The excitement is palpable over Opening Night this Thursday on Broadway. A new era of Rangers hockey will finally be upon us when the Winnipeg Jets visit MSG.
They’ll roll out the blue carpet for prize second pick Kaapo Kakko, star free agent addition Artemi Panarin, and former Jet Jacob Trouba. For once, it won’t be all about Henrik Lundqvist, who always looks like a GQ model instead of the franchise’s record holder in several goaltender categories.
This time, it’s bigger than the brand new ’19-20 season that officially begins on Wednesday with the usual allotment of four games. It’s about both the present and future for the new look New York Rangers. Similar to close Hudson rival New Jersey, who boast top pick Jack Hughes, added P.K. Subban along with KHL import Nikita Gusev, the Rangers are looking to challenge for the playoffs. Whether or not it’s realistic remains to be seen.
Let’s forget about the division they play in. Everyone knows the Metro should be very competitive from top to bottom. Even the projected best teams aren’t going to blow anyone away. It should be competitive and hard fought.
What’s most important for the new Blueshirts is the continued development of a mostly young core that still includes Lundqvist, Marc Staal, Chris Kreider, Jesper Fast, Mika Zibanejad and Brady Skjei. They all were around the last time the team was in the postseason. All seven will be looked upon as team leaders along with key additions Panarin and Trouba, who both understand what it’s all about.
It’s understandable why youngsters Filip Chytil and Vitali Kravtsov aren’t on the roster. Neither was going to play in the top six and probably wouldn’t have gotten ideal ice time that includes what should be an improved power play. Throw out the preseason that meant very little. Once you add Panarin and Trouba to a top unit that also features Zibanejad, Kreider and Kakko, it has big time potential to do damage.
Don’t forget they can have either rookie Adam Fox or a surprisingly sharp Tony DeAngelo man the points on a second unit with possibly Skjei that should include Ryan Strome, Pavel Buchnevich and either Vladislav Namestnikov or Brendan Lemieux. So, opponents will get two different looks. Eventually, expect Kravtsov or Chytil to be added once they earn a recall. Given the way the schedule is, it won’t be right away.
As breathtaking as the Bread Man will be to watch work with Zibanejad and key right wing Buchnevich, who must build on a strong finish, all eyes will be glued on number 24, Kaapo Kakko. The 18-year old out of Turko, Finland has the tools to become a power forward capable of scoring a lot of goals. He is a powerful skater with tremendous hockey sense and good hands around the net. This is the kind of player Garden Faithful have been waiting for.
If it doesn’t happen right away, fans must remain patient. It’s quite an adjustment going from European style rinks to the smaller and more challenging North American game. You can’t rush the development or success of a player that’s still only 18. That’s why it’ll be interesting to see how second-year coach David Quinn manages Kakko throughout a much longer season than he’s used to. Having Kreider to lean on should help.
Quinn learned on the job last year. Former first round pick Lias Andersson wasn’t fully ready for the NHL. He was mishandled by the organization. However, he worked extremely hard on his conditioning and diet in the offseason. Now 20, the seventh pick in the 2017 NHL Draft looks ready to contribute. He earned the third line center job with a strong camp. It should be fun to follow the Swede’s progress.
That’s what we mean by patience. How interesting will it be to watch rookie third pair Libor Hajek and Fox develop? There might be some bumps and bruises. That’s expected. Both are just 21 with five games of NHL experience. That would be Hajek’s initiation last Spring. Fox has the skating and skill to become a fixture in the top four and on the power play. He’s looked poised so far. The regular season is a different animal. We’ll see how it goes.
That’s probably why forgotten man Brendan Smith is the seventh defenseman, who can also double as a fourth line forward if needed. Actually, he too was part of the last Rangers postseason in 2017. So, that makes it eight experienced leftovers from the end of the Alain Vigneault era. He’s currently coaching the rival Flyers where former Blueshirt Kevin Hayes now centers the second line. It’s gonna be strange.
Having a mix of vets with younger players is all about balance. Buchnevich is still considered one of those promising forwards, who still must improve. He learned a lot under Quinn last season. The demanding coach pushed the 24-year old Russian to become a better overall player. He was a healthy scratch a few times due to inconsistency. He too was on that ’16-17 playoff roster. So, it’s really nine players that survived. But he’s younger and not yet a finished product.
By the end of ’18-19, Buchnevich had become a different player. He set a new career high with 21 goals and did a better job taking the body. He has a golden opportunity to produce even more while getting the first chance on the top line with Zibanejad and Panarin. They had some early chemistry when put together in preseason. We’ll see if it translates.
Adding veterans like Greg McKegg and even Micheal Haley should only help keep this team with enough edge necessary when things get nasty. In particular, McKegg proved he could play during the Hurricanes’ run to the Conference Finals. He was a part timer, who always added energy in a supporting role.
That’s why I thought the signing was underrated. He can play fourth line, take draws, and kill penalties. He hustles to win loose pucks and is fundamentally sound. Haley is the 13th forward that can step in if Quinn wants that physical element. He doesn’t back down.
The third line should be your classic two-way, hard working types in Andersson with Namestnikov and agitator Lemieux. A player who will never pass up an opportunity to finish a check. He also loves getting his jersey dirty in front and creates a distraction for opponents. Look how much attention the Isles paid to him on Saturday. Cal Clutterbuck gave him a chop and Matt Martin cross-checked him post scrum. That’s who Lemieux is. He also has a bit of skill as his 12 goals showed last year with Winnipeg and New York. He must remember to stay away from undisciplined penalties.
The fourth line will be centered by forgotten sophomore Brett Howden, who was beaten out by Andersson for a top nine spot. A heady player with solid passing skills and an effective penalty killer, he will work with Fast and McKegg on a checking line. We know what Fast brings. The grit and heart fans appreciate. It could be an effective trio.
It’s all about the top pair of Skjei and Trouba. If the defense is to work, the close USA friends must take on the tough assignments at five-on-five while logging important minutes on the penslty kill and power play. Trouba is the difference maker on the right side this team hasn’t had since Dan Girardi in his prime. However, Trouba is a much better skater with a big shot. He’s certainly capable of the kind of offense we haven’t seen from the right side in quite a while. Plus he’s physical and tough. I’m hoping having Trouba will influence Skjei, who must become more consistent overall. He looked better by the end of camp. A encouraging sign.
For now, Staal and DeAngelo remain as the second pair. They formed solid chemistry last year. Staal is the slower, stay at home type who plays the man hard. DeAngelo is the much better skater, who can carry the puck out of harm’s way and transition quickly. He will see some time on the power play due to his low, accurate shot. He also doesn’t take any crap. He turned his season around after a lot of time in the press box. Maybe even his career.
The wildcard is Hajek, who has the skating they prefer. That’s why he made it over Ryan Lindgren, who we will see sooner rather than later. Trust me on that one. Fox looks as good as advertised. It’s hard to believe he’s on his third organization due to not signing with Calgary and then Carolina, who traded him to the hometown Blueshirts where he wanted to play. He’s from Jericho, New York. I’m excited to see what he can bring.
Goaltending shouldn’t be an issue. Lundqvist looked sharp throughout preseason, getting stronger as it went on. At 37, his desire to get back to what he once was is unquestioned. He also wants to see the rebuild through and get back to the playoffs. It’s all about how he’s managed. He doesn’t have to play a hectic schedule anymore due to Alexandar Georgiev.
They can be an effective tandem who push each other. There’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition. If the exhibition season was any early indication, they’ll have to be steady for this team to stay in the playoff race. That should include bubble teams such as the Devils, Flyers, Islanders, Panthers, Canadiens and maybe even the Sabres. I’m not even sure the Penguins are a lock. Don’t discount the Blue Jackets either.
Usually, I make a prediction in these previews. However, I honestly don’t know what to expect. I’ll say this. The team will be exciting. You’re going to see some flashes of brilliance from Panarin and Kakko. Zibanejad will be a huge key to any success. He is now the man they look to as the flexible top center, who is a power play weapon and good penalty killer. The center depth and young D could have some growing pains.
For that reason, I believe they’ll be competitive. But fall short of the postseason. If I had to guess on a number, I’ll say 85 points. It might be higher if the Bread Man and Kakko click. Especially in three-on-three overtime and shootouts.
It’s not about this season. It’s about what’s coming in the next decade. They’re on the right track.