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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?

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Metropolitan Division 
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Philadelphia Flyers 8/28 
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Washington Capitals 8/30

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International suspension over cocaine a wake-up call for Caps' Kuznetsov

International suspension over cocaine a wake-up call for Caps' Kuznetsov

The Capitals have a problem. 

With a rapidly closing championship window, coming off a first-round Stanley Cup playoff loss, there is pressure to take advantage while Alex Ovechkin remains at the top of his game and Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby are still under contract. 

No player was going to be watched more closely this upcoming season than center Evgeny Kuznetsov after an up-and-down campaign that left many in the organization frustrated. 

That takes on an ominous note after Kuznetsov was suspended four years by the International Ice Hockey Federation after testing positive for cocaine at the World Championships in May while playing for Russia.

Kuznetsov set the bar so high during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup playoff run. He is a brilliant talent who arguably was the best player in the world during that two-month stretch. Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Kuznetsov easily could have. 

But things have gone sideways this summer. Kuznetsov and Russia won the bronze medal at the World Championships in Slovakia on May 26. One day later a video surfaced on Twitter showing Kuznetsov in a room where cocaine was clearly visible on a desk. He publically denied ever doing drugs. That was unwise. 

According to the IIHF timeline, Kuznetsov had already taken a drug test that he would fail. The date? May 26 when Russia beat the Czech Republic in the bronze-medal game. He was provisionally suspended by the IIHF on June 13 and that was confirmed on Friday. He’ll at some point have to explain why he bothered lying about it at all, but in the end, that’s just a PR embarrassment of his own creation.

The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement seeks to direct players into treatment for what it labels “drugs of abuse” and not punishment. That’s admirable. But when a player’s performance nosedives and he later fails a drug test, it’s fair to ask how intertwined they are. 

This isn’t marijuana, often used by professional athletes to ease pain or just relax. Cocaine still has a stigma attached to it. In recent years the NHL has acknowledged its increased use by players. 

To his credit, Kuznetsov is taking advantage of the treatment programs offered by the NHLPA and has agreed to increased testing. He has been in Washington for weeks, much earlier than normal for European players, and is taking part in informal workouts at the Capitals’ headquarters in Arlington. 

These are all good signs. We don’t know with absolute certainty why Kuznetsov used cocaine or how often he does or even if it negatively affected his play. It would be naïve to think he’s the only Capitals player dealing with this issue and it’s not about shaming drug use. This is serious stuff. But for Kuznetsov, it goes with a broader narrative: A gifted player who doesn’t always live up to the heavy expectations placed upon him.   

His own general manager, Brian MacLellan, has acknowledged that on the record multiple times. Expecting Kuznetsov to match his 2018 playoff form for an entire season would be crazy. Few can do that. But his own teammates will privately say there is more to give, that they NEED Kuznetsov at his best for longer stretches. If they hadn’t seen it from him for months at a time before, it wouldn’t be so frustrating.   

Kuznetsov said in the aftermath of the video release, which was taken in Las Vegas last December on a Capitals’ road trip there, that he made an error in judgment visiting some acquaintances in a hotel room and when he saw cocaine use going on, he left. 

The video isn’t that definitive. Kuznetsov is seen laughing and joking with an unidentified person on a video call. Rolled up dollar bills are in front of him with a white powder substance visible. He doesn’t exactly seem uptight or in a hurry to leave. 

Fast forward five months and you have the failed drug test to go with the video. One with real-world consequences. The NHL might not punish players for cocaine use, but Kuznetsov won’t be allowed to play for Russia for the balance of his prime. He just punted that away. If the NHL and the NHLPA come to an agreement about letting players participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Kuznetsov will not be there. That’s a devastating penalty. 

Kuznetsov is still just 27, the vanguard of the younger Caps like Tom Wilson, 25, and Jakub Vrana, 23, who all must shoulder a bigger load with Ovechkin turning 34 next month and Backstrom turning 32 in November. Those two were great in the playoffs against Carolina last spring and the Capitals wasted the effort. They know they wasted it. 

Washington can’t win another Cup without Kuznetsov playing close to the breathtaking level he found in 2018. But watch heads droop on the bench when he makes an awful drop pass just inside the blue line or gives up a great scoring chance simply because his intuitive hockey mind sees an even better one available. He is literally the worst player in the NHL regularly allowed to take faceoffs and it isn’t close. 

It speaks to a lack of concern about the details of the game, a lack of seriousness. Lose a face-off and we’ll just “get the puck back in two seconds,” Kuznetsov told the Washington Post in a feature story in February. 

Remember Kuznetsov’s infamous quote last October about not caring if he was ever in contention for a Hart Trophy? “To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 [days] in a year, but I’m not ready for that.”

From a player coming off an incredible postseason you let that slide. It isn’t quite what he meant and Kuznetsov is renowned for saying whatever the hell he wants. He’s a fascinating character, never boring, unselfish to a fault. Talk to him for any length of time and you get unique insights into the game. 

But a drug suspension, even if it isn’t at the NHL level, undermines all of that. Misleading the organization about it does, too, especially when you know the truth is probably coming out. It’s all a little reckless. These people need to know they can count on you. That’s the price of being a great player, that’s the cost of immense talent. Kuznetsov let them down. He let himself down. This coming season is now about making amends. 

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Evgeny Kuznetsov accepts IIHF suspension for cocaine while Capitals, NHL lay out next steps

Evgeny Kuznetsov accepts IIHF suspension for cocaine while Capitals, NHL lay out next steps

After news broke of Evgeny Kuznetsov’s four-year suspension by the IIHF for testing positive for cocaine, the Capitals center released a statement Friday accepting the suspension and expressing his regret for the situation 

Said Kuznetsov:

"Recently, the IIHF notified me that, due to a positive test for a banned substance, I would be suspended from international competition for four years. I have made the decision to accept this penalty. Representing my country has always been so close to my heart and something I take so much pride in. Not being able to put that sweater on for four years is very hard to take. I have disappointed so many people that are important to me, including my family, teammates and friends. From the first day I took the ice in D.C., the Washington Capitals organization and our fans have been nothing but great to me and my family. I feel absolutely terrible for letting you down. I realize that the only way I can win you back is to take ownership of my situation and my actions from this point forward."

The question now is what happens next?

Both the Capitals and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly also released statements on Friday saying that Kuznetsov “has voluntarily sought help through the education and counseling program provided for in the NHL/NHLPA collective bargaining agreement and has agreed to a regular testing protocol relating to his involvement with that program.”

In addition, Kuznetsov will meet with commissioner Gary Bettman “to discuss his situation and review his conduct prior to the start of Training Camp preceding the 2019-20 season.”

While the positive test has resulted in a four-year suspension with the IIHF, it is unclear if any such discipline will be levied on Kuznetsov by the NHL.

Said Daly, “Unlike the IIHF, cocaine is not considered a performance-enhancing drug and is therefore not a Prohibited Substance under the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program.  Instead, it is considered a drug of abuse that is tested for and for which intervention, evaluation and mandatory treatment can occur in appropriate cases.”

Daly left the door open for NHL discipline as he concluded, “We intend to reserve further comment on any additional actions that may or may not be taken with respect to today’s announcement (disciplinary or otherwise) pending the completion of the Commissioner’s meeting with Mr. Kuznetsov.”

The Capitals, meanwhile, expressed support for Kuznetsov saying “we are committed to ensuring he has the necessary support required to work through this situation.”

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