Last season exceeded our expectations by some margin. 52 wins, career years for a number of Rangers – including 52 goals by Chris Kreider, along with the Vezina winning performance in net from Igor Shesterkin, were all components of a very enjoyable campaign last season. Then a post season run that saw them ultimately exit in the Eastern Conference Finals to the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, proved that this team has perhaps arrived a little quicker than most might have thought.
So how do they equal that success, or even go better?
Well they’re going to have to do it largely with the same line up that they had last year. Sure, Vincent Trocheck has replaced Ryan Strome and there’s been a few minor additions at the bottom end of the roster, but it’s primarily more of the same for this team.
Once again they’ll rely heavily on netminding, the power play, and their top four or five players to drive the offense. The hope this year though, is that there’ll be a few more contributors than there were 12 months ago, and those hopes will largely rest on Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere and K’Andre Miller.
Last season the team was guilty of being a one or, two line team, with the bottom six largely trying to play to even par, something the fourth line in particular struggled to do for much of the year. While the possession metrics did improve over the year, it wasn’t really until the trade deadline, when the Rangers had enough depth to push guys like Barclay Goodrow to the bottom of the line-up, that they really started to show what they might be possible of.
The hope this year is that Lafreniere and Kakko will be able to take a step forward, and provide some additional scoring depth to a team that really needs three lines who can put pressure on the opposition. Those two, along with Filip Chytil, played a big part in the playoff run last year, and all three appear to be playing with much more purpose this season, but they still will need to convert that into on-ice success.
Adding Vitali Kravtsov and Jimmy Vesey, along with getting Sammy Blais back, should also help, though Kravtsov would be the one the Rangers really hope finds some form after a disappointing preseason. The 22 year old Russian has looked lacking in timing and confidence, but if he finds a way to get the puck in the net early in the season, he could further deepen the Rangers’ options.
Even if Kravtsov fails to find form, there’s some expectation that Vesey and Blais will be able to contribute more than their counterparts from a year ago, which saw Barclay Goodrow and Dryden Hunt getting time on the top two lines, with only modest results.
For the team to be successful, they’ll likely need to have the puck more. Last season the team was often outpossessed, and more often outchanced and outshot by their opponents. A young defense, coupled with a weak bottom six, meant that it was on Shesterkin to keep the Rangers in the game on a give night, and he eagerly took on the challenge, and helped the team through a very uneven first two months.
Whether the Rangers are better defensively remains to be seen. Ryan Lindgren and Jacob Trouba are already nursing minor injuries, and Adam Fox is coming off a heavy workload year as well. On the plus side, Miller looks ready to take the next step and Schneider too seems to be learning almost every game. Can the undersized Zac Jones slot in there, and what happens if there’s an injury?
Trading away Nils Lundkvist and Patrik Nemeth, parting ways with Justin Braun, and losing Jarred Tinordi on waivers this week, has really exposed how little depth the team has on the blueline. The Rangers will be sincerely hoping that Matthew Robertson can dominate at the AHL level, and perhaps once again hope for an unusually healthy season on the blueline.
Limiting Ryan Reaves games and using Hunt, Blais and Vesey more should help a bit too. Whether Ryan Carpenter is an upgrade over Kevin Rooney remains to be seen, but with the play of Gustav Rydahl in the preseason, it appears they at least have some coverage there.
Moving up a line, one of the more impressive aspects of the preseason, was how much time the Chytil line had the puck in the opponent’s end. If Chytil and Lafreniere can somehow replicate that in the regular season, especially without Kakko who has been promoted, then that should also help the team in the longer term.
And then there’s the coaching staff…
Gerard Gallant has not generally had long successful tenures in his previous stops, though with this being just his second year, there’s still room for optimism here. Whether he’s figured out what went wrong in prior engagements remains an open question, but it’s something to keep an eye on when considering the potential for a drop off.
As to a prediction, I think we’ll see the fundamentals of the team improve, however I don’t expect to see such historic performances this year from guys like Kreider and Shesterkin. This is going to be on other members of the Rangers line-up to step up. It’s also going to rely heavily on how well the Rangers cope with injuries to their top four defenders. Any long term injury to the top four could spell disaster for the team, and if there are two concurrent injuries, then that could prove to be very problematic.
As a result, I’m going to project the Rangers will do a little worse in the regular season this year, and come in around 48 wins and 104 points. They fall to third in the Metro Division – though who will surpass them remains to be seen.
I expect strong seasons from Kakko and Lafreniere, as well as Miller and to a lesser extent Schneider. Where Chytil, Blais and Kravtsov end up, remains to be seen, but they all have potential. Perhaps a career year points wise for Panarin, and a modest overall improvement for him over last season.
Fox and Lindgren might also struggle a bit more this year, especially if they get leaned on heavily again. Keeping them fresh for longer will be a challenge for Gallant, though Miller looks ready to assume some of the workload, even above his already impressive numbers.
If the team makes it to the deadline in a good spot, then there’s likely going to be some real tough decisions. With obvious depth issues on defense, as well as the desire to strengthen their top six, Chris Drury is going to be hard pressed to make moves with little to no Cap room. With many other teams in the same position, it’s kind of a good news / bad news situation. The good news is that many potential opponents will be likewise limited, while the cost of freeing up Cap room is likely to sky rocket.
How Drury will deal with that remains to be seen, but they have some assets they can include if they think they’re in a position they can go for it. It just might mean parting ways with the likes of guys like Chytil, Kravtsov or even Kakko.