Rangers Preview: New look roster faces challenges

Henrik Lundqvist

The waiting is over. Let the 2017-18 season begin. It already did for some teams Wednesday night. A new season got going at MSG for the Rangers who hosted the Avalanche Thursday.

It’ll be Year 5 for coach Alain Vigneault. He’s lasted the original five year contract he signed back in 2013 replacing John Tortorella. Over that time, he’s guided the club to a Stanley Cup Final, two Conference Finals and four postseasons. In fact, they’ll look to extend their consecutive playoff streak to nine.

That’s if everything goes according to plan. Gone ar former core pieces Dan Girardi and Derek Stepan. The Blueshirts are counting on a select number of younger players retained along with key addition Kevin Shattenkirk to replace them. Shattenkirk will be a big factor on the blueline and power play.

GM Jeff Gorton also added Tony DeAngelo in a trade that sent Stepan and Antti Raanta to the Coyotes which also netted seventh overall pick Lias Andersson. Despite a solid preseason, management decided he was better off being loaned back to HV71 Jonkoping in Sweden to help further his development.

However, 21st overall selection Filip Chytil made the roster as a 18-year old. A gifted Czech pivot who will start on the second line with Rick Nash and new alternate captain Mats Zuccarello, the still growing Chytil will get the chance to prove he belongs. If he is worthy, the Rangers could keep him past the nine-game minimum and let his first year of a entry level deal kick in. So, there’s palpable excitement.

Along with camp surprise Paul Carey and Andrew Desjardins, the Rangers will have a different look. David Desharnais gets the opportunity to replace Oscar Lindberg, who was lost in expansion to the Golden Knights.

Henrik Lundqvist remains the most important player. Coming off his worst statistical year, the proud 35-year old veteran has something to prove. With capable backup Raanta gone, look for Lundqvist to shoulder the load. He’ll be asked to play more than last year. As the Swedish King goes, so do the Rangers.

Let’s delve further into this year’s roster which will eventually include versatile checking forward Jesper Fast. He’s not expected back until the end of the month.

FORWARDS: It’ll be up to Mika Zibanejad  (2 goals in opener) and Kevin Hayes to lead the way. They’re the top two centers with old reliable Stepan in Arizona. Zibanejad got out quickly with a pair of power play goals in a 4-2 home loss to Colorado. The chemistry between him, Chris Kreider and key second year Russian Pavel Buchnevich is still there. Buchnevich will try to stay healthy and improve while Kreider is being counted on to lead the team in goals. Hayes is anchoring J.T. Miller and Michael Grabner. A cohesive trio that can do damage in transition.

It’ll be interesting to see if Chytil sticks. He’ll need more trust from Vigneault, who didn’t play him enough in the first game. Zuccarello is like an extra captain. A tremendous playmaker who always sticks his nose in, he plays much larger and is wiling to win the battles. Nash has gone to the net a lot. It’s a contract year for the injury prone power forward. He still possesses the wheels and skills to make things happen.

Until Jesper Fast returns around Halloween, Desharnais will start with Jimmy Vesey and either Carey or Desjardins. The former Hab center still has good speed and skill. But he was used on the second power play over Chytil in a special team’s game. Once Fast is back, that’ll strengthen that line. Vesey shouldn’t be on the fourth line. It says here he’ll earn a promotion into the top nine and be a key contributor.

DEFENSE-Obviously, Shattenkirk is home to help the back end. A terrific power play quarterback, he already paid dividends with a no look pass for a Zibanejad rocket. His skating should fit in well with the speed and transition game Vigneault emphasizes. He is being paid to make it work with McDonagh as a top pair. Their first game was forgettable with each victimized on Avalanche goals. They’ll need to be more defensively responsible. Much hinges on the top pair.

Brady Skjei is in line for a big second year. A smooth skater who can contribute offensively while throwing his weight around, he beefed up while working out with McDonagh in the summer. At the moment, he isn’t being used on the power play. Rather the penalty kill where he’ll no doubt have a bigger defensive role on the second pair with Brendan Smith. Smith isn’t shy about the rough stuff. So, they should be tough to play against. We’ll see how Skjei fares against better match ups. He was sheltered in his rookie year.

Marc Staal remains despite all the wear and tear. His minutes will be managed now that he’s on the third pair. Right now, he is with DeAngelo, who showed a willingness to mix it up in a good camp. DeAngelo is the younger and faster skater with a big shot. He’s been focused on playing better in his end. If that happens and his offense comes, the Rangers could have another young D with lots of upside. It remains to be seen what the plan is for Nick Holden. In his last year with a very affordable contract , he could be moved. Especially if Neal Pionk and Ryan Graves continue their progression.

GOALIE-It starts and ends with Lundqvist. He must bounce back from the most disappointing season of a brilliant career. The franchise all-time leader in games, wins, shutouts and minutes played knows there’s more pressure. No one knows what to expect from Ondrej Pavelec. He won’t match what Raanta did. That means Lundqvist has to perform at the level he demonstrated before. If he can’t, the playoffs become a uncertainty.

COACH-Vigneault is in Year 5 having signed an extension. He gets results. But some of his personnel decisions remain puzzling. The pressure is mounting with veteran coach Lindy Ruff taking over the defense as a assistant. Scott Arniel remains as does Benoit Allaire.

Prediction: The playoffs aren’t guaranteed in a tough division. But there are still enough quality players to make the cut. Pencil them in for a wildcard.

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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