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Season preview: New York Rangers

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Season preview: New York Rangers

To get you ready for the 2015-16 season, we will be previewing all 30 NHL in 30 days, division by division. Check the bottom of the page for a schedule of each preview.

Today’s team: New York Rangers

2014-15 record: 53-22-7, 1st in the Metropolitan

How they finished: Lost in seven games to Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Finals

Coach: Alain Vigneault (3rd season)

Notable additions: LW Viktor Stalberg, C Jarret Stoll, RW Emerson Etem, G Antti Raanta

Notable subtractions: D Matt Hunwick, C James Sheppard, RW Martin St. Louis, LW Carl Hagelin, G Cam Talbot

RELATED: LW lock: Ovechkin missing only one thing on his resume

Schedule against the Capitals: Tue. Nov. 3 at New York, Sun. Dec. 20 at New York, Sat. Jan. 9 at New York, Sun. Jan. 17 at Washington, Fr. Mar. 4 at Washington

Outlook: The biggest question for the New York Rangers is whether or not their championship window has closed. They have been all in for the last few years and have one conference championship to show for it, but the Rangers paid a high price to stay on top of the East.

Here is the way things go in the NHL. Teams draft young talent, build a roster and when those players get old they replace them with young draft picks again. That may be difficult for the Rangers considering they haven't had a first round draft pick since 2012.

That doesn't mean the Rangers do not have any exciting prospects -- Oscar Lindberg looks ready for the NHL this season -- but it does mean that some lean years are ahead for the Blueshirts. When the decline starts, they will have no way to stop it from turning into an all-out free fall.

That inevitable decline may start as early as this year.

New York's best player is Rick Nash, who is unreliable in the playoffs and at 31, may soon become unreliable in the regular season as well.

Henrik Lundqvist is now 33 and isn't getting any younger. Last year, the Rangers had Cam Talbot who did a fantastic job stepping in for Lundqvist, but New York traded Talbot in the offseason. This year, the Rangers will have Antti Raanta as their backup, a goalie who has only 39 NHL games to his name.

Having said that, this team won the Presidents' Trophy last year for a reason. A declining Lundqvist is still better than many of the NHL's other starters. If he continues to play well, the Rangers aren't going anywhere.

Defensively this team is very deep. Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi will remain one of the best shutdown pairings in the NHL. Keith Yandle struggled after being traded to New York at the deadline last year, but he should be better with a training camp to adjust to his surroundings. When you have a player like Yandle on the third defensive pair, that means you've got some good players in that top four.

Mats Zuccarello is expected to be ready for training camp after a puck to the head knocked him out of the playoffs last season and Jarret Stoll may prove to be a free agent steal as red flags made it a buyers market for the veteran center.

Expectations: After winning the East in 2014 and the Presidents' Trophy in 2015, it feels like the rest of the conference is starting to catch up to the Rangers. With an aging Nash, Lundqvist and the retirement of Martin St. Louis, this New York team looks like they may have peaked.

Even if you are a fan of the Stoll pickup, he is 33 and will most likely play on the third line. He's not going to be the tipping point that leads the Rangers to a Stanley Cup.

You can't hate on this roster too much given how much success they have had the past few years. This is still (largely) the same roster that won the Presidents' Trophy last season, but with division rivals like Washington, Pittsburgh and Columbus all getting better, it feels like the gap between the Rangers and the rest of the East is now gone. The Rangers don't have the prospects to reload this roster.

The decline that will see the Rangers fall to the basement is going to begin this year. It won't keep them out of the playoffs, but unless Lundqvist can carry the Rangers, their days of Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference dominance are over.

MORE CAPS: What can the Caps expect from Oshie, Williams at right wing?

See more team previews:

Pacific Division 
Anaheim Ducks 
Arizona Coyotes 
Calgary Flames 
Edmonton Oilers 
Los Angeles Kings
San Jose Sharks 
Vancouver Canucks

Central Division 
Chicago Blackhawks
Colorado Avalanche
Dallas Stars
Minnesota Wild
Nashville Predators
St. Louis Blues
Winnipeg Jets

Atlantic Division 
Boston Bruins
Buffalo Sabres
Detroit Red Wings
Florida Panthers
Montreal Canadiens
Ottawa Senators
Tampa Bay Lightning
Toronto Maple Leafs

Metropolitan Division 
Carolina Hurricanes
Columbus Blue Jackets
New Jersey Devils 
New York Islanders
Philadelphia Flyers 8/28 
Pittsburgh Penguins 8/29 
Washington Capitals 8/30

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are not happy with Caps' Lars Eller

The Toronto Maple Leafs are not happy with Caps' Lars Eller

On Saturday, the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals faced off against one of the hottest young teams in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs. It was viewed as a marquee matchup and it certainly lived up to its billing with both teams battling in a tight, well-played game.

In the end, Toronto walked away as the 4-2 victors in one of their better wins of the young season, but not everyone left that game impressed.

A team that already boasted super-star talent Auston Matthews added John Tavares in the offseason as a free agent giving the Maple Leafs a formidable one, two punch at center. For most of the game, the Caps were able to shut down that center tandem.

Lars Eller was asked after the game how the Caps were able to keep the Leafs’ big stars in check and he indicated that perhaps Tavares and Matthews were not as formidable a pair as they had been made out to be.

“We’re used to playing against [Sidney Crosby] and [Evgeni Malkin],” Eller said. “Everything kind of drops from there so it’s not that special. It’s a good team like a lot of others. They’ll probably be a playoff team, I think.”

Not surprisingly, that quote caught Toronto’s attention, especially forward Nazem Kadri.

Per Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston, Kadri called Eller’s comments “bulletin board material.”

With 12 points in seven games, the Maple Leafs currently boast the top record in the league. Toronto is far from perfect, however, and their defense remains a major question mark in whether this team is a true Stanley Cup contender.

But as to whether or not they are a playoff team? That seems like a pretty safe bet.

The Caps and Maple Leafs will meet twice more this season on Jan. 23 and Feb. 21. Both games are in Toronto.  

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Capitals are sticking with Chandler Stephenson on the top line… for now

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Capitals are sticking with Chandler Stephenson on the top line… for now

With Tom Wilson still serving a 20-game suspension, Washington Capitals head coach Todd Reirden has the difficult task of finding a wing to complement his top line of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. For the first four games of the season, that player was Brett Connolly.

On Saturday, however, he changed things up and went with Chandler Stephenson instead.

Just 18 seconds into the game, Stephenson made his head coach look very smart as he finished off a 2-on-1 with Kuznetsov to score his first goal of the season.

“Obviously, the start was great,” Reirden said after the game.

Stephenson is an incredibly fast skater and the extra speed seemed to add another dimension to that line that opponents had to contend with, and it led to both of the Caps’ goals on the night.

In addition to Stephenson’s goal, Ovechkin drew a tripping penalty in the second period, and Washington scored on the resulting power play.

“Those guys are a lot of fun to play with,” Stephenson said. “They just know where to be and can find each other. I've just got to get the puck to them and just go to the net with your stick on the ice, and they'll find you.”

The top line’s success was a matter of finding instant chemistry as Stephenson had very little time to adjust. The Caps were off on Friday following back-to-back games, and Reirden did not make the switch of putting Stephenson on the top until Saturday’s morning skate.

Putting a new top line together with little time to practice does not seem like an ideal scenario, but according to Kuznetsov, the level of familiarity between all the players made the adjustment quick and easy.

“It doesn't matter with who you play,” he said. “In this locker room, we can communicate with anybody. We don't have a first line, we don't have a fourth line. We try and roll all lines.”

Reirden seemed pleased with the new trio after the game saying, “They did a number of good things during the game as well, so they I thought accomplished a lot. I thought [Stephenson] brought the speed on the forecheck and was able to at least go after their defense a little bit and force some turnovers that Kuznetsov and [Ovechkin] were able to at least get some opportunities from. So I think that's important to have him in that situation.”

Reirden was happy enough with the top line’s performance to keep them together. The team is off Monday, but Stephenson remained on the top line during Sunday’s practice.

But so long as Wilson remains out, finding the right match for the top line will remain a work in progress.

Said Reirden, “We’ll continue to try to put together our four lines that give us the best chance.”

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