Tonight the Rangers will open the 2022-23 season against the Tampa Bay Lightning. With seven new (or semi-new) roster players, it remains to be seen how the team will come together and how long it will take to do so. The pre-season really meant nothing (the Blueshirts went 2-4) as those contests were more about who would make the team and who will play with each other to start the season than it was about winning the games.
Last season, the Rangers far surpassed what was expected. Now, the expectations are higher. But, it is unclear that they are realistic. A big part of the team’s late season and playoff success were the four players acquired at the trade deadline. None of those players remain on this season’s team. The question becomes, can those replacements replicate or do a better job than Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, Tyler Motte, and Justin Braun?
In goal, Igor Shesterkin will be the undisputed number one. Of course, Shesterkin has been the number one for a couple of years, but there was always Alexandar Georgiev looking over his shoulder. With Georgiev in Colorado, Jaro Halak is this year’s number two. Halak is a veteran and should play approximately 20-25 games this season. A competent backup, there will be no competition any longer. The big upgrade in goal is in the potential number three netminder. Louis Domingue will start in Hartford, but if he is needed due to injury, Domingue can step right into the backup NHL role. In previous years this was touch and go, but with Domingue at the ready, the Rangers are in much better shape if an injury should occur.
On defense, on the other hand, its not so clear. The top two pairings are solid and remain as they were last year, but Braden Schneider, who as a rookie looked great last year alongside a rookie, will be expected to partner with Zac Jones. This pairing is totally unproven, as is Jones himself. Jones will need to pick up some body strength, protection of the puck, and a little defense to play regularly at this level. It remains to be seen whether or not he can do that. And it remains to be seen what effect Jones’ play will have on Schneider. As such, for now, the defense is weaker than it was to close last season, but some tweaking, if necessary, can be done. It is not clear at all that Libor Hajek, who is the seventh d-man to start the season, will make this any better, but to start the season, that is who the Rangers will be playing.
Up front, there is quite a bit of talent. Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Kappo Kakko are expected to start on the top line. Kakko earned that spot with his play over the last few games, which was fabulous. He has improved every part of his game, which has been on display over the past few weeks. Of maybe equal talent, but not showing it right now, is Vitali Kravtsov, who has had a singlularly unimpressive camp and pre-season. This is Kravtsov’s third try within the Rangers’ organization, who have given the young phenom every opportunity to shine. He is being a gift of a chance to prove that he can play a top six role on the second line, but it is likely that the leash will be short. Kravtsov will line up to the right of new center Vincent Trocheck and Artemi Panarin. If Trocheck can find the same or similar chemistry with Panarin that Ryan Strome had last season, in total, this will be an upgrade on the second line.
Filip Chytil will center a third line that will start with Alexis Lafreniere on his left. It remains to be seen who will play on his right. Now in his sixth season within the Rangers organization, the 23-year-old Chytil showed tremendous growth last year (particularly in the playoffs). He has looked even better in the pre-season and could be a surprise big contributor to the offense this year. Contributions by Lafreniere, who turns 21 years old today, will not be a surprise–the former number one overall pick has looked better and better over his first two years. He is one of the future pillars of the franchise and is expected to eventually play on the teams first line.
Who will play on their right side of the third line is less clear. Will it be Barclay Goodrow or will he center the fourth line? Will the newly signed Jimmy Vesey and Ryan Reaves be his linemates there? Where will Sammy Blais play?
Many questions still need to be answered, but the team looks playoff bound in what will be an increasingly tough Division. There are still a few holes that need to be filled, including on defense, which may need some changes in the third pairing. Although right now, there is (almost) no cap room left, there may be some opportunities during the season to shore things up; its could be the one or two added players that can make this team go from being playoff bound team to a genuine Stanley Cup contender.
In the meantime, looking down the road, a few of the players that were re-assigned to Hartford (or their junior team) made a strong impression for the future. One such player was Brennan Othmann, who yesterday was named winner of the Lars-Erik Sjoberg Award, for the outstanding rookie in training camp this year. Now captain of the OHL Flint Firebirds, Othmann showed that he can skate, hit, forecheck and score. Currently, he has 8 points in four games in Flint and should have been in the AHL this year (but for the agreement between the NHL and CHL regarding players at 19 years of age). He is the organizational player to watch at this point.
Another player making a strong impression was Gustav Rydahl, a center signed over the summer, who was one of the last players to be sent to Hartford this past week. Rydahl had four excellent pre-season games and could easily be a mid season call-up as a depth player.