta has played some dynamite hockey in Europe and may be set for a starting position in the NHL someday. The 26-year-old is technically sound and always prepared.

Prospects

New York has had to make do without a first round draft pick for the past three years, but that doesn’t mean their prospect pool is suffering for it. Defenceman Brady Skjei is arguably the most ready-to-go player in the bunch. The first-rounder from 2012 is going to be the first one called up from Hartford in the event that something happens to the Rangers’ impossibly stout defensive core, you can bet on that.

Oscar Lindberg may see some time depending on what New York decides to do with Kevin Hayes. If Hayes plays the wing, Lindberg could see some time down the middle. The recent addition of Jarret Stoll complicates matters, but the 23-year-old Swede signed a two-year one-way contract this summer and could make the team at camp. He was second in Hartford in scoring last season and led in shots on goal, for what it’s worth.

The Path Ahead

Expect more of the same from the Rangers. That’s not a bad thing, as this group has proven their capacity to make deep playoff runs. Obviously coach Alain Vigneault is hoping for that extra nudge over the line, but there’s a lot to like nevertheless. New York is a strong, deep hockey team and they haven’t made a lot of changes to that core group.

They also have a nice mix of young and veteran talents, which puts them on solid ground for the next few years. They should continue to challenge, barring any serious injury, and that makes them a sure bet for playoff hockey. Nash could reach 40 goals again, too, so keep him on your radar screens. As for King Henrik, he’ll continue to rule.

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