Rangers Season Preview: Playoffs or Bust for more balanced roster


Tonight is the beginning of the next chapter of Rangers hockey. Under new leadership with proven coach Gerard Gallant behind the bench and Team President and GM Chris Drury presiding over a more balanced roster, it’s playoffs or bust for the 2021-22 Blueshirts.

The talk is over. Now, it’s time for this 23-man roster they’re going with for now to back up their words. Actions speak louder than words. Gallant emphasizes an aggressive forechecking system that will include finishing checks and standing up for one another. With key additions to help toughen up the roster, these Rangers won’t back down. It’s what makes the super hyped season opener against Tom Wilson and the Caps on TNT so intriguing. What will happen? Will it distract from getting the all important result? It’s two points that’s most important.

For the most part, training camp and preseason went smoothly. Both Ryan Reaves and Ryan Strome avoided serious injuries. Unfortunately, the news that came down surrounding former first round pick Vitali Kravtsov is an unnecessary distraction for now. We’ll see how the organization handles an uncomfortable situation. One both sides are at fault for. The quicker they move forward, the better off everyone will be. It can’t turn into a long soap opera. What’s done is done. Kravtsov will likely be moving on. A disappointing result that could weaken the roster. However, it is more balanced. Let’s take a look at why.

FORWARDS

With Mika Zibanejad signed, that’s one less headache to worry about. Now, the top center can go about his business by helping lead the team on the ice. He said the playoffs are the focus. It’s a place they haven’t truly been since 2017. Both Zibanejad and Chris Kreider are the lone holdovers from that excruciating second round series loss to the Senators. They make up two-thirds of the first line which includes second-year left wing Alexis Lafreniere. With a year under his belt, the 2020 top pick is a key player to watch. Can he make an impact with Kreider shifting to the right side for now? He just turned 20. Lafreniere is a mature kid who has tremendous skill. We’ll see if he can continue to build off the final month of last season.

Kaapo Kakko is the key to the second line, or line one A. Looking leaner and faster, he had a good preseason. In his third year, the ’19 second pick is poised for a breakout year. Playing with Strome and superstar Artemi Panarin, who won’t have the preposterous false accusation he faced last year, Kakko has a chance to have a big season. He will get power play time and penalty kill under Gallant, who isn’t afraid to trust some of his young players. Speaking of young players, Filip Chytil is another important player for this team to succeed. Entering his fourth year, he is fresh off a hat trick in a warmup against the Islanders. It’s all about consistency for the third line pivot, who for now will be joined by proven winner Barclay Goodrow and Julien Gauthier. They’ll hope the bursts Gauthier shows will start to have results. Especially without Kravtsov.

Adding Sammy Blais, who also won a Cup in St. Louis, looks like a wise move. It was tough to subtract Pavel Buchnevich. But Drury was thinking long-term about the cost of extending Zibanejad and Adam Fox. The latter who will get a big contract soon. If Blais continues to bring the well rounded physical game like he did with the Blues, he’ll be a fan favorite. Don’t forget they also got a second round pick back. The active Blais hits hard. He could see power play time due to his willingness to drive the net. He’ll start with Kevin Rooney and popular former Golden Knight Ryan Reaves on the fourth line. This is a significant improvement from last year. It’s the kind of edgy line that will forecheck, bang and bring the energy that was often missing. Opponents notice Reaves when he’s out there. Dryden Hunt is the extra forward. He will get the nod on the third line for the Caps. He looks like a solid depth player who plays an honest game. Was keeping him and Libor Hajek worth the Kravtsov headache? Time will tell.

DEFENSEMEN

Adam Fox is the headliner of a blue line that will have a different look to it. Gone are Tony DeAngelo, Brendan Smith and pretty soon Hajek, who for some odd reason was kept on the roster because he’s waiver exempt. Whatever the case maybe, the top four remains intact. That means Ryan Lindgren teaming up with the rating Norris winner Fox, who looks to have an even better year. What can he do for an encore over a full 82? Gallant will try to manage his minutes more by leaning on K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba. Miller looked better in camp while Trouba had some issues. Hopefully, they get ironed out as he’s a key player at even strength and on the penalty kill. By adding Patrik Nemeth, who isn’t going to do anything crazy, he’ll be the guide for rookie Nils Lundkvist to lean on. The first round pick has the skating and offensive instincts to contribute. He’ll get second power play duty. The only question is how he’ll handle the workload in his end. He’s not a big guy. For now, the Rangers will carry eight defensemen with Jarred Tinordi the key extra who gets the call tonight over Lundkvist with Wilson in his sights. Keep an eye on Zac Jones, who begins in Hartford. The question is for how long.

GOALIES

The goalie portion is all about Igor Shesterkin. He’s the man. Interestingly, Henrik Lundqvist will get to take in some of his games. The former Ranger who’ll have his number retired, was hired by MSG Network as an intermission guest analyst for 20 games. That should be interesting to watch. With Shesterkin under a new contract that pays him well, he must be consistent and avoid the injury bug that’s plagued the early part of his career. Shesterkin is capable of having a good season. The Rangers are depending on him. Alex Georgiev is the backup. He wasn’t pleased with last season. Between the scuffle with DeAngelo following a miscommunication that cost the team a point, and some inconsistent play, he knows he must be better. The good thing is he and Shesterkin are the same age and can push each other. In today’s NHL, you need both goalies to be successful. This position must perform up to expectations to make the playoffs in a tough division.

COACHING

Gerard Gallant is a good hire. I won’t use the word great because I don’t want to do that. He’s a much more experienced bench boss than David Quinn, who at times treated the Rangers like a college team. That doesn’t work. Players are happy with Gallant so far. He’s very honest and has a dry sense of humor that will keep things loose. Having had amazing success in Vegas where his pupil Reaves was an integral part of the Golden Knights reaching a Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural year, Gallant won’t be afraid to push buttons. He also doesn’t seem shy about giving some young guys different roles. I like using Kakko on the penalty kill. Ditto for Blais, who is very active and good at takeaways. He also won’t be as up front with the media about some of his decisions for games. I like that. Too often, the people who cover the team try to interject themselves and play fantasy coach or GM. The buck stops with Turk.

PREDICTION

In a competitive Metropolitan Division that returns the contending Rangers South, the Hurricanes along with the Islanders, Capitals, Penguins and what should be the improved Flyers and Devils, the Rangers must take care of business in the key rivalry games. That means doing better versus the Islanders and breaking even against the Canes. There aren’t as many divisional games as there should be. But the four point and three point games matter. Especially over a full season. They must take advantage of the weaker competition and bank two points. In my mind, they can finish anywhere from third to sixth. It’ll depend on how well they handle the schedule. To be on the safe side, I have them fourth sneaking in as a wildcard.

New York Rangers 4th, Metro 94 Points

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