Tonight the New York Rangers begin their 93rd season in the NHL, playing a very good Nashville Predators. As everyone knows by now, New York is a team in flux after ditching many of their veterans at the trade deadline, and announcing that the team was rebuilding—vowing to be “adding young competitive players that combine speed, skill and character” going forward. What they received in exchange for some of the Rangers stalwarts were several top draft selections and three young excellent prospects. With their three first-round selections in the 2018 entry draft in Dallas, in addition to selecting Filip Cytil and Lias Andersson in the first round of 2017, the team got an instant infusion of high-end talent. When you add forward Brett Howden, and defensemen Libor Hajek and Yigor Rykov, three excellent prospects, the future speed and skill looks very bright. But what kind of team will the Rangers be this season? How far can they go?
First-time NHL head coach David Quinn, brought on last May as an excellent communicator with young players, and his collegiate-experienced assistants behind the bench, are looking for the team to be “in the opposition’s faces . . . [making] them uncomfortable on every shift . . . a team built around defense.” That is likely why the season-opening 23-man roster has eight-man on the back end. It is also why Quinn has used the pre-season games to change the way the Blueshirts have played. Try to go through the opponents on every shift appears to be their motto–sort of a memory of the lunch-pail team that used to take the ice at Madison Square Garden.
But, frankly, this team may have more talent and ability than the mainstream and the odds makers give them credit for. Let’s take it position by position and see if you agree with me (or at least we can agree to disagree).
Goaltending—Of course, absent injury, Henrik Lundqvist will be between the pipes for most of the season. Let’s be honest and admit that Lundqvist does not appear to be what he once was—the King can make great plays, but it does not seem that he can be counted on to do so every time the puck comes at him. At 36 years old and a superstar netminder, he is not done though (Lundqvist could play until his early 40s—look at Marty Brodeur or Eddie Balfour, who both played in the NHL until age 42). The question for the Rangers this summer has been who will be Lundqvist’s backup. The team signed veteran journeyman netminder Dustin Tokarski over the summer and had Alexandar Georgiev in the system. The powers that be chose to keep Georgiev on the opening day roster, although both goalies showed well in the pre-season. It was no problem having Tokarski pass through waivers at this point and last week, he was sent to Hartford. The question with Georgiev is whether he will get enough work in New York to keep his development on track. If he gets 30 games in, playing at least once a week, Georgiev should be okay. As a team Georgiev and Lundqvist together should be above average in the league—it will depend, of course, on what is going on in front of them. Which we will addres next.
Defense—Quinn was right to focus on defense in his letter to Rangers fans last May. During the 2017-18 season, the Rangers’ blueline was atrocious. A mixture of injuries and poor play sank the team before the Christmas break, and long before the powers that be threw in the towel. This season, with the addition of Adam McQuaid, a resurgent Brendan Smith, and a rehabbed Kevin Shattenkirk, things should be quite a bit grittier and better. But own zone play will still be touch and go. There are a lot of questions about the defensive play of Tony DeAngelo, and Neal Pionk has not looked great on D at times in the preseason. It could be okay, but it also could be a tough year on D. How the Rangers do this season will depend on the blueline. If they can control the play form the back end, the Blueshirts really even have a chance of making the playoffs. If they don’t, they have a chance at a top five lottery pick.
Offense—First, the good news. Both Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich have been playing so well in the preseason. And Filip Chytil has the potential to be a star in this league. Buchnevich may have been the best player on the ice in the “exhibition games.” Projected to be a sniper and game breaker when he was drafted in 2013, Buch came over and looked like he might be on his way to being dubbed the next Evgeny Grachev. But something happened to him this past summer, and now Buchnevich looks like a different player–a first liner who is dangerous on every shift.
Kreider looks terrific too. He is going to the net, making himself felt, using his speed, and showing good hands. But, before anyone gets their hopes up too high—we have seen this from Kreider before, a great spate of games followed a cold spell. At this point, the 27-year-old is in danger of being labeled a mediocre NHL player, who had potential to be a regular first liner, but never made it. But, he is so close to making it–so close to being a 75-point winger. Maybe this is the year. Maybe Coach Quinn knows how to get more from him. One can only hope.
And then there is Chytil. Now, I have not seen Vitali Kravtsov play hockey in person, but other than the big Russian winger, Chytil is the most exciting rookie forward in a Rangers uniform for years. Naturally a center, because the Rangers have depth down the middle and Chytil has not been the best on faceoffs, he is likely to see a lot of time on the wing with the second line this season. With speed, an excellent release, and high-end vision, Chytil is a marvel to watch. What he still has to learn is to be smarter at taking punishment along the boards (so he does not get face-planted into the glass), along with those face off issues. Once he adjusts to this level though, he could become a star.
Then there is Vlad Namestnikov. An underperformer last year, the 25-year-old has the potential to be a 40 to 50-point player for this team. Likely starting on the bottom six for the Rangers, if Vlad shows that he can produce, he could move up on this somewhat offensively weak team.
The veterans Mats Zucarello and Kevin Hayes will continue to be relied upon for offensive production, but it is just as likely as not that one or both will be gone from the team by the trade deadline this winter. But do not fret about this, as there are two young players waiting in the wings (not including Kratsov). One is Lias Andersson, who played well in the preseason but was sent to Hartford because there was not a space for him yet on the roster (the team wants to give him first line minutes in Hartford, to be recalled during the season). The other is Brett Howden, who has skill, size, and some grit and played very well in the preseason. Howden will be in uniform tonight to begin the season—it is not clear to me that he is ready for this level of play, but he has earned a shot and maybe he can be a part of a Cinderella team that makes the playoffs when no one expects it.
Overall—It is hard to not look past this 2018-19 team to the Rangers’ future, which looks incredibly bright. This year’s affiliate in Hartford may be the most competitive Wolf Pack team in recent (or far) memory—it might just be a Calder Cup contender. Plus there is Kravtsov, Igor Shestyorkin, Rykov, Nils Lundkvist, and K’Andre Miller that are not even in the AHL yet. But, there is also this season, where the New York NHL team may be able to put together a surprise playoff run. Don’t expect it, but it is possible if the defense can pull it together to be difficult to play against. Head Coach Quinn has the right idea—the way for this team to win is to make the opposition hate playing against the Rangers. To focus on D. The team is not there yet, but any day now, any day…