New look Rangers even younger headed into 2021 season

Expectations will be much higher for new starting goalie Igor Shestyorkin and a young, talented Rangers roster featuring top pick Alexis Lafreniere and former first round pick K’Andre Miller.

AP Photo by New York Rangers via Twitter Copyright 2021

This is indeed a new era for the New York Rangers. Youth will be served on Broadway. For better or worse, the new look Rangers are moving forward with even more young talent into a shortened 56-game NHL ’21 season.

The action will be fast and furious. All 56 will be played inside the newly created East Division. Well, really the old Patrick times two. You have mainstays such as the Capitals,Devils, Flyers, Islanders, Penguins and the Rangers competing against each other. Add in the Bruins and Sabres. That makes this division even tougher. With a more regional schedule featuring multiple match-ups versus the same opponent due to COVID-19 restrictions, it’ll make for compelling hockey. Hopefully, there won’t be too many cancelations like the NBA. The Stars have already been hit hard. They won’t start on time.

It gets going right away for the Blueshirts on Thursday night at what will be a hauntingly empty Madison Square Garden. They’ll battle the archenemy Islanders for the first of two meetings of eight. The second one is at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday in Long Island. It’ll be a good test for a younger 22 man roster that now features top pick Alexis Lafreniere and 20-year old defenseman K’Andre Miller. Both will make their NHL debuts.

If you think it’s only about winning with third-year coach David Quinn behind a bench that includes dynamic duo Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, then you are not thinking clearly. Sure. They’d love to win as much as possible due to the dynamic skills of Panarin and Zibanejad along with the leadership of power forward Chris Kreider.

However, it will hinge more on the development of kids like second-year right wing Kaapo Kakko and 21-year old third line center Filip Chytil. If they can become more consistent along with key top line right wing Pavel Buchnevich, then maybe they can surprise some by finishing in the top four to qualify for the playoffs.

It’s the younger core which features Igor Shestyorkin, Alex Georgiev, Tony DeAngelo, Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren who’ll determine what kind of year they have. Yes. I haven’t forgotten depth forwards Brett Howden or Brendan Lemieux, who if all goes well will comprise two-thirds of the fourth line. They’re counting on unproven right wing Julien Gauthier to start on the third line with Chytil and Lafreniere, who’ll be worked in slowly by Quinn. The 19-year old wiz kid from the Province of Quebec will see power play time on the second unit.

If you’re not excited for Lafreniere, who’ll wear number 13 and make it very lucky, then you may as well go watch the Edmonton defense or Chicago. This is the kind of young future star that this team hasn’t had. He’s a special talent who accomplished so much by winning MVP at the ’20 World Junior Championship for Canada with 10 points (4-6-10) in only five games, that he didn’t return to play this year. It wasn’t worth the risk for the Rangers. Look what happened to Kirby Dach in a tuneup. How unfortunate for the Blackhawks. They sure could use him.

It’s easy to light up thinking about what Panarin can do for an encore after putting up 95 points (32-63-95) in 63 games in his first season as a Blueshirt. The 29-year old Russian is a brilliant player who’s a puck wizard. He can skate into open space and find teammates or hit twine with his shot. He made Ryan Strome so much better. Strome is a key player to watch. Can he continue to produce alongside the Bread Man? They’ll have a new casting mate in Kakko, who looks to erase the nightmare that was his first year. He should get plenty of opportunities. Don’t forget he went second in ’19 behind Jack Hughes. Now, we’ll see how much work he put in.

Picture the KZB Line buzzing during a strong shift with the cohesive trio of Kreider, Zibanejad and Buchnevich combining for a signature goal. Consistency is the key for both Buchnevich and Kreider, who are slow starters. They don’t have that luxury this year. Not with four point and three point games up for grabs nightly. Zibanejad makes it go with his superb skating and ability to both finish and set up teammates. Kreider is one of the fastest skaters in transition. For his size, he can fly. He also brings the intangibles by going to the hard area in front where he makes his living. Buchnevich has the playmaking capability and works well with Zibanejad and Kreider. It’s about second effort with him.

If the top six works, then it becomes about the bottom six forwards. How Quinn handles the third and fourth lines will be important. Until proven otherwise, Chytil and Gauthier are not finished products. Lafreniere is the new kid on the block. He can push them to be better. Hopefully, it’ll work out so we don’t have to contemplate the Pierre-Luc Dubois to Manhattan rumors from an impatient faction of fans have already started. Not if I can help it. It’s hogwash. He’s a Blue Jacket for now. Let’s focus on our team.

The fourth line might not be asked to do a lot if those top three lines are going. But it’s still crucial to have a checking unit you trust. Especially without too many off days. Even with there not being many back-to-backs, they need to become a four line team. That way they’re harder to play against. Howden and Lemieux should be able to handle that role while also killing penalties. Phil Di Giuseppe will complement them at the start. They all got to play last year. There’s speed, smarts and grit. We’ll see how they do.

Former Devil Kevin Rooney is a solid extra who can step into the lineup and win draws while playing penalty kill. He’ll definitely see some action. Maybe Morgan Barron will too. For now, the former Cornell center is on the Rangers’ Taxi Squad. The 22-year old from Halifax is a former sixth round pick in ’17.

Jacob Trouba will lead a young defense that includes new freshman partner Miller. It’ll be trial by error. We’ll see how well Trouba works with the former Badger. Can it be any worse than former partner Brady Skjei or Brendan Smith? Don’t answer that. Smith is the extra defenseman for now. Let’s hope it stays that way.

In order for the Rangers to be successful, they need the cohesive tandem of Lindgren and Fox to prove they are fully capable of neutralizing the opposition. They’ll see plenty of time against opponents’ best scoring lines with Quinn balancing it out. He’ll give Trouba some of the responsibility. He might not have had the best first year after coming over from Winnipeg. But it wasn’t an ideal situation. Trouba improved towards the end by playing the hard edged style he’s known for.

Both Fox and DeAngelo will be the focal point of the team’s transition. Each are superb skaters who read the play well and know when to jump into the rush. They’re also terrific passers with DeAngelo dynamic in that department along with his accurate shot. Fox is the more reliable defensively, which is why he has a chance to be special. Just remember, it’s only Year Two.

Regarding DeAngelo, he deserves to be recognized for how much he improved last season. He also was a great teammate who is just as happy for everyone’s success. He along with Strome were two of the first Rangers to stick up for Miller during an unfortunate incident with a Zoom Conference interview that became sad. Along with Trouba, they supported their future black teammate during a tumultuous time for the organization.

It’s time to put to rest all the negative propaganda being spewed from fraudulent blogs, whose only purpose is self-serving and toxic. Those aren’t true fans. If you play for the Rangers, we all root for you. It’s the logo on the front. Nothing else matters. This shouldn’t have to be said.

For DeAngelo, he also will have higher expectations too. He plays first power play and will be utilized more offensively by the coaching staff which now includes Jacques Martin running the defense. He knows a thing or too about the position. That’s not a knock on current Devils coach Lindy Ruff, who became a ridiculous scapegoat by unrealistic skeptics. We’ll see how Martin deploys the third pair of veteran Jack Johnson and DeAngelo.

Johnson is the replacement for popular locker room leader Marc Staal. Good luck to him in Detroit. He’s going to need it. We understand that Johnson has limitations with his skating due to the physical style he’s played. He’s another high character guy who will give his all every shift. Just as long as he doesn’t get caught out too long in his end. But he’ll deliver hits and block shots. Things the team will appreciate. We’ll see how it goes.

If the blueline is a problem, they’ll need Shestyorkin and Georgiev to save them literally. By now, we all have come to grips with the expected departure of the ever popular Henrik Lundqvist. It’s still shocking that he’s not playing this season. He had successful heart surgery. All we can do is send our best wishes to him and hope that second game against Carolina wasn’t the final one of his great NHL career. Let’s hope for the best.

With Lundqvist gone, it’s Shestyorkin’s net with Georgiev a good supporting act. Their time is now. It’ll be the 25-year old Shestyorkin who’ll be the number one goalie responsible for how the season goes. We might even get a treat and see an all Russian netminder Battle of New York between KHL stars Shestyorkin and newest Islanders goalie Ilya Sorokin. He’s expected to backup behind Semyon Varlamov.

It’s easy to forget that Shestyorkin has only 12 NHL regular season games of experience and one forgettable qualifying game which could’ve made for a good EA Sports NHL ’21 poster if you are a fan of Hurricanes star center Sebastian Aho. Shestyorkin has excellent rebound control and a quick glove. He also is like a third defenseman in that he can move the puck up ice. A huge contrast from Lundqvist. It’s up to him to live up to expectations.

Georgiev is actually the younger goalie. He doesn’t turn 25 until February 10. However, this is his third full season. No longer a third wheel, he’s the backup to Shestyorkin who Quinn will count on. An aggressive netminder who’s good on breakaways and has a good glove, he’s technically sound. If Shestyorkin struggles, they won’t hesitate to go to Georgiev.

If they are to be successful, the Rangers don’t want to make it a habit of relying on each goalie to bail them out. If they’re both seeing over 30 shots with regularity and even 40 plus, that doesn’t bode well. It’s one thing for Shestyorkin and Georgiev to cover up mistakes during a tough stretch. Quite another if it becomes a trend.

The truth is it’s going to be crucial for these Rangers to spend more time in the opposition’s end than defending their own. That means a sustained forecheck, fewer neutral zone turnovers and less mistakes when they defend. They’re notorious for having issues clearing the zone. That can’t happen. The breakouts need to be better and both the D and forwards must be on the same page.

This isn’t as easy a year for Quinn. While the division is quite challenging with the Bruins added to good teams in the Caps, Flyers, Islanders and Pens, who looked quite susceptible in their first game versus Philadelphia Wednesday night, it won’t be a picnic. It’s up to Quinn to deliver results. Before last year’s stoppage, the Rangers were streaking. They were in playoff contention.

It’s about building off last season. The whole thing is not to dig themselves an early hole. It won’t be as easy to climb out of. Every game counts. It isn’t 82. It’s the same 56 as Joe DiMaggio’s baseball record hitting streak. It’ll take a total team effort to make the playoffs with only the top four qualifying due to the old divisional format. That means having enough success in these eight game match-ups versus old rivals and the Sabres. A team that should be a rival given the location. Or did you forget Game Five in ’07? I haven’t.

Whatever happens, it should be fun to have hockey back. We’ve missed it. There’s a unique opportunity here for the Rangers to do something. It won’t be easy. But the excitement surrounding this year’s team is palpable. Buckle up.

Prediction: 6th place in Patrick Division

No record or points. It’s too hard. I think they’ll be competitive and might even go to the final frantic week with the Islanders and Penguins. Let’s hope they prove me wrong.

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 Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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