Season Preview: Younger faces look to make mark for Rangers


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For the Rangers, a new crop of young talent up front could play a key role in determining how they perform in a brand new 2016-17 season. Here is our preview. All Photos via AP courtesy Getty Images

When the puck officially drops at Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, a brand new season will begin for the Rangers. It’ll be their first home opener to start a season since 2007. In that memorable one, they prevailed 5-2 over the Caps with freshly minted captain Jaromir Jagr scoring on the game’s first shift at 29 seconds.

Astonishingly, the 44-year old hockey legend still plays for the Panthers, who’ll host the Devils. Indeed, all three original Battle of New York teams are in action with the Islanders visiting the Rangers in a showdown. The Sabres will start up minus Jack Eichel (ankle sprain) as they host nemesis Montreal.

OVERVIEW: For the new look ’16-17 New York Rangers, it’s about looking ahead. There’s nothing they can do about how last season ended- suffering a five-game embarrassment against the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pens in the first round. Most of the veteran leaders have talked about moving on. This year, they have something to prove. Having been written off by most pundits, it’ll be a different roster.

Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) and Marc Staal (18) embrace after their 4-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 2 in the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs in Pittsburgh, Saturday, April 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

DEFENSE: At least for now, it looks like they’ll have a 23-man roster with Kevin Klein (back spasms) out for the time being. That means Dylan McIlrath is the extra defenseman with fourth-year coach Alain Vigneault burying him on the depth chart behind camp revelation Adam Clendening and former Av Nick Holden. The situation with McIlrath is complex. For some reason, Vigneault doesn’t see a need for a big imposing defenseman who was steady in 34 games during his rookie year.

For the time being, the stubborn coach who’s had success on Broadway getting the Blueshirts to its only Stanley Cup Final appearance since ’94 and within a period of a return trip- has Dan Girardi on the top pair with captain Ryan McDonagh. How long that lasts is anyone’s guess. Unless Girardi finds the fountain of youth, the proud vet who enters his 11th year could see his ice-time reduced. Vigneault and new assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom must micromanage Girardi at even strength, keeping him away from unfavorable match-ups. Still a valuable penalty killer, the alternate captain can still contribute. The notion he can do it consistently remains far fetched.

As for McDonagh, the 27-year old captain is entering a critical year. About to start his seventh season, the anchor of the blue line must bounce back from an inconsistent ’15-16 in which he struggled defensively. For a second straight year, he battled injuries in overcoming two concussions. Since his breakout ’13-14 when he had a career high 14 goals with 29 assists, 43 points while performing brilliantly in the 2014 playoffs going 4-13-17, he’s been banged around. Two separated shoulders and head injuries have affected his play. With Keith Yandle gone to Florida, it’s imperative that McDonagh remain healthy and return to the All-Star level that saw him as one of the league’s top defensemen.

Marc Staal is also looking for a better year. If the preseason was any indication, perhaps the 29-year old veteran can be steadier with a longer off-season minus any injuries. He’ll be badly needed to provide strong support on the second pair. Normally, Klein draws that assignment while subbing for Girardi with McDonagh. But he is out. For now, it could go to Holden, who played in all 82 games for Colorado and is expected to improve the D. Particularly on the penalty kill.

Brady Skjei is likely to start on the third pair with Clendening. Having gotten into seven games and all five postseason contests registering two assists, the strong skating 22-year old lefty D is the future of the back end. While his camp wasn’t as good as expected, Skjei could see his role increase. His skating and instincts make him a good candidate to kill penalties and play five-on-five. The 2012 first round pick will be a key player.

As for Clendening, the 23-year old is getting another chance to prove he belongs in the NHL. Having been through five organizations, the right defenseman who is a solid puck moving type that displayed unselfish ability on the left point of the power play should see some time there. He can fill a void as that right shot who is able to find the open man at the left circle. More on that in a bit.

What role will McIlrath have? Is the 24-year old former 2010 first round pick on the outs already? Despite a solid showing in camp where Vigneault praised what he brings, he remains the odd man out of the rotation. You have to wonder what the thinking is. What he lacks in speed he makes up for in positioning and hockey IQ. He is tough and doesn’t take anything from anyone. The Rangers lack a crease clearer who will prevent forwards from crashing into¬†Henrik Lundqvist. If given the chance, McIlrath can provide a physical element while being solid five-on-five and an effective penalty killer.

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FORWARDS: If the defense remains cloudy, at least the forwards do not. General manager Jeff Gorton did a good job in the summer. Forced to cut salary to re-sign Chris Kreider long-term while bridging Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller, he made room by dealing top goalscorer Derick Brassard to Ottawa in exchange for 23-year old center Mika Zibanejad which also netted a second round pick in 2018 with a seventh round pick going back to the Senators.

Like Brassard when he arrived, Zibanejad is a younger pivot with upside. A right-handed shoot first pivot that the team has lacked, he had a good preseason showing off a lethal one-timer from the off wing on the power play. The bigger 6-2, 222 pound Swede will start with Kreider and promising rookie Pavel Buchnevich. A 21-year old Russian prospect who played professionally in the KHL the past few seasons after being taken in the third round of the 2013 NHL Draft. He showed chemistry with Kreider and Zibanejad, finishing well with a goal and assist in his final exhibition. Look for Buchnevich to see time on the power play where his unique skill set should be on display.

Zibanejad and Buchnevich aren’t the only newcomers. Gorton was able to land former Harvard University star Jimmy Vesey. The 23-year old Hobey Baker winner looks like he belongs. Having never played pro, it will be an adjustment from college straight to the NHL. A fast skating wing who can finish, Vesey will start with Derek Stepan and top scorer Mats Zuccarello. Stepan and Zuccarello had chemistry when they were put together last season. It’ll be interesting to see Stepan without Kreider. For now, it’s the younger Vesey who gets to play with the Rangers’ best overall center and their most creative forward.

That means Rick Nash will play on the third line with Hayes and Miller. Named an alternate captain, Nash is looking to erase last year’s injury plagued disappointment. If he can still hit 30 goals, that should provide better scoring balance. Obviously, a slimmed down Hayes must step it up in his third season. Miller is coming off a career year in which he notched 22 goals, 21 assists and 43 points. A repeat in production with more consistency shift to shift would be a big plus for the versatile forward the coaching staff can plug anywhere.

Perhaps the biggest improvement is the fourth line. With Dominic Moore (Boston) gone and Tanner Glass clearing waivers to Hartford along with Nathan Gerbe, the offensive-minded Brandon Pirri gets his shot to contribute in a checking role with power play duty. Only 25, he is capable of finishing as his 22 goal season with Florida demonstrated a couple of years ago. Vigneault wants him to be defensively responsible. If he is, maybe he can stick on what should be a better fourth line with Jesper Fast and Michael Grabner. Josh Jooris backs up and is a capable energy guy who kills penalties.

Eventually, Oscar Lindberg will return. Finally cleared for contact, the second-year Swede is ahead of schedule following off-season surgery. He wasn’t expected to be ready until early November. Once he comes back, that should solidify the fourth line and penalty kill. Lindberg was one of the few Blueshirts who used his size effectively and went to the net. The biggest surprise was goal scoring early which made for unrealistic expectations. When he returns, someone goes down. Don’t bet on it being Fast, who’s well liked by Vigneault for his hard work and hustle. The Prince of the empty netter put up 30 points (10-20-30) in Year Two.

IN THE SYSTEM: Another player Vigneault came away impressed with is Cristoval “Boo” Nieves. An afterthought due to spending four years at the University of Michigan, the 2012 second round pick looks to have a future in Manhattan. Though he’s expected to start with Hartford, the big fast skating right-handed pivot could be an early call-up. They really like his combination of two-way play and what he can bring defensively.

If last season, the team lacked depth, that clearly isn’t the case this time. Even with a questionable defense, they’re currently eight deep with reinforcements in Hartford such as Ryan Graves and first-year pro John Gilmour. In other words, the defense should have a much different look in say 2018. It won’t be a weakness down the line. It’s more about how Vigneault handles veteran leaders Girardi and Staal.

MORE ON ‘D’: Assuming McIlrath goes, it would be sad. He hasn’t gotten a fair shake. There’s plenty of opposition from fans who want to see what he can bring. If there was any proof, he was on the most effective pair with Yandle at five-on-five last year. Once Girardi returned with a cracked kneecap, McIlrath was treated with kid gloves.

It’s doubtful that Clendening is an everyday player. It all depends how he performs. He can add something offensively. But there’s a reason he hasn’t stuck. That’s why it doesn’t make much sense how McIlrath is the odd man out. I’m hopeful he’ll get his chance and stay put. Unless they can put together a package for unsigned Winnipeg Jet Jacob Trouba, it doesn’t make sense to trade McIlrath when his value is low.

Kyle Palmieri, Henrik Lundqvist

New Jersey Devils right wing Kyle Palmieri (21) scores a goal on New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30), of Sweden, during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

GOALIES: Lundqvist enters his 12th season. It’s hard to believe he’s now 34 and has been around so long. The franchise leader in wins (374) and shutouts (59) remains the team’s best player. For the first time in his brilliant career, the affable Swedish King found himself under siege. Facing more shots and more danger chances, he fell victim to an awful defense that saw his goals-against-average fall to his worst in seven years (2.48). His save percentage remained a robust .920 with only four shutouts. In particular, his play on the penalty kill suffered. The direct result of playing behind one of the worst units.

Whenever a star athlete is challenged, they usually respond. Lundqvist has remained focused. With something to prove and most believing the window has closed, he has plenty of motivation. He’ll be 35 next March 2. It’ll be interesting to see how he’s handled. He started 65 games in ’15-16 but was yanked more than at any other point in his career, including twice against the Pens in the first round.

Antti Raanta was terrific as the new backup. In replacing Cam Talbot, the personable 27-year old Finn won 11 games with a 2.25 GAA and .919 save percentage. He too was forced to make difficult saves due to the team’s inconsistency. Raanta can probably give Lundqvist some more nights off. The idea is to keep him fresh for the playoffs, which aren’t a certainty.

COACHES: As for Vigneault, Beukeboom replaces Ulf Samuelsson. The former Wolf Pack assistant who worked with McIlrath and Skjei will handle the defense including the pairing assignments in game. At times, Samuelsson had some strange deployments. Perhaps Beukeboom will do a better job in this department.

Scott Arniel remains as an associate coach who runs the power play. If preseason is any indication, it could be improved with Zibanejad providing that rare right-handed one-timer from the off wing and Pirri able to unleash his one-timer from the right side. As a team, the Rangers ranked 14th overall last season clicking at 18.6 percent. At times, it still left something to be desired despite having a offensive weapon in Yandle. Benoit Allaire remains one of the game’s best goalie coaches.

ANALYSIS: There’s a lot to like with the younger crop of forwards who should bring more skill, speed and supply offense. The depth certainly is better. Zibanejad is expected to replace Brassard’s scoring. He started well for Ottawa scoring a goal and assist in the Sens’ 5-4 overtime win which was overshadowed by a record setting NHL debut from Auston Matthews– who scored four goals. Expect more from Kreider, who had his best camp. Maybe this is the year he fulfills his potential.

The defense must perform better. There can’t be as many blown assignments and costly turnovers. There needs to be more discipline not just from the defensemen but from the forwards, who didn’t always come back. One of the reasons Brassard is gone. Zuccarello too was a culprit despite a brilliant offensive season. As a team, they need to get back to defense. A consistent offense can aid them in possession. An area they struggled.

The Pens and Caps are the class of the Metropolitan Division. They should duke it out for the top spot. The Rangers will be battling the Islanders, improved Devils and the Flyers for the playoffs. If everything goes well, they should find themselves in but again starting the postseason on the road.

PREDICTION: Rangers 3rd in Metro

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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