The word rebuild hasn’t been common in this part of town. Until last trade deadline, it was unfamiliar to Henrik Lundqvist. When he first entered the league as a fresh faced 23-year old championship winning goalie of Frolunda back home in Sweden, expectations were much lower in 2005-06. However, Jaromir Jagr had other ideas, leading the Rangers to its first postseason since ’97. Lundqvist was instrumental changing a losing culture to a winning one.
It’s hard to believe all this time later, here we are with a now aging Lundqvist set to begin Year 15 as the unquestioned emotional leader of a team without the weight of expectations. Nobody expects the 2018-19 New York Rangers to make the playoffs. Gone is an era that saw some memorable hockey player at the World’s Most Famous Arena. They’re starting over with new coach David Quinn, who makes the quantum leap from Boston University to the NHL. A no nonsense man, who is hands on unlike the previous coach, ice time will be earned on Broadway.
What should be expected? A team that competes harder than the past outfits did recently. Players who will have each other’s backs, bringing emotion and energy back to the Blueshirts. They may not contend, but pride will be restored over the 82-game schedule that begins tomorrow night at MSG when they host one of the NHL’s best teams, the Nashville Predators.
There won’t be the same buzz around a younger team built around KZB Line members Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. However, there’s more anticipation to see what these Rangers are. How will 19-year old center Filip Chytil do under Quinn in his first full season? How much of a leap forward can Buchnevich and key defenseman Brady Skjei make in a better structured system where they won’t have to look behind them after every mistake? How soon should Lias Andersson expect to get the call from Hartford after getting beat out in camp by Brett Howden?
All these questions won’t be answered right away. There are more questions concerning potential unrestricted free agent forwards Kevin Hayes and fan favorite Mats Zuccarello. Will both go? For now, they’re Rangers who’ll play for contracts. Both are key players who’ll lead along with Kreider, Zibanejad, Lundqvist, Marc Staal and a much healthier Kevin Shattenkirk, who’ll look to put a frustrating first year behind him.
So, how does the 23-man roster look before the drop of the puck on Thursday? Let’s find out!
As I referenced, much will depend on the cohesive trio of Buchnevich, Kreider and Zibanejad. A line constructed by former bench boss Alain Vigneault. If only he had shown more trust in the talented Buchnevich, who is poised for a breakout season in his third year. That could set him up for a nice payday next summer. A superb skater with good playmaking capabilities, he will be looked upon for more consistent production on the number one line. Having posted a career best 43 points last season, he should be between 55-60. He needs to shoot more and has during preseason. Particularly on the power play, where he’s a big option in the right circle. Noted more for passing, it’s okay for the Russian to be a little selfish. That way penalty killers can’t shadow Zibanejad on the off wing for his deadly one-timer. Combined with Shattenkirk running it and Kreider as the net front presence, the Rangers should see improvement on the man-advantage.
The top unit will include the slick skating Chytil, who is dangerous in transition. The 2017 first round pick has the wheels, hands and arsenal to become a future star. There is a lot of excitement over the physically gifted Czech, who can undress opponents. Don’t forget he’s only 19. It’s important for fans to be patient. He isn’t a finished product. Like Buchnevich, Chytil still needs work defensively with puck decisions for both emphasized. Imagine them on the same line. It could happen one day. If Zibanejad isn’t the team’s leading scorer, I can’t see why. Possessing a lethal shot that can beat goalies along with tremendous acceleration, thirty goals and 70 points is within reach. He can get half his production on the power play where he and Buchnevich should do damage.
This must be the bust out year for Kreider, who’s been given more responsibility with one of five alternates along with a penalty killing role. Given his speed, why not. He should be able to play in all situations. If healthy, it’s time for Kreider to put up or shut up. The imposing left wing with great speed combined with power and skill, should finally hit 30 goals and be around 60 points. He can’t take nights off anymore. He’s far too important to the team’s success.
Although he won’t have an ‘A’ on his jersey, Hayes has proven himself to be the team’s most complete center. He made tremendous strides in a checking role last year. Able to take the tough assignments while being defensively responsible and winning key draws, he doubles as their best penalty killer. A shorthanded threat, Hayes can make the smart defensive read and transition the other way. He and sidekick Jesper Fast are hard workers, who bring a lot to the table. Don’t forget Hayes will also be on the second power play where he’ll work with Zuccarello, Ryan Spooner, Jimmy Vesey and Neal Pionk. He’ll work with Vesey and Zuccarello on the second line. Fast will start with Chytil and Spooner on the third line. Vesey showed improvement towards the end of preseason, earning a top nine spot over Vladislav Namestnikov. A talented player who can be polarizing due to his penchant for ill advised penalties. He’s the wildcard. The former Bolt is capable of contributing, but must earn his keep. For now, he’ll start on the fourth line with Howden and Vinni Lettieri, who earned a roster spot with a great camp. Look for Quinn to plug the versatile Lettieri, who brings energy. Cody McLeod is the extra forward following a surprisingly good exhibition. Figure him to be inserted for rivalry games.
To start off, things are a lot different compared to last year. Gone is mainstay Ryan McDonagh. It’s now Skjei’s job to fill those big skates. He’ll get help from veteran Marc Staal, who’ll wear the ‘A’ every night. He bounced back with a solid ’17-18. On a better team, he would be on the third pair. However, Staal’s minutes will be managed primarily at even strength and on the penalty kill. He still plays with that necessary edge, and is a locker room leader. Having him paired with Pionk is fine. The second-year defenseman is a solid skater, who reminds me a little of Dan Girardi. An overachiever who will play key minutes in different situations, including power play and penalty kill.
While Skjei will work with Shattenkirk, that leaves Brendan Smith with Adam McQuaid on the third pair. Smith reported to camp in better shape. He definitely reclaimed his spot in the top six. He’s most effective when he keeps it simple and takes the body. If he stays within himself, he should be okay. As for McQuaid, we know who he is and what he brings. A tough right D who’ll lay the body and stick up for teammates, the ex-Bruin should become a fan favorite. He knows what it takes having won a Stanley Cup. I don’t view him as a top six guy at this point.
My hope is that following a better preseason, Tony DeAngelo will gain the trust of the new staff. He’s a much better skater, who can also play on the second power play. I’m hopeful he’ll get an opportunity and make the most of it. This is his last chance. I think he knows it. If this truly is a rebuild, DeAngelo will overtake McQuaid as a regular and be part of the team. Fredrik Claesson is your basic defensive D who blocks shots. He isn’t a strong enough skater to be anymore than a depth defenseman.
At 36, Lundqvist will once again be in net for the season opener. He’s gone through a lot the past couple of seasons due to injuries and the team’s careless style of play. That is why we often saw highs and lows. He was brilliant for a long stretch last year, but couldn’t maintain it. The team in front of him wasn’t good enough and often left him out to dry. That can’t happen this time. This is as loyal a player as I can think of. He loves it here so much that he turned down Jim Dolan’s ask if he were open to a trade. It would be easy for him to bail like others have in similar situations. But that’s not Henrik. There’s a reason the franchise leader in almost every goaltender category is so universally loved and respected. At times, I’ve been hard on him. As long as he understands what they’re doing and doesn’t insult teammates after goals, we’re good. He can’t do that.
How many starts should he get? Somewhere between 50-55. Alexandar Georgiev proved he could be a capable back up. The real test will come in his second year with Quinn making those tough decisions.
I like what I see so far from Quinn. He really is intense reminding me of your classic coaches from the Northeast. Don’t forget he’s from Rhode Island with the Boston roots instilled. I take him at his word. He has the team doing harder drills during practice, which could help conditioning. He means what he says. How will he handle his first year in the NHL? It’s much different from college. We won’t know until they face some adversity. That along with how he manages the young players will determine if he’s successful.
No playoffs. But a entertaining team that will have some fresh faces. The over/under is 77.5. I wouldn’t touch it. I see them anywhere from 73-80 points.