On Thursday, NHL Training Camps opened up. That included the Devils and Rangers, who could be in similar situations entering the ’19-20 season. Both due to their offseason that included New Jersey adding Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban, Nikita Gusev and Wayne Simmonds while the Rangers added Kaapo Kakko, Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox.
While this blog is about the Hudson Rivalry, which should be reenergized, today’s post is on what the questions are for Rangers training camp. Having missed the playoffs the past two years, it’s a new era of Rangers hockey in the metropolitan area. One full of potential thanks to young prospects such as Kakko, Fox, Vitali Kravtsov, Igor Shesterkin and Yegor Rykov.
Throw in Panarin along with Trouba and the Blueshirts will have a different look both up front and on the back end. They invested nearly $20 million on two very good players they hope will be worth their contracts over the long haul. You don’t spend that type of money on the Bread Man unless you’re sure the dynamic Russian scoring left wing can significantly help an offense that lacked big talent. That shouldn’t be a problem with Panarin and super talented number two pick Kakko, who demonstrated his unique skill at Traverse City.
A four point effort in an overtime win on Monday that included a beautiful pass to set up Kravtsov for a goal, showed off why fans are so excited for Kakko. As fun as it will be to watch Panarin work his magic on a projected top line with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, the future of the franchise lies with Kakko. The kind of young draft pick the Rangers have failed to produce. He has a power forward big man’s game.
New Team President John Davidson and GM Jeff Gorton were able to get Brendan Lemieux re-signed for a year where he’ll earn $925,000. Only Tony DeAngelo remains unsigned. That situation could take a bit longer. Hopefully, the key right defenseman comes to his senses and settles to fit into the cap. He can get more money next summer.
With a roster that still features veterans Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, Chris Kreider and Jesper Fast, what are the realistic expectations for one of the league’s youngest teams? Obviously, the experienced players including Panarin, Zibanejad, Brady Skjei and Trouba must perform well. However, much hinges on the younger core that includes Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, Brett Howden, Kakko, Fox, Kravtsov, Libor Hajek, Rykov, Ryan Lindgren and key backup goalie Alexandar Georgiev.
So, what are the questions that face the Rangers as training camp continues with preseason on deck?
1.How will coach David Quinn handle the unique goalie situation between Lundqvist and Georgiev with possibly Shesterkin later on? At 37, Lundqvist isn’t getting any younger. Given how well Georgiev performed in the second half of his first year, Quinn could keep Henrik’s workload light. Unless Georgiev struggles, there’s no reason to overwork him.
2.Entering the final year of his contract with unrestricted free agency next summer, how will Kreider handle a season which could be his last on Broadway? Will he survive the year, or meet a similar fate to former teammates Derek Stepan, Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello? Nobody can predict how it will play out. For now, Kreider is expected to start on the second line with Kakko and hopefully Chytil centering it.
3.How much better can the defense be with the key addition of Trouba? Let’s face it. The right side for the Blueshirts has been a nightmare since they bought out Dan Girardi. Nothing worked. Kevin Shattenkirk was so disappointing that he was bought out. He’s now with Tampa in a much better situation. Trouba is young and strong. He can log the big minutes and really help out new partner Skjei, who struggled with consistency. I don’t want to put too much pressure on Fox. The D depends on Trouba, who’s being paid to be an elite level shutdown defenseman who can contribute offensively.
4.How long will Buchnevich last on the top line before Kakko replaces him? This isn’t a knock on Buchnevich, who made considerable strides under Quinn in the second half. It’s more about how good Kakko can be. If he can perform to expectation, it’ll probably make sense to move him up on a big line with Zibanejad and Panarin. Buchnevich has played with Kreider before and had chemistry. If he does get moved down, how will he react?
5.How much can the Bread Man improve the team at five-on-five? The past couple of years, the Rangers have struggled mightily at even strength. Constantly pinned in their end due to not having a strong puck possession roster, that can change. It’s not the power play where Panarin did most of his damage. It’s five-on-five. Of the 116 career goals he’s scored, 86 have come at even strength. He’ll also help the Blueshirts during three-on-three in overtime and shootouts. Those extra points could make a difference if they’re in playoff contention.
6.When can we see Kravtsov? The gifted Russian forward has undeniable skills that can accelerate the rebuild. While all the hoopla surrounds Panarin and Kakko, the 2018 first round pick looks like the real deal. He could play his way into the conversation. I expect him to start in Hartford. Then get the call. But it largely depends on the next two weeks.
7.How important are versatile forwards Vladislav Namestnikov, Ryan Strome and Fast? They don’t have the pizazz of Panarin, Kakko, or capability of Buchnevich and Kreider. However, the secondary veterans are solid players who can fill important roles. Namestnikov is a checking line type who can use his speed and tenacity to be effective on the forecheck and penalty kill. The do everything Fast is similar in how he will hustle to outwork opponents. Strome is versatile enough to fill in at center if needed. Quinn would prefer to play him on right wing. If he can bring the same level as last year, he’ll be an asset who could get moved. Frankly, with both Namestnikov and Fast in their final years, they also could be traded.
8.How much can Chytil, Howden and Andersson improve in Year Two? All three are former first round picks, who played their first pro seasons. Both Chytil and Howden got into more games than Andersson, who’s viewed more as a two-way center. He’ll need to take big step this year while both Chytil and Howden are expected to be more consistent. Quinn would prefer for Chytil to become the second center. A big responsibility. We’ll see how all three progress.
9.Is there any role for Brendan Smith? As much as a good soldier as he was, even playing forward on the fourth line, the veteran left defenseman seems to be the odd man out due to his contract. Paying an average of $4.35 million for both this season and next makes no sense. He’ll probably get shuttled back and forth from Hartford. It will depend on unproven kids like Hajek, Rykov and possibly Lindgren, who I like more than other fan blogs.
10.When do we see Shesterkin? Hopefully, not at all. That’s if things go well between the tandem of Lundqvist and Georgiev, who have a good relationship. Hank’s a team guy and leader. You root for him to come back and be better. Georgie has a great personality. Let Shesterkin develop and adjust to the North American rink. If he proves ready and there’s a need, fine. They don’t have to rush him. He should split duty with Adam Huska in Hartford.
That’s all for now. We’ll have more soon.