The word realistic is something that most Blueshirt fans don’t go by. Of course, there’s a lot of enthusiasm based on an exciting off-season.
Why shouldn’t we be excited? I’m not going to be a Debbie downer here. I’m looking forward to training camp, preseason and of course October 3 at home versus the Winnipeg Jets 49 days away. We all are.
The hot summer has been long and feels even longer for some reason. When your team doesn’t make the playoffs for a second straight year, that means no hockey for six months. Yikes. Sure. I still watched most of the postseason even though it frustrated me. Damn idiotic rule changes leading to controversial rulings. Plus the Blues winning the Cup over the Bruins didn’t really excite me. As nice as it was for St. Louis, eh.
I don’t care. It’s better than a Boston team winning again. The summer has been nice from that standpoint. With the Yankees emphatically sweeping all four games a couple of weeks ago, the Red Sox look cooked like a good summer barbecue. It’s all about October in the Bronx. There could even be meaningful baseball in Queens given the weak state of the wildcard in the Senior Circuit.
Alright. Enough baseball talk. This is a hockey blog covering the Hudson Rivalry. Today, it’s the Rangers side as September draws nearer. What follows will be rookie prospect tournaments, camp and competition for roster spots with exhibition games.
So, what should we expect? We are still waiting on Tony DeAngelo to re-sign and for the Rangers and Brendan Lemieux to reach agreement. If they come cheap, they’ll be able to fit everyone in.
That includes much discussed Chris Kreider. The power forward has a year left on his contract before he can test free agency next July. Team President John Davidson recently commented that he expected Kreider to be in camp. A positive development. Who knows if he’s in their long-term plans?
If they start the season with Kreider behind Artemi Panarin at left wing, that’s encouraging. Especially when the right side will feature Kaapo Kakko and Pavel Buchnevich in the top six. At least, that’s how I am projecting them. I’m not gonna get into lines yet. It’s too early.
We still don’t know who will become the second line center. There’ll be an interesting competition with Filip Chytil and Ryan Strome likely to battle it out. As versatile as he is, I’d prefer Strome on right wing if he isn’t traded.
Most pundits are writing off Lias Andersson. Believing the 2017 first round pick will be part of a numbers game, it’s almost like they’ve already decided that the 20-year old pivot is a bust. It’s way too early for that. Not long ago, DeAngelo looked like a bust before rebounding under coach David Quinn to become a regular on the back end. Now, that trade of Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta doesn’t look so bad. Let’s see what Andersson shows us next month. Rangers brass will decide what’s best for him. Not impatient fans.
Center is crowded. After top pivot Mika Zibanejad, you have Chytil, Strome, Andersson, Brett Howden and Boo Nieves all capable of playing there. If you slide Strome to right wing, then it’s four young players competing for three starting slots. Besides, Jesper Fast isn’t a top nine forward. He’s best suited for the fourth line with Lemieux and whoever centers it.
Left wing still includes Vladislav Namestnikov. He of the immovable $4 million salary that expires in 2020. Truth be told, Namestnikov became a consistent checking forward under Quinn, who used him at even strength, the power play and penalty kill. With an increase of talent coming in, Namestnikov won’t have to play power play.
The interesting dynamic at right wing is what happens if 2018 top pick Vitali Kravtsov is ready. You can’t play him on the fourth line. That would be a total waste. They don’t want to make the same mistake they did with Andersson. Kravtsov has superb skill and a good ceiling as a scoring forward. The key is not to rush him. If he proves he’s ready, fine. It’s a good problem to have.
The defense should improve thanks to key addition Jacob Trouba. Arguably a Top 25 defenseman due to his combination of skating, physicality and offensive capability, he should really help out Brady Skjei on the projected top pair. Don’t expect 50 points. This isn’t Winnipeg. That’s what I mean by realistic.
I don’t want to put too much weight of expectations on rookie Adam Fox. We need to see it first in camp. He definitely has the potential to become a top four offensive defenseman who can play power play. The key word being potential. Remember Matt Gilroy? I know. Don’t compare them. I’m not. I just don’t want to be overly enthusiastic yet.
If the right side is expected to be Trouba, DeAngelo and Fox, the left side remains spotty. After Skjei is veteran leader Marc Staal, who knows how to play the position despite the criticism. He primarily is used five-on-five and on the penalty kill. His minutes can be managed. When the analytics crowd point to his low Corsi, don’t forget his starts. He’s used mostly in the defensive zone. Trouba and Skjei should be counted on more for that. But Staal isn’t going to have his usage increase offensively. It doesn’t make sense. Having a good skating partner in DeAngelo or possibly Fox should help.
Third pair remains a question mark. Assuming it’s Libor Hajek’s to lose, he only has five games of NHL experience. Ryan Lindgren also has five. Yegor Rykov has none with him coming over from Russia. Veteran Brendan Smith is a solid veteran with needed experience if necessary. Nothing wrong with that. They can either keep him up or shuttle him back and forth from Hartford. Don’t forget the kids can be sent down.
I expect the defense to be an area that doesn’t get off to a good start. It could improve as the season goes on. There will be a learning curve. That’s what Kevin Shattenkirk leaves behind. I’m sure he’s extremely happy to be in Tampa. You know he’ll get on the score sheet against the Rangers in one of the three games. It always happens.
As for goalie, it’s status quo for now. Henrik Lundqvist is the starter with Alexandar Georgiev expected to back up. Unless top goalie prospect Igor Shesterkin blows the coaching staff away, he’ll likely start in Hartford. How things play out remains to be seen.
The undeniable fact is at 37, Lundqvist isn’t what he once was. That’s not a criticism. It’s based on recent performance. In order to change the perception, he’ll need to get off to a good start and sustain it. That means consistency. Something that’s been an issue. He can be managed due to Georgiev, who proved to be a good second option in his rookie year. Now, Georgie must show he can do it again. Especially with Shesterkin lurking.
A lot can change in the next two years at the goalie position. Keep a watchful eye on the situation.
Expectations are up due to adding skill types in Panarin and second overall pick Kakko, who projects as a franchise player. The offense should be more fun to watch. Especially if the Bread Man rips it up as he did in Chicago and Columbus. Zibanejad to Panarin should be riveting. The power play could be intriguing. But it’s worth nothing most of the Bread Man’s production has come at even strength. A good thing for a team that’s struggled at five-on-five.
If Kreider is back, you have two scoring lines that should create more balance. Quinn can try both Kakko and Buchnevich on the top line and see what the better combination is. Don’t forget Kreider had instant chemistry with Zibanejad. But he has proven he can play with other centers. Buchnevich hasn’t.
Depending on the maturation of young players like Chytil, Howden and Andersson, that will go a long way to where the Rangers wind up. Especially in a competitive Metro Division where the Flyers and Devils have improved. Only the Blue Jackets look like they could be worse due to the departures of Panarin, Sergei Bobrovsky (Fla), Matt Duchene (Nsh) and Ryan Dzingel (Car).
I won’t get into point total yet. Let’s wait and see where we are in a month. There are still big restricted free agents that remain unsigned. The only thing I’ll conclude is that the Blueshirts should top 80 points. Where they finish I’m still uncertain.
After tonight, 48 days will remain until the home opener. Business is about to pick up!