The New York Rangers have quietly become the best team in the Eastern Conference. Find out how they’ve done it and what it will take to put them in Stanley Cup contention.

Rangers appear headed for Stanley Cup contention.

Following the Winter Classic, the New York Rangers were the top team in the Eastern Conference, and were tied with the Chicago Blackhawks for first overall in the league.

Entering the new year, the Rangers had scored the tenth most goals, and had the fewest regulation losses (9).

Right wing Marian Gaborik has avoided the injuries which plagued him in 2010-11, and has already matched last season’s goal total (22) in only 37 games, which not only had him in a three way tie by January 4th with Toronto’s Phil Kessel and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews for second overall in the league, but also on pace for a career-best 48 goals.

Team captain Ryan Callahan has overcome a slow start, and was tied with Brad Richards for second in team scoring with 29 points. If the hard-working Callahan stays healthy, he’s on track for a career year in goals (28), assists (35) and points (63).

Young center Derek Stepan and winger Artem Anisimov have also shown improvement, on pace to exceed their numbers of last season.

Defense was thought to be a problem area starting this season, given the youth on the blueline, and the absence of Marc Staal, who would miss the opening three months to a concussion.

Yet the defensive stats by mid-season tell a different story, as the Rangers are around the middle of the pack (14th) in shots-against per game (30.0). They’ve been strong on the penalty-kill, sitting sixth overall in that department.

The improvement of young defensemen Michael Del Zotto and Ryan McDonagh, along with the continued development of Dan Girardi into a solid all-round blueliner, have been significant factors. With Staal having finally returned to the lineup, the Rangers defense should only get better.

Their goals-against (2.05) is the second best in the league, due in part to their solid team defense, but  largely thanks to goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who is currently having a Vezina-worthy season. As of January 4th, Lundqvist was second overall in goals-against (1.92), third overall in save percentage (.937), and was tied for fifth in wins (17).

Outspoken head coach John Tortorella also deserves credit for the Rangers strong performance thus far, molding the Blueshirts into a team which plays an effective, hard-working game, with superb goaltending, a skilled, improved young defense corps, and two good scoring lines.

Still, there’s some problem areas they must address. As per Larry Brooks of the NY Post,  Richards hasn’t hit the score sheet as often as liked, they’re not getting much production from their bottom two lines, and their power-play is among the bottom third in the league.

The concern over additional scoring is justified when considering the Blueshirts generated the sixth-fewest shots per game coming into the new year.

Richards is on pace for 31 goals, which would be a career-high, but his assist numbers are way down, putting him on pace for 64 points, a full 13 less than last season’s numbers with Dallas, and down considerably from the 91 points of 2009-10. That’s certainly not the kind of production GM Glen Sather envisioned when he inked Richards to a nine-year, $60 million contract last summer.

Left wing Brandon Dubinsky was re-signed last summer to a new contract worth an average cap hit of $4.2 million per season, but so far he hasn’t played up to those dollars. Dubinsky. struggled through most of the opening three months of this season, though in recent games he’s shown signs of rediscovering his offensive touch. He’ll have to step it up in the second half if he’s to justify that salary.

With the NHL trade deadline at the end of next month, Sather could go shopping for some additional depth to address his problem areas, possibly for a scoring left winger to play either on the first or second line. Such a winger could bolster Richards’ production and improve their power-play. Slats could also follow that up by shopping for a good third line forward with a decent scoring touch.

Rookie winger Carl Hagelin has played well since being called up on November 25th, with 11 points in 19 games, but it remains to be seen how he’ll perform over the second half of the schedule and into the playoffs, when the games become more physical and intense. It might be best, therefore, to add an experienced scoring left wing, and perhaps drop Hagelin to the right side on the third line.

With currently just over $1.18 million in available cap space, Sather doesn’t have room to absorb much salary, unless Wojtek Wolski ($3.8 million cap hit) remains sidelined or gets buried in the minors.  Otherwise, to bring in that aforementioned scoring left wing, he’ll have to part with a decent player carrying significant salary.

For the time being, Sather has the luxury of time on his side. The team has played well, overcoming those problem areas, and as long as they remain at or near the top of the Eastern Conference, he’s in no hurry to make any deals. A slump, or a rash of injuries to key players, could of course increase the urgency to bolster his scoring depth.

If the Rangers  can find a suitable scoring left wing, maintain their current strong play and stay healthy, they could by season’s end become serious Stanley Cup contenders.