New York Rangers season preview: A long road back to the Stanley Cup Finals

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Last year, no one expected the New York Rangers to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. It took head coach Alaine Vigneault less than a year to accomplish what John Tortorella couldn't do in four years behind the bench. However, the jubilation of making the Finals for the first time in 20 years was short lived. The Rangers blew a two-goal lead twice in the series and lost in five games to the Los Angeles Kings.

After a summer filled with angst and thoughts of what could've been, New York returns as one of the favorites to emerge from the Eastern Conference in 2015. But the road back to the Cup won't be an easy one, as four of the team's top forwards from last year are gone and starting center Derek Stepan has a broken leg. The good news is that New York's free agent additions and infusion of young talent will put the Rangers right near the top of the conference.

Leading the new cast of characters is 38-year-old Dan Boyle. Boyle won a Stanley Cup with Martin St. Louis in Tampa Bay and was one of San Jose's highest scoring defensemen in team history. Boyle will provide a much-needed veteran presence along the blue line and should fill the void left by Anton Stralman, who left the Rangers for the Lightning. Boyle scored 12 goals last year, which would've given him the second most goals amongst New York defensemen, behind Ryan McDonagh.

Additionally, Boyle's strong stick handling and offensive prowess make him the perfect replacement for Brad Richards atop the point of the Rangers' power play. Although it's normally risky to entrust so much responsibility to a 38-year-old, Boyle gels perfectly with New York's win-now mentality. Further, general manager Glen Sather has wanted Boyle for a very long time, which makes this offseason signing so much sweeter.

While Boyle's signing was the biggest splash of the offseason, the most important moves the Rangers made this summer involved re-signing several key contributors from last season. Derick Brasard got paid to the tune of $25 million over five years, Dominic Moore inked a two-year contract and Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello each avoided arbitration by signing short deals.

The Rangers will certainly miss guys like Benoit Pouliot, Derek Dorsett and playoff-hero Brian Boyle, but the re-signing of Kreider and Zuccarrello will prove to be far more valuable. "Zucc" led the Blue Shirts with 59 points last season and Krieder scored 17 goals after missing much of the year due to injury.

On top of that, the Rangers made a few low risk, high reward signings by bringing Lee Stempniak, Matt Lombardi and Tanner Glass to the Big Apple. Stempniak scored 12 goals last year and should be able to replace Pouliot for the much cheaper price of $900,000. Lombardi played for five NHL teams before leading the Swiss League with 50 points last year.

The 31-year-old can play either wing or center and is a perfect fit to replace Brian Boyle on the penalty kill. Meanwhile, the Rangers got a lot tougher with the addition of Glass, who has been in 64 fights during his five-year career. These aren't the flashiest additions in the world, but they will pay major dividends come the end of the season.

The biggest surprise of New York's '14-'15 season could be 19-year-old Anthony Duclair. Initially considered a long shot to make the team, "the Duke" is now considered a viable option for the opening night roster. Duclair was a third-round pick of New York in 2013 and quickly impressed in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- being named a first-team All Star last year.

The Duke has played well beyond his years this preseason, scoring a few impressive goals against the Flyers and Blackhawks. While there is a lot that Duclair admits he needs to work on, the 19-year-old has the offensive game to compete at the NHL level right now. The Rangers are loaded at the wing position with Rick Nash, St. Louis, Kreider and Zuccarello. These four veterans could help the youngster ease into his NHL career and, more importantly, learn the fine nuances of playing two-way hockey.

The Rangers have a history of giving young guys a shot (examples being the aforementioned Kreider and J.T. Miller), but general manager Glen Sather has never had such a young and talented player at his disposal. Keeping Duclair in New York could mean the difference between the Rangers being a good offensive unit and one of the top offensive clubs in the NHL.

Duclair is just one of the many new faces that will be trying to help the Rangers get back to the Stanley Cup Finals. Although Montreal, Boston and Pittsburgh have each made improvements in the offseason, the Rangers are still the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference. With 'King' Henrik Lundqvist in net, veteran head coach Vigneault and a host of experienced players returning to the Big Apple, the Rangers have all the ingredients to make another deep postseason run.

DJ Sixsmith is a senior at Fordham University. He broadcasts Fordham football and basketball games on the school's radio station, WFUV, and hosts his own podcast called Game Time. Follow him on Twitter: @DJ_Sixsmith
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