Rangers begin camp with changes


JT Miller

Miller Time: J.T. Miller finishes off a goal in the Rangers 5-1 win over the Canucks. AP Photo by Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

After a long summer, hockey is finally back. Even with some good distractions thanks to the Yankees and Aaron Judge along with the recent U.S. Open that crowned a new young American women’s champion in Sloane Stephens plus popular men’s champ Rafael Nadal. Football is entering Week 2. Hopefully, the Giants and Jets can improve. Well, the Jets are in tank mode. I’ll leave that to Hasan.

Judging from what coach Alain Vigneault stated on the first official day of training camp, change will be a theme for the Rangers. Indeed, they’ve moved on from top center Derek Stepan and key backup Antti Raanta. The trade with the Coyotes helped free necessary cap space while transitioning to a younger team with GM Jeff Gorton selecting Lias Andersson and acquiring defenseman Anthony DeAngelo.

What it means is increased expectations for centers Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes. They must fill the void left by the now bald Stepan, who unveiled his new Messier look.

 

With the focus on Zibanejad and Hayes needing to produce more consistently as the club’s top two centers, Vigneault reversed course and clarified that J.T. Miller will begin the season at center. I think it was fairly obvious that the versatile forward is the best option for the third line. Who would you rather have? A younger and improving player or David Desharnais, who is better suited for the fourth line.

As for inviting former Blackhawk depth forward Andrew Desjardins on a pro try out, that can’t hurt. But keep in mind the former member of Chicago’s ’14-15 Stanley Cup winner only had one assist in 46 games last season. He struggled after returning from a foot injury following a solid ’15-16 that included a career high eight goals over 77 contests. He’s a fourth liner.

If we assume Vigneault sticks with a fully healthy Pavel Buchnevich on the first line with Zibanejad and Chris Kreider- a trio that had strong chemistry- then perhaps Hayes gets to work with Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello. That would leave Jimmy Vesey and either Michael Grabner or Jesper Fast to play with Miller. Fast is expected back by Halloween. Keep that in mind. In the mean time, Gorton could gives this guy a phone call:

I would love to see a Jagr Broadway reunion. Even though he can’t skate as fast, the ageless legend remains a good offensive player who drives possession and the beloved Corsica. On a third line with power play time, No. 68 could take advantage of match-ups against second and third pair defensemen. He’s still a relentless forechecker with superb vision. At 45, Jagr still put up 16 goals and 30 assists with the Panthers. His 46 points would’ve ranked sixth on the Rangers, whose leading scorer Zuccarello posted 59. Some food for thought. It’s ironic that almost all my peers love the idea of Jagr. I just hope he gets to play one more year in the NHL.

There will be some competition for spots. Both Andersson and other first round pick Filip Chytil will have a chance to make an impression. After missing Traverse City with an injury, Chytil has been skating. Andersson is prepared to stay in NYC. We’ll see if he can force his way on the roster. If not, he can start in Hartford and further adjust to the smaller rink in North America.

On paper, a fourth line could consist of Desharnais, Matt Puempel and a healthy Fast. The Blueshirts also will get to see ex-Devil tough guy Bobby Farnham. The 28-year old spent most of last year in the AHL after scoring eight times with the Devs in ’15-16. Maybe he can play his way into a extra forward. He plays that gritty, physical style the team lacks. If not, he’ll likely be ticketed for Hartford.

There are other young players who are trying to make headlines. They include Malte Stromwall, Cristoval Nieves, Ryan Gropp, Robin Kovacs and Adam Tambellini. Out of those, I’d expect Nieves, Gropp and Kovacs to challenge for a spot.

This will also be a new year on D. Gone is steady vet Dan Girardi, who gave his blood and guts to three teams that made two Conference Finals and a Stanle Cup Final. He gets a reset with buddy Ryan Callahan in Tampa. Ironically the biggest challenger to the Penguins.

Kevin Shattenkirk gets his chance to fulfill a childhood dream playing for his favorite team. He idolized Brian Leetch and the rest of the ’94 team. The smooth skating offensive right D is a big upgrade on the top pair with captain Ryan McDonagh. Shattenkirk immediately improves a disastrous power play that never performed in the clutch. He will be the best power play right shot since Sergei Zubov.

More interesting is the battle Vigneault has promised on the back end. Marc Staal isn’t a lock for the top six. He will have to prove himself in camp and preseason, the competition will come from DeAngelo, Neal Poink, Alexei Pereglazov and Steven Kampfer. Keep an eye on Ryan Graves. He could make some headway and finally crack the roster at some point.

Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith are expected to be the second pair which means an increased role for the second-year defenseman, Skjei. He’s ready. It never made sense how Vigneault didn’t use him much to protect leads, leaning too heavily on vets Girardi and Staal along with Nick Holden. Holden remains a Ranger for the time being. Offense wasn’t a problem with the former Avalanche tallying 11 goals with 23 assists. He added two markers and two helpers in the playoffs. Unfortunately, he was victimized with Staal defensively.

Assuming DeAngelo pushes Staal, Vigneault could be forced into a hard decision with the lineup. That could be a good thing. All the wear and tear from injuries have taken its toll on Staal. He can’t be asked to play 82 games. The coaching staff should micromanage his ice-time at even strength while utilizing him on the penalty kill where he remains an asset. He’s a warrior. That shouldn’t be forgotten by fans and bloggers. But when the schedule picks up, Vigneault must give him nights off.

Everyone knows what to expect from Henrik Lundqvist. The 35-year old Swedish King has plenty of motivation following a disappointing ’15-16 that saw him post career worsts in goals-against-average (2.74) and save percentage (.910) in 57 outings. As brilliant as he was in outplaying Carey Price in the club’s six-game first round triumph over the Canadiens, he showed his age in allowing some regrettable goals in a gut wrenching six-game second round defeat to the Senators. A series that saw Craig Anderson get the better of him. There’s no doubt he’ll have to be better.

The Rangers will be hard pressed to replace the 21 wins Raanta gave them. Now the Arizona starter, the likable Finn gets his chance. Similar to Cam Talbot in Edmonton. I’m curious to see what goalie coach Benoit Allaire can do with former Winnipeg Jet Ondrej Pavelec. The 30-year old is in need of a career reboot following a poor campaign that saw him only get into eight games with Winnipeg. The former starter posted career lows in wins (4), GAA (3.55) and save percentage (.888). A scary prospect for Garden Faithful.

So, what to expect? You’re asking the wrong person. I’m not too enthralled with this roster. But also understand the reality. This will be a younger team reliant on the performances of its young core. Offense from the back end will be crucial. Shattenkirk, McDonagh, Skjei and Holden are all capable. DeAngelo is the wild card. He’s an offensive type D who is on his third organization before age 22. He’ll turn it on October 20.

It should be a more interesting camp. This isn’t the same NYR. They’re not a playoff lock. More on that and other stuff to come.

Here, AV discusses the Stepan trade, his expectations for Zibanejad and Hayes along with Vesey, Fast and Buchnevich:

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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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