With the season opening rosters sent into the NHL offices yesterday afternoon, the Rangers’ player list is set for tomorrow night’s game. Twenty five players are included, with two, Jesper Fast and Steven Fogarty, on IR. That means 15 forwards, eight defensemen, and two netminders will start the season with the NHL team.
As a whole, on paper, New York looks like a borderline Eastern Conference playoff team. With so many of the other teams in the conference strengthening their on-ice personnel, it will be hard to be in the top eight teams in April. And the Rangers have a couple of very big ifs on this year’s team. But, and this is a very big but, the team has looked weak on paper in recent years, at times much weaker than this year, and still has gone pretty far into the post-season. So, don’t be foolish enough to either count them out of the playoffs this year or dare I say even Stanley Cup contention (one of the top fantasy prognosticators has the team winning the Cup).
But let’s get back from best case scenario to the more likely. In my estimation, this roster is a playoff team, but how far they go into the playoffs currently rests on the shoulders of an unproven rookie, Filip Chytil. Can he succeed this season in his role as a top six center? And if not, who will there be to be successful on face offs and be a mostly offensive producer? The team as it is currently composed will struggle with offensive production to overcome some defensive question marks, unless Chytil can realize some of the offensive potential he has shown over the last few months or Pavel Buchnevich shows that the Rangers were totally right in selecting him for his offensive prowess in the 2013 entry draft.
One concern that I have about Chytil’s NHL readiness arises out of the Flyer pre-season game, where Chytil just did not bounce off hits in the same way that older, more filled out players do. Those off-camera hits seemed to shake him up. Now, not all teams are like Philadelphia, but at just a month over 18-years old, Chytil is very young. Although, he will at some point be a big, full body, he is more of a wiry fast skating, offensive dynamo right now. It remains to be seen whether or not he is NHL-ready. It is also important to remember that the Rangers can take more than nine games to evaluate Chytil’s readiness. He can stay much longer and go back to Europe at a later date if he is not ready for full time play. The Rangers will just burn a year off his ELC.
As respects the now almost forgotten Buchnevich, he is certainly NHL-ready, and he could reach his potential this season for the Blueshirts. Buchnevich’s tremendous offensive potential is why he will start the season on New York’s top line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. If Buchnevich, who is still only 22-years old and in his sophomore NHL campaign, can stay healthy most of the season and increase his production by just ten percent, he will have around 50 points. It will be enough to make a big difference in the Rangers’ season.
As for Buch’s linemates, part of the Rangers being willing to let go of Derek Stepan was that the brass felt that Zibanejad could be a first-line center (at least for the next few years until Lias Andersson or Chytil is ready to fill that role). It remains to be seen whether he is effective in that spot. When he was drafted in 2011 and after in Ottawa, he looked to be more of a second-line, but it is possible he could step up and play this role. As far as Kreider goes, at 26 years old, he is in the prime of his career. His skating and release are excellent. With 53 points in the 2016-17 regular season, he was a producer, but was quiet in the playoffs. This year, he will need to become a big game player, who can be relied on produce in the clutch, to be of real value to the team.
Further down the depth chart are Chytil centering Mats Zuccarello and Rick Nash, which should be interesting. Zuc loves to set players up, and both Chytil and Nash will be ready recipients. Plus Nash’s size out on the ice at the same time as Chytil may give the rookie some protection. Then it will be Kevin Hayes centering JT Miller and Michael Grabner. Although that seems like a very good two-way line, it does mean that Jimmy Vesey will be on the fourth line and not together with Hayes. The two showed quite a bit of chemistry on the ice during the pre-season, so expect some changes in this configuration as the season moves along.
On defense, the lines Ryan McDonagh and Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei with Brendan Smith, and Marc Staal with Anthony DeAngelo. Shattenkirk, who is a very offensive blueliner and maybe even considered a power play specialist, is not used to playing a first pairing role. It is very unclear whether he can face other teams’ top players effectively. He may need to drop down to a second pairing defenseman as the season moves along. Skjei, who is in his second year and getting better each time we seem him on the ice, could be ready to move up some time during the season, but he, like McDonagh is a left-hand shot, so pairing them together is sub-optimal. To me, Staal and DeAngelo is the weak link here, but it remains to be seen how it works out. The Blueshirts are going with eight D-men right now, with Nick Holden and Steven Kampfer the black aces (it is questionable whether either of them would survive waivers if sent down).
That leaves between the pipes, where New York will have Henrik Lundqvist and Ondrej Pavelec. What most people don’t know is that Pavelec burst into the NHL touted as the next Martin Brodeur, a projected perennial all-star for sure and maybe even a generational netminder. He played two plus seasons in Atlanta and never reached his potential. He has been up and down in his performance over the years, and now at age 30, he will never meet his potential. But, there are times, when he is just outstanding in net. As a backup for Henrik Lundqvist, who is only expected to play approximately 60 games, he could be perfect. Playing less in outside competition should help Lundqvist this year. The Rangers number one since 2005 is not quite still at his peak, but there are times when he looks like his 25-year-old or even 30-year-old self, and he is good enough to carry the Rangers into the playoffs.
In all, this will be a very interesting season for New York. The team could wind up being very good or it could be just a rebuild in disguise. Either way, there are some very good things in the pipeline—several goaltenders being groomed to eventually take the King’s place, and there are two centers chosen in this year’s NHL draft who could wind up being the face of the franchise two to three years from now. If things get bleak, know that better is coming.