Looking Ahead: How the ‘18-19 Rangers stack up

It’s never easy to assess a rebuilding team. Coming off their worst season in over a decade, the Rangers are a team in transition.

Expectations aren’t that high as in years past. Fans should be realistic about what to expect. With a new coach and staff for the most part along with a young core, making the playoffs isn’t how they’ll be assessed. Rather, it’ll be based on the development of younger players, who are expected to be a big part of the future.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t enough experienced Blueshirts, who will be looked upon for leadership. For once, it’s not about Henrik Lundqvist, who remains the elder statesman in net. The 36-year old, who prides himself on being the best night in and night out, will have to be more patient and understanding than in years past. Mistakes will be made. He can’t throw teammates under the bus by showing them up. It’s different this time. He must be a true leader for this group.

You can count on one hand how many Rangers are 30-or-older. That includes Marc Staal, Mats Zuccarello, Cody McLeod and Matt Beleskey ‘if’ he makes the roster. Steven Kampfer also will compete for a spot on a blueline that could be younger. Brendan Smith turns 30 next Feb. 8. Kevin Shattenkirk will be 30 next Jan. 29.

While Lundqvist, Staal and Zuccarello are guaranteed spots, nothing is certain for the other veterans with McLeod brought back as a role player for team toughness. If Smith performs well in training camp and preseason, he should make the cut. He’s reportedly in much better shape, losing 15 pounds.

Most of the core remains young. Featuring Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, Jesper Fast and Brady Skjei, each player will be asked to assume more of a leadership role. Both Kreider and Hayes were more accountable last year. Especially Kreider, who changed his outlook following successful rib resection surgery to repair a blood clot. His play on the ice was better, and his postgame commentary were very candid. He could be the next captain. That largely depends on what happens.

With Pavel Buchnevich entering the final year of a rookie deal, the talented 23-year old Russian playmaking forward will look to continue to improve. An important player, he’ll likely start the season on the top line with cohesive linemates Zibanejad and Kreider. Much will be expected from the trio.

Afterwards, the job gets harder for rookie coach David Quinn. He will look to implement a system that was successful at Boston University, involving defensemen. It’ll be interesting to see how quickly the Rangers adjust. There will be better emphasis on team defense than previous coach Alain Vigneault. But Quinn’s style should allow for creativity on offense. Not stymie it. Perhaps more of a focus on a consistent forecheck could benefit a roster that includes speedy forwards Ryan Spooner, Vladislav Namestnikov, Jimmy Vesey; plus teenagers Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil.

How will the lines look following the formidable KZB line? It may well depend on how rookies Andersson and Chytil perform in September. Placing too much weight of expectation on both 2017 first round picks could be detrimental. With versatile forwards Spooner and Namestnikov, it gives Quinn options. Hayes was successful as a checking center, faring well against tough competition. He is the team’s best even strength center, who can play a match-up role. Does his offense improve under Quinn?

Fast is another heady two-way player, who can be plugged anywhere to provide a boost to a line. A solid checking winger, who plays exclusively at even strength and the penalty kill, his grit and hustle are traits that can rub off on teammates. He and Hayes should be the top penalty killing duo.

Hopefully, they can get more out of Vesey, who has the size and strength, but must finish better. If used right, there’s no reason he can’t become a 20-goalscorer.

There remain questions on whether Beleskey can earn a spot on the fourth line, or if he is reassigned to Hartford. McLeod is pretty much guaranteed a spot as a guy who can play occasionally. He’s not a full-time player. Use him as needed against tough opponents like the Flyers and Islanders.

What about Boo Nieves or Vinni Lettieri? How much of a chance will either be given? Is Brett Howden ready at age 20? I would think it makes better sense for him to start in Hartford. They signed both Michael Lindqvist and Ville Meskanen. You don’t give them contracts unless you think they are capable of being part of the roster.

The defense remains a giant question mark. Figure the smooth skating Skjei to team up with the offensive minded Shattenkirk on the top pair. We know Shattenkirk played hurt in his first year on Broadway. A healthier Shatty should help the D, particularly on the power play where he possesses a accurate shot. A good power play quarterback, expect a better year from him.

How the rest of the D is set up largely depends on what happens in camp. Staal and Neal Pionk had some chemistry as a second pair. Pionk seemed to be a good fit working with the vet, who bounced back with a solid season. Should Staal be receiving top four minutes? As long as it’s five-on-five and penalty kill, he can be managed. Look for Pionk and Tony DeAngelo to log more ice-time with the latter figuring to get a crack on the power play. There is pressure on DeAngelo to perform with younger talent such as Libor Hajek and Ryan Lindgren on the way.

Assuming those five defensemen lock up spots, that leaves Smith and Kampfer to compete with Fredrik Claesson, John Gilmour and the kids. It certainly should be a different look on the blueline in ’18-19. One which could evolve over the course of a season.

It is expected that Alexandar Georgiev will back up Lundqvist in goal. He performed admirably in his first professional season in North America, graduating from Hartford to New York. As usual, Lundqvist will carry the workload. But he shouldn’t be overworked like last year. The results can be disastrous. I would prefer Lundqvist to receive between 50-55 starts, but know he’ll likely get right around 60, leaving a little over 20 for Georgiev, if he doesn’t falter. There are no guarantees.

What can be expected from a roster that isn’t set in stone? The unexpected. It’ll be up to the experienced players to lead the way both on and off the ice. There’s room for improvement from a few of the younger players. Managing some of those prospects will help determine if this rebuild is successful over time. Management and fans must remain patient.

I think they’ll compete hard and be exciting. But I don’t expect more than between 70 to 80 points. Given the division they play in and an improving Atlantic with just a couple of bottom feeders, the Blueshirts should find themselves in the NHL Lottery again. The question is will they get lucky and land big fish Jack Hughes? I can’t see it.

Guarded optimism is how I would explain my approach to this team. That’s the only way to be. Stay positive.

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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