Rangers open training camp with new faces

Pavel Buchnevich

Pavel Buchnevich is one of the new bright faces the Rangers are looking for good things from.

While Team USA was finishing off a sad World Cup of Hockey losing all three games for the first time on the international stage, NHL training camps finally opened up. As Devil blogger Hasan noted, there have been plenty of distractions. For myself too with such excitement over the Yankees and Gary Sanchez. Plus the Giants actually starting 2-0.

I have also enjoyed seeing the game’s best players even if our country embarrassed itself. But the overreaction from the media is just that. Had they had some of those young talented players from Team North America, we’re singing a different tune.  If only the kids featuring McDavid, Eichel, Gaudreau, Matthews, Gostisbehere, Gibson, Murray had made the semifinals which begin Saturday night with a throwback classic between Russia and Canada in Toronto. The second semi will be Sunday night with Sweden against surprising Europe which still features Ranger holdovers Henrik Lundqvist going up against Mats Zuccarello. Fun times.

As for the rest of the current ’15-16 version of the Rangers, it’ll include captain Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan. Both of who disappointed in the tournament. At least McDonagh led the Americans with two goals. But he was beaten for several goals against. A disturbing pattern we saw last season. I sure hope the popular captain gets back to being better defensively. If he doesn’t, it could be a long year.

Without question, McDonagh must bounce back. Especially with a defensive corps still counting on Dan Girardi and Marc Staal to return to form after much needed time off. Both have given their blood, guts, heart and soul to the cause that included three Final Fours and one Stanley Cup Final appearance. Each struggled mightily with the wear and tear catching up. How coach Alain Vigneault and new assistant Jeff Beukeboom manages each will be the key. Staal remains one of the team’s best penalty killers. Girardi at times too. He must be managed five-on-five when it comes to match-ups. Last year, opponents took advantage of his lack of speed. He also played hurt.

The Rangers now have eight defensemen including former Avalanche Nick Holden, who GM Jeff Gorton picked up for a 2017 fourth round pick. Where does the 29-year old left skating D fit in on a blue line that also returns Dylan McIlrath, Brady Skjei and veteran Kevin Klein? It’s worth noting that Holden played all 82 for Colorado in ’15-16 and 78 the previous year. Adam Clendening was also added or insurance.

Subtracting the very skilled Keith Yandle will hurt. When they moved his negotiating rights to the Panthers, it was an admission that they couldn’t afford him. For all the fuss made over what former GM Glen Sather gave up including Anthony Duclair plus first and second round picks, Yandle’s value offensively will be missed. Despite being misused at times by Vigneault, he put up a team-leading 42 assists and 47 points, which topped all Ranger defensemen. He now tries to fulfill the big contract Florida gave him. They sure will miss his first pass and on the power play.

Also gone is Dan Boyle, who should have a more peaceful retirement without having to deal with the loathsome Larry Brooks. Undoubtedly, the defense will be younger. Look for Skjei to establish himself in the top four. A strong skater and puck moving D with solid defensive skills and offensive capability, the former first round pick should see plenty of ice-time. It’ll be interesting to see how he grows.

Vigneault was sure to mention that he likes how McIlrath has improved defensively. The behemoth is as tough as they come. He brings the size, strength and toughness the back end has lacked since Mike Sauer’s career ended due to a Dion Phaneuf hit. Nothing against Holden. But it sure would be nice to see McIlrath stick and gain more trust from the coach. Perhaps having a familiar assistant in Beukeboom, who also developed Skjei will help.

Offensively, Stepan now is the man. With Derick Brassard gone to Ottawa for a package that brought back younger and bigger Mika Zibanejad, it falls on Stepan to be more consistent as the top center. While he’ll never be confused with Crosby, Toews, Getzlaf, Backstrom, Tavares, the heady Stepan remains one of the team’s most complete forwards. Capable of playing power play and penalty kill while being reliable at even strength, this is the time for the 26-year old to prove he can approach 60-70 points. Even with missing 10 games last season, he still wound up with a career best 22 goals with 31 assists. Unlike most of his teammates, Stepan scored twice in a one-sided first round exit to eventual Cup champion Pens.

Stepan will need help from Chris Kreider, who is capable of more than the 21-22-43 line he got in his third year. Now signed thru 2020 making $4.625 million, it’s time for the talented big power forward to become more consistent. He has all the tools. Maybe not the best hands. But it’s still my belief that he can score 25-30 goals and produce 50-or-more points. That assumes he’ll go to the net more and be a nuisance. It also means being a factor for most shifts.

Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller will continue to be looked upon for production. While Year 2 wasn’t as good for the pass-first Hayes, the puck possession forward could wind up with some talented young players if top prospects Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey prove themselves. As for Miller, he stepped up with career marks in goals (22), assists (21) and points (43) to earn a bridge deal worth a cap hit of $2.625 million. A effective forechecker who can complement any line with his energy and skill set, Miller looks to improve in the top six.

Zibanejad is at a similar stage as Brassard when he was acquired from Columbus in the Gaborik deal. He’s 23 and has put up consecutive seasons of 20-or-more goals totaling a career best 30 assists and 51 points in his fourth year with Ottawa. The bigger Swede goes 6-2, 222. Like Brassard, who fared well on Broadway becoming known as Big Game Brass, Zibanejad is a former first round pick who went sixth overall. Is that a good omen? We shall see.

Once he gets done with the World Cup, Zuccarello will return. Last year’s leading scorer remains the most popular skater. After Lundqvist, nobody is more beloved than “Zucc!” The pint sized Norwegian is 29. He remains a creative forward who makes players around him better. Watching him feather a perfect outlet for an exciting Leon Draisaitl overtime winner in Group play is what makes Zuccarello so fun. He also will battle anyone as he proved in blocking a McDonagh shot and checking him in Europe’s 3-0 upset of USA. If he can hit 25 goals and 60 points again, that would be a successful year.

The key player left out of the discussion is Rick Nash. How will he respond to no Brassard? Nash could find himself with Stepan and Kreider on the top line. Or will Vigneault stick with Kreider, Stepan and Zuccarello. Obviously, Nash had an injury plagued ’15-16 only scoring 15 times in 60 games. However, he did total two goals and two helpers in the postseason. The 32-year old three-time 40-goalscorer should be motivated. The Rangers need him to score at least 30 and stay healthy. Having Nash on the ice also can aid Kreider and help with Buchnevich and Vesey.

The top nine shapes up to be pretty good. If you can pencil in Stepan, Zibanejad and Hayes as your three centers with a mix of Kreider, Miller, Nash, Zuccarello, Buchnevich and Vesey, that would be a marked improvement. That also assumes Buchnevich and Vesey are ready for top nine roles. If not, Vigneault favorite Jesper Fast can be plugged in on any line. Though I’d prefer to see him on the fourth line in a checking role.

Gorton also made some astute signings by adding speed and depth as well as penalty killing to a unit that needs it. Both Michael Grabner and Nathan Gerbe can kill penalties with Grabner always a shorthanded threat. If only he could finish some of those chances. Also signing Brandon Pirri on the cheap and adding former Calgary energizer Josh Jooris are good moves.

To be frank, last year’s roster had no depth. With Oscar Lindberg out until probably mid-November recovering from surgery, Gorton made the most out of his cap and freed up space by moving Brassard and getting a young talented player in Zibanejad. All these moves should make it easier for Vigneault to roll four lines.

Tanner Glass has a year left at a million. While he improved last year, he should only be used against tough opponents who could take runs at our best players. With so many more forwards in camp and former Vigneault fave Maxim Lapierre in on a tryout, the odds are long for Glass to make the roster.

Goaltending will be the same. Once Lundqvist finishes with Sweden, he returns as the man. It’s getting late already for the now 34-year old Swedish King. As hard as it is to believe, Lundqvist has been here a decade. He enters his 11th season. Last year, it was his brilliant play that allowed a flawed team to get off to a great start. Without it, they don’t sniff the playoffs. Somehow, because his form fell off due to a decline defensively which included most of our forwards taking naps which further explains why Brassard is gone, Lundqvist came under criticism. He still won 35 games and had a 2.48 goals-against-average, .920 save percentage and five shutouts. He faced the most average shots-per-game and more high danger chances.

When it comes to Lundqvist, never bet against him. You know he’ll come in with something to prove. He played 65 games last year. Too many. Look for the staff to lighten the load. Antti Raanta proved to be a steady backup winning 11 games with a 2.25 GAA and .919 save percentage. Both netminders stood on their head. One thing on Lundqvist. He was pulled more than I can recall. That will be stored away.

So, what to expect from camp? Outside of some intriguing competitions at forward with both Buchnevich and Vesey looking to make the mark, keep an eye on Robin Kovacs. The 19-year old Swede who the Blueshirts selected in the third round in 2015 signed and is expected to play pro in North America. He will be 20 in mid-November. Supposedly, the right wing has tons of skill and speed.

As far as other young D in the system, Ryan Graves had a good rookie season in Hartford posting nine goals and 12 assists with 53 penalty minutes. The 21-year old lefty skating defenseman is a former 2013 fourth round pick.

Cristoval Nieves, Malte Stromwall, Nicklas Jensen and Ahti Oksanen all are players to follow. Nieves played four years for Michigan and debuted late with the Wolf Pack putting up five points in eight contests. Stromwall was a big scorer in Swedish-1 for AIK last year. Jensen came over from Vancouver for Emerson Etem and had a good worlds for Denmark. Oksanen was a college free agent signing out of Boston University. The Finnish defenseman developed offensively his final two years.

The camp also includes Ryan Gropp, Ty Ronning, Adam Tambellini and Sean Day. Brandon Halverson is one of seven goalies which includes the recovering MacKenzie Skapski. A player to root for. Hopefully, he can put together a better ’16-17.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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