Season Preview: Rangers counting on growth from kids to go a step further

Entering last year, the expectations were realistic for the Rangers. Their goal was to get back to the playoffs. Instead, they took a quantum leap led by their goalie all the way to the Conference Finals.

They overachieved in ’21-22. Without taking advantage of second and third string goalies in the first two rounds, who knows what happens. If that sounds like glass half full, it’s because they definitely benefited. It doesn’t take away from what they accomplished.

They were a resilient and together team that went as far as they could go before falling short to the battle tested Lightning. It was a tough series loss after leading two games to none. Now, the focus is on getting back and going a step further. If they can, they’ll play for the Stanley Cup.

Before dissecting what will ultimately determine how the ’22-23 Rangers fare, let’s look at the key pieces who departed and who is in to try to offset those losses.

Key Losses: C Ryan Strome, F Andrew Copp,  RW Frank Vatrano, LW Tyler Motte, C Kevin Rooney, D Justin Braun, D Patrik Nemeth, D Nils Lundkvist, D Jarred Tinordi, Alex Georgiev

Key Additions: C Vincent Trocheck, RW Vitaly Kravtsov, F Jimmy Vesey, F Ryan Carpenter, D Zac Jones, G Jaro Halak

Of the players who are gone due to the cap crunch, the Rangers could miss Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano and Tyler Motte the most. All three forwards were superb after Team President and GM Chris Drury acquired them for the playoff push. Without Copp and Vatrano especially, they don’t get far. Their timely scoring proved critical along with Motte’s checking.

Ryan Strome was a key player who sure fit in well with Artemi Panarin. He was stolen by former GM Jeff Gorton from Edmonton for Ryan Spooner. Spoon Man didn’t last long there. Strome became a team leader. I imagine he’ll play a similar role in Anaheim.

Vincent Trocheck is being counted on to replace Strome. More of a two-way pivot who should fare better on face-offs and be more of a shoot first mentality, he didn’t look comfortable with Panarin in preseason. However, that doesn’t count. It could take some time to adjust.

Vitaly Kravtsov is being given a second chance to make good. Following a tough camp, he will start on the new second line with Trocheck and Panarin, who’s taken him under his wing. It’s important for the former 2018 first round pick to succeed due to a dramatic drop-off in skill. If he starts slowly, then Jimmy Vesey will get moved up. His story is well documented. Hopefully, he makes good.

Ryan Carpenter is expected to replace checking center Kevin Rooney. That won’t be easy. Rooney added offense along with his penalty killing duties. Carpenter is a step down. But knows coach Gerard Gallant well. He’ll slot in on the fourth line and kill penalties.

They’ll miss Justin Braun from an experience aspect. He replaced an inconsistent Patrik Nemeth and solidified the third pair with Braden Schneider. Now, it’s up to Zac Jones to fill the void. Libor Hajek is the extra with the organization wisely deciding to let Matthew Robertson continue to develop in Hartford. Nils Lundkvist will patrol the Stars’ blue line while Jarred Tinordi was claimed by the tanking Blackhawks.

Alex Georgiev was a solid backup in his time spent on Broadway. He even had the most wins a couple of seasons prior when Igor Shestyorkin was only a rookie in the final season of the brilliant career of Henrik Lundqvist. Off to Colorado where he has big shoes to fill in their Cup defense, he’s been replaced by respected veteran Jaro Halak. A well traveled netminder who  once played for the Islanders. He should be a good addition as the new backup behind Shestyorkin.

Having set up why this roster will be different, it’s time to break it down by position. Even with the departures, there’s still star talent and quality players who are hungry for more.

FORWARDS: The team leaders are Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. They have undeniable chemistry. Last year, Kreider put it altogether scoring a career high 52 goals including a franchise best 26 power play goals. He was dynamite along with Zibanejad, who really led the way, pacing all Ranger forwards during the postseason with 24 points (10-14-24) following setting career bests in assists (52) and points (81).

While it’s hard to imagine a repeat for Kreider in the goal department, he should get between 30 to 40. Zibanejad might see an increase in goals. Forty is possible. Much will depend on what happens with the right side. At the moment, Kakko is  being asked to step up. Only having scored 26 goals in his career, it’s time for the 21-year old former second pick to prove himself. He knows what it’s about. He must think shot more instead of pass.

The new second line has already been discussed. How quickly Trocheck can mesh with Panarin will determine how things go. The Blueshirts must get scoring from that line. Whether it’s Kravtsov, who has 20 games under his belt with four points (2-2-4), or somebody else, it’s going to be interesting to see how Gallant handles that situation. You shouldn’t see Dryden Hunt there.

Throughout training camp, Turk talked about the cohesion Kakko had with Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere. The First Round Pick Line was a factor in helping the Rangers get past the Pens and Canes to reach the Final Four. They were a strong cycle unit who used their combo of speed and skill to create. At the moment, Lafreniere remains intact with Chytil, who looks terrific. Both should get over 20 goals with 30 possible for the budding Lafreniere.

Regarding the former top pick of 2020, he has that unique combination of speed, skill and grit that you see in star players. He is also very mature. It falls on the coach to make sure he uses Lafreniere enough to get the most out of him. It’s Year Three. That means he could move up to the first line and should see top power play duty. If not, something is wrong.

For now, the high character Barclay Goodrow will start with Chytil and Lafreniere on the third line. Considering what the two-time Cup champion brings, you can plug him anywhere. He can play center and take face-offs. Goodrow is a very effective penalty killer who also is strong on the boards and superb defensively. Wherever he plays, you’ll notice him. Hopefully, the ankle is feeling better. He’s a warrior.

The checking line definitely lost two good players. Both Rooney and Motte will be missed. However, it’s up to Carpenter to play a similar role to Rooney. For now, it looks like Vesey will be penciled in with Ryan Reaves on that line for tomorrow’s season opener versus the Lightning at The Garden. Scratch Hunt, who should be the extra until Sammy Blais gets back.

While I believe Vesey can bring a similar skill set to Motte minus the physicality, I’m not too crazy about Carpenter. He’s better served as a depth player who can fill in occasionally. That means whatever is ailing Blais hopefully isn’t too serious. He’s a player who can win pucks and finish checks. Gallant really loved him prior to P.K. Subban ending his season. He adds that sandpaper along with Reaves.

If things go according to plan, the Rangers could have a little bit better balance if Goodrow centers Vesey and Blais on the checking line. That would mean Reaves wouldn’t have to play every night. It would then come down to Hunt versus Carpenter. I imagine as much as Turk likes Hunt, he’d keep Carpenter since he’s a center. Hunt might have to go through waivers due to the salary cap.

Julien Gauthier already cleared waivers and was reassigned to Hartford. A tough break for a young player who worked hard in preseason. If he had any scoring touch, he’s on the roster. Maybe he’ll regain confidence in the AHL and eventually come back up if there are players on injured reserve. You never know.

DEFENSE: If there is a team strength, it starts on the back end. Boasting top five defensemen and power play quarterback Adam Fox, who after posting a career high 74 points (11-63-74) including 33 power play points (all assists), put up 23 points (5-18-23) in his first postseason, it’s hard to believe he’s only 24. He and partner Ryan Lindgren are one of the best pairs in hockey. Lindgren takes care of the dirty work and is similar to former Black and Blueshirt Dan Girardi. Fox is a dynamic player who can thread the needle. If he shoots more, watch out.

In naming physical presence Jacob Trouba the new captain, the Blueshirts have a strong rear guard who punishes opponents with legal checks. Some advice for opponents. Keep your head up. Not only did Trouba put together his best season in the Big Apple. But he found twine scoring 11 times while adding 28 helpers and a plus-25 rating. A prideful man who is accountable for his actions, Trouba is the key to the blue line. He must stay healthy for the team to be successful.

Trouba and K’Andre Miller have formed a solid second pair that Gallant trusts to log the big minutes against opposing scoring lines. They’ll get the bulk at five-on-five with Trouba also doubling on the second power play. Their strong work on the penalty kill due to the combination of Trouba’s grit and Miller’s reach certainly makes the Rangers one of the league’s most trusted shorthanded units. Add in Lindgren and the instinctive Fox and you have a strong top four. With Miller’s explosive skating and instincts, he could be in line for new career bests offensively.

While we know Gallant and the coaching staff will lean on his top two pairs, it’s his third pair that’s intriguing. We saw the growth of former first round pick Braden Schneider after he was called up. Possessing good skating ability with the instincts to jump into the play, he also has that edge which is why teammates refer to him as Baby Troubs. He will not shy away from delivering big hits.

Schneider will start with Zac Jones. A smooth skating left defenseman who can transition from defense to offense quickly. Not the biggest in stature, it’ll be his speed and instincts that can help him get out of trouble. He also has an accurate shot from the point. Might we see Jones on the second power play? It’ll have to be earned like his minutes which will be sheltered.

Unlike last year, there’s no reliable veteran to fill in. Libor Hajek remains as an insurance policy. He still isn’t anything special. The skating is okay, but he’s mistake prone. The lone holdover from one of the worst trades of the recent Rangers era.

If you want further breakdown on the history of the franchise transactions, you can order Sean McCaffrey’s four volume book, Tricks Of The Trade. Once it’s released, it will cover every trade in Rangers franchise history. Sean M as I like to call him is the author of The New York Rangers Rink Of Honor and The Rafters Of Madison Square Garden. His second book is out detailing the memorable 2021-22 season. Appropriately entitled, A Season To Remember: One Game At A Time. It covers his unique writing style that detailed every Rangers game including the run to the Eastern Conference Final.

If you aren’t following Sean on Twitter, just go to where you can read through his very detail orienteering thoughts on all Rangers. Now even on some other hockey topics via old pal Stan Fischler, who I interned for and made it all the way up to ESPN. Stan is a true treasure.

While we don’t always see eye to eye on everything Blueshirts, there’s mutual respect. Sean M is the kind of guy to grab a beer with before a game and talk hockey. He appreciates the history of the sport and has been a vocal critic of MSG continuing to ignore the original Rangers legends. We agree on this. Why aren’t Frank Boucher, Bill and Bun Cook honored? Bryan Hextall and several other Rangers who were responsible for three of the franchise’s four Cups. Simply mystifying.

After the plugs for the best Rangers blogger due to how much he covers, one final thought on the defensive depth. After releasing former NHLer Matt Bartkowski from his pro tryout, they’ll likely sign him to a two-way deal. That way he can be added to the Wolf Pack to fill the experience role on their defense which includes Robertson. The less said about Bartkowski, the better. Here’s hoping we do see Robertson at some point.

GOALIES: When it comes to the goaltender position, it begins and ends with Igor Shestyorkin. What he’s achieved already in less than three full seasons is remarkable. From a rookie who took the league by storm with only a setback preventing the Rangers from possibly making the true postseason in the eerie ’19-20, the 26-year old is now the rating Vezina winner. He and fellow Russian Andrei Vasilevskiy are the premiere two goalies in hockey. They’re the standard. But Vasilevskiy has something Igor wants. He will certainly be driven to take the Rangers as far as they can go.

Shestyorkin was unbelievable last season. After posting career bests in games played (53), starts (52), wins (36), GAA (2.07), save percentage (.935) and shutouts (6), all he did was prove dominant in the postseason. He recovered well from some hiccups against the Sidney Crosby Pens to lead them all the way back. Then was a brick wall when push came to shove against the Hurricanes. He certainly wasn’t at fault in the devastating defeat to the Lightning. The Rangers can count on their meal ticket.

The only question is what can Shestyorkin do for an encore. He could be hard pressed to duplicate the success of ’21-22. Lundqvist never could match his similar ’11-12 when he also won the Vezina and finished third for the Hart. It’ll depend on how the team plays in front of him. Five-on-five, special teams, defense and run support. There’s no doubting his capability. He’s a special goalie. The Rangers are lucky to have him.

I mentioned the experienced Halak earlier in the key additions portion. Although he’s 37, the veteran from Slovakia remains a steady number two to have. He knows his role and will do it minus any theatrics. With career marks of 285 victories, 180 defeats, a 2.49 GAA, .916 save percentage plus 52 shutouts, there isn’t much to dislike.

The only slight concern would be that he only got into 17 games (14 starts) last season with Vancouver. His numbers weren’t as good winding up with 4 wins and 7 losses, a 2.94 GAA and .903 save percentage. Having played for the Canadiens, Blues, Capitals, Islanders, Bruins and Canucks, the Rangers will be his seventh team.

As for Hartford, Louis Domingue will share duties with Dylan Garand and Olof Lindbom. Garand is considered the better prospect despite being younger. He won a gold medal for Canada this past summer at the IIHF U20 World Junior Championships.

COACH: Entering Year Two, Gerard Gallant has the trust of the locker room. Last year, every button he pushed seemed to work. He even had to use Hunt on the second line for a stretch. He did a great job keeping things calm. A very even keel coach who seems to have the pulse of the team, he knows when to be critical and when to remain cool. Plus he has a dry wit that keeps things light.

He went 52-24-6 guiding the Rangers to a second place finish with 110 points. It was one of the most successful seasons in franchise history. Almost a similar script to Mike Keenan except Turk isn’t a double talking lying jerk. No offense to the rest of that ’93-94 team. That’s the only Cup they acknowledge at 33rd and 7th. Sad.

I like Gallant. I just wish he was more honest when it comes to injuries. That’s a league wide issue. The whole way they report it has to end. They promote compulsive gambling and in game prop bets. It’s junk the way it’s handled. Blame the NHL. They look the other way on a lot of serious issues.

As far as the coach goes, I’m curious to see how he handles this roster. Expectations are sky high. It won’t be as easy with a target on their backs. Something Fox mentioned to New York Post reporter Mollie Walker on Monday. Gallant is the man responsible. We’ll see if he can deliver.

ANALYSIS: As you might’ve gathered, I’m cautiously optimistic. That’s due to a roster that has more questions this time around. The leadership is there. I really believe it hinges on the growth of the kids. If you’re expecting Patrick Kane to come through that door in late February, you might want to temper your expectations.

I think if there’s a way to upgrade the roster, it won’t be a big move. Drury doesn’t have that much room to work with. Who knows. Maybe Will Cuylle develops well enough and comes up by next Spring. He is 20 and in his first pro year. They won’t rush him. Brennan Othmann is very promising and might’ve even made the roster if not for a numbers crunch. He is the best prospect not on the Rangers and already off to a good start in the OHL. He turns 20 in January. But can’t be with the big club until his junior season ends.

The Rangers boast a nice mix of stars with experience and young talent who will get better. They still have that grit factor, but aren’t as deep. However, the division isn’t as good. It should come down to them and Carolina, who I’m not sure are as good. The Atlantic has a better division. But who scares you? It’s going to be very interesting.

PREDICTION: I don’t see them winning as many games. But they should have enough to finish first in the Metropolitan Division. I have the top three as Rangers, Hurricanes and Penguins. After that, who knows.

I see a return trip to the Eastern Conference Final. Beyond that, I don’t know. They could reach the Stanley Cup Finals. But I don’t feel they’re better than Colorado. If the Avalanche make it, I think they’ll repeat. If it isn’t them, then maybe one of five or six contenders including the Rangers. Maybe it’ll finally break right for them. It’s been long enough.

Here are some Rangers player predictions for fun:

Panarin gets 31 goals and 100 points.

Zibanejad and Kreider combine for 76 goals with 38 each including nearly half on the power play.

Fox hits 15 goals and actually scores three on the man-advantage. He becomes the first Rangers defenseman since Brian Leetch to go over 80 points with 85.

Chytil notches a career high 24 goals and 42 points.

Kakko reaches 20 goals and 40 points.

Lafreniere scores 28 goals and goes over 50 points.

Miller scores 8 goals and winds up with 30 points.

Trocheck gets 24 goals and 54 points.

Shestyorkin wins 38 games and posts a .927 save percentage with 5 shutouts.

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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