With Gerard Gallant Official, changes are coming for Blueshirts

Two days ago, Gerard Gallant was finally introduced as the new coach of the Rangers. The former bench boss of the Golden Knights becomes the 36th coach in franchise history.

He is a good man who deserves this unique opportunity to guide a talented roster back to the playoffs. He had some interesting things to say during the Zoom Conference with Team President and GM Chris Drury.

In regards to what he wants, Gallant was very direct and pointed in his remarks. Emphasizing a team concept, his goal is to turn the Blueshirts into a successful unit that will all be a part of it moving forward. He didn’t just highlight the top players. But rather everyone. From 1 through 23, the no nonsense 57-year old coach expects his new team to become a true T-E-A-M. Something I agree on.

I want them to be the hardest working team in the league.“-Gerard Gallant on the New York Rangers, June 22, 2021 during introductory press conference.

That right there is what must happen. In order to be successful in this league, you need every player to buy in. It doesn’t matter who it is. From the stars to the role players. It should be the same. Look no further than the Islanders, who are still alive after surviving Game Six to force a deciding Game Seven against the Lightning tomorrow night. They’re a game away from reaching the Stanley Cup Final due to that same approach under Barry Trotz. It’s where the Rangers must get to. Earn respect.

For the new Rangers’ head man, he certainly is excited to get to work. Why not. There’s good talent on the roster to work with. As he highlighted, Gallant is hoping to take the next step. Or to phrase it the way he did. Hopefully, a big step. There’s little doubt that he’s coming in with higher expectations.

One thing we know is that part of the roster will change. Especially due to the upcoming Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft. It’ll be interesting to see who stays and who goes from a Rangers perspective. I’m not going to get into the likely candidates in this post. We already know who they are. With the Kraken naming former Flyers bench boss Dave Hakstol as their first coach to negate the rumors of David Quinn to Seattle, the NHL’s newest franchise will be one to follow over the summer. Just imagine if they had picked Quinn. That would’ve been ironic.

Gallant talked about the aggressive style he likes to play. Something that was on display in Vegas when he took a bunch of misfits to a Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season. It was impressive. It’s worth noting that even after Peter DeBoer replaced him a year and a half ago, the Misfits Line of William Karlsson, Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault have stayed intact. Gallant knew Panthers’ duo Smith and Marchessault from coaching them in ’16-17 before getting unceremoniously dismissed. That never made sense. It’s interesting how Florida asked Vegas to take both former Panthers. Gallant knew who they were and look how it turned out.

He also proved he could develop young talent in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad. Something that should excite Ranger fans when it comes to a deep crop that includes Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, K’Andre Miller, Zac Jones, Vitali Kravtsov and veterans Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren. That could also feature Swedish import Nils Lundkvist, who’ll be competing with Jones for a spot on the blue line. Even Igor Shesterkin is only entering his second full season. There’s considerable young talent to work with alongside Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Ryan Strome and key RFA Pavel Buchnevich.

When it comes to the kids, Gallant was pretty pointed in his remarks. He believes in playing them. They’re going to make mistakes. It’s how quickly they learn from them that’ll determine the true growth each young player. With Gallant, he would like to turn his new roster into complete 200 foot players. That means no shortcuts. It also would result in a harder team for opponents to play against.

For a team that wasn’t as hard to play against, there will need to be some adjustments. Especially with Gallant and Drury on the same page. Drury addressed how much he’s noticed the amount of physicality in the postseason. That’s a key area the Rangers must get better at. He also emphasized naming a new captain. They haven’t had one since Ryan McDonagh was dealt to Tampa after The Letter. That same hard-nosed defenseman who’s been a very dependable player for the Lightning defensively. The Rangers have yet to benefit from the trade that didn’t help former GM Jeff Gorton keep his job.

There’s no question that it’s time for the franchise to name a captain. Both McDonagh and now retired current NHL Network analyst Ryan Callahan were good leaders. There was excellent leadership in the locker room and on the ice from those successful Blueshirts’ teams that made deep runs in ’12, ’14 and ’15. You had nuts and bolts glue guys like Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, who were instrumental when the Rangers seriously competed for a Stanley Cup. If you look back to the past season, they definitely missed Staal in the room. Brendan Smith provided a lot of leadership. He’s an unrestricted free agent. I would consider bringing him back if he can accept a part-time role. There will also be other physical defensive defensemen available who can aid the defense.

As for who should get the captaincy, that remains to be seen. While many detractors are against Kreider due to his streaky scoring, choosing a captain isn’t about it being your best player. Kreider has been here the longest. He’s been front and center as a key Ranger the media went to for answers the past few years. This is a valuable power forward who provides the net front presence that nobody else does. He has always had good answers following tough losses. He’s definitely one of the locker room leaders along with Jacob Trouba and Zibanejad. The latter might not be the best choice due to his contract status. He will enter the last year of his deal and can become unrestricted next summer. Strome is also a good quote before and after games. But he’ll be in the same situation as Zibanejad.

There’s been a huge push for Fox to become captain. While there’s no doubting the importance of the most valuable Blueshirt with a Norris likely following an outstanding second season, it might be a bit premature to put a ‘C’ on his jersey. At 23, Fox is a superb defenseman whose best years are ahead. However, he’s only been in the league two years. Why put that extra pressure on him? He definitely became more of a vocal leader following games in the second half when he made his push for the league’s best defenseman. Fox is up against Victor Hedman and Cale Makar for the prestigious award. If he gets it, it’ll be well deserved.

Another player fans have taken to is the hard hitting Lindgren. Why not. He plays that in your face defensive style while getting underneath the skin of opponents. I like the way he plays. If he can agitate Brad Marchand, who’s a top star, that says a lot about Lindgren’s character. However, similar to Fox, he’s only been around for two full years. If it were up to me, I can see giving an ‘A’ to either Fox or Lindgren. They both should be Rangers a long time. The more pressing concern is Drury getting Fox signed to an extension. The sooner, the better. Don’t wait until next summer when the price will go up. Get it done.

Who ever Gallant and his coaching staff select, that is what matters. Not who we the fans want. I’ve already seen too many debates about who it should be. I’m for a proven veteran like Kreider or Trouba. A few years from now, who knows. Maybe it’s Lafreniere who grows into that role. That’s why I wouldn’t make a rush to judgment and put that extra weight on a Fox or Lindgren. Lafreniere has a chance to be special. What we saw in the final month was the growth and maturity of a special player who began to show why he went first overall. Look also at where he gets his goals from. It’s a similar quality to Sidney Crosby. In no way am I comparing the two. I’m only pointing out that Lafreniere has a willingness to go to the dirty areas and score goals. He also has remarkable vision as we saw in a few games at the end. The talent and intangibles are there when you watch him play and when he talks.

The interesting part of bringing in Gallant and hearing Drury discuss how hotly contested these playoffs have been is an awareness of what they lack on the current roster. From the number one line to the fourth line, they must become a much harder team to play against. That’s a good indicator that you could see a few players go and some new additions via free agency and possibly a trade. It isn’t only about winning those key board battles. But doing better on face-offs. It all translated to becoming a tougher team.

It can’t be only a few guys. It has to be everyone. Seeing how hard even a Mat Barzal is willing to battle should be an eye opener. He could’ve been suspended for his vicious crosscheck on Jan Rutta. He was fined $5000 instead and played a huge role in the Islanders’ comeback win last night. Without him, they would be booking tee times. This isn’t a suggestion that Panarin should get involved in that stuff. We saw what happened to him against the nutty Tom Wilson. But certainly a Zibanejad is big enough to mix it up. Meaning don’t back down when things intensify. We know Strome and Buchnevich will get involved. There can’t be any passengers.

Building a winner is tough. It was never going to be easy. That much we are aware. While the Rangers were close the last two seasons, they ultimately fell short due to that lack of grit. I would love to see Kevin Rooney back in a fourth line supporting role. He was an effective player who excelled on the penalty kill. But that’s not my call. Maybe it falls on Morgan Barron or another available veteran like current Bolts’ center Barclay Goodrow. There will be plenty of options available.

Blake Coleman was a key part of Tampa winning the Cup last year. Let’s just say that overtime shift that led to Anthony Beauvillier scoring wasn’t his most memorable. But he’s an effective player, who normally doesn’t make such mistakes and plays on the edge. So does key supporting Hab Joel Armia. Montreal wouldn’t have a chance to reach their first Stanley Cup Final without his contributions. We’ll see if they can wrap it up against the Golden Knights at Bell Centre later tonight.

The bottom line is every good team needs those key role players, who can check effectively and contribute. It isn’t only about skill, but about will. How far are they willing to go to win games. That’s what these big games are all about. Just getting there will be a challenge for the Blueshirts. Changing the mindset is a good start.

There should be plenty of excitement surrounding the Rangers. The off-season is almost here. There will be many important decisions coming up for Drury and Gallant. That’ll include Gallant picking his coaching staff. He’s hoping it will take two weeks. But it could take longer. The assistants are just as crucial. That means having the right mindset to execute the system Gallant wants to play. It pertains to who handles the defense pairs, who handles the power play and penalty kill. It also means not getting destroyed on face-offs. Especially in the defensive zone. Maybe hiring a face-off specialist might help. Brian Boyle? You know how I feel about the former key member of the ’13-14 Rangers. He still wants to play. Is it realistic?

Whatever happens, it is a good time to root for this team. The present is now going to be more emphasized when it comes to the future of this club. That’s a good thing.

Sorry for the delay. I needed some time to gather my thoughts. I’ve been a bit preoccupied with the Islanders and Lightning. Let’s hope the Scott Mayfield cheap shot on Nikita Kucherov doesn’t cost the Bolts tomorrow night. If it does, God help us.

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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