The remaking and remodelling of the New York Rangers accelerated in the off-season in the latest chapter of the franchise shakeup under GM Jeff Gorton that officially began in February 2018 and marked the first steps under new team president John Davidson.
The duo lured prized UFA left winger Artemi Panarin, who instantly became the Blueshirts’ most dangerous forward. They also swung a deal with Winnipeg for top-pairing defenseman Jacob Trouba and chose Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft.
Will that be enough to compete for a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division, a season removed from a 78-point finish? With vets such as Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes no longer around, improvement will depend on breakthroughs from young players and a bounce-back season from 37-year-old goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
The defense corps struggled, but Trouba and rookie Adam Fox will step into significant roles. No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad (74 points) and Chris Kreider will help carry the load up front, but the rest of the forwards are young – Pavel Buchnevich found some consistency under coach David Quinn and recent first-rounders Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson and Vitali Kravtsov should provide a major talent infusion. The same could be said for defense prospects Libor Hajek and Yegor Rykov.
Panarin, 27, had 87 points last season for Columbus and is a dynamic producer, while Kakko brings size, speed and sizzle to a team that ranked 23rd in scoring. Their arrival will benefit Zibanejad, Kreider and Buchnevich. The second-line center position isn’t set, with Ryan Strome the most experienced of the candidates. Chytil and Brett Howden are also in the mix. Andersson appears to be a third- or fourth-line pivot for now.
Jesper Fast is underrated by everyone, but his teammates. Boo Nieves and Vladislav Namestnikov add depth. The wild card is 19-year-old Kravtsov, the ninth overall pick in 2018, who is likely to start the year in the AHL.
Trouba, 25, is the new centerpiece on the back end. He broke out for 50 points last season and brings a commanding physical presence.
Tony DeAngelo is in the blueline mix, and with the influx of youngsters such as Fox and Hajek, who played five games with the Rangers last season before being injured, Freddie Claesson wasn’t offered a contract. Rykov will get a long look in training camp, while Joey Keane is a long shot.
Lundqvist remains the No. 1 netminder, but he was spelled often as the Blueshirts worked in rookie Alexandar Georgiev (14-13-4, .914 save percentage), who proved capable as a backup. Lundqvist admitted that watching the rebuild affected him mentally, but he needs to bounce back (.907 SP). Igor Shesterkin, who posted impressive numbers in the KHL and is seen as the goalie of the future, will start the season in the AHL.
The power-play unit gets some new weapons in Panarin, Kakko and Trouba. Zibanejad and Kakko are shooting options with Kreider as the net-front presence. The second unit will likely feature Buchnevich, Chytil, Strome, Howden and Brady Skjei. The penalty kill was awful. Namestnikov, Zibanejad and Fast will again play big PK minutes. Trouba led the Jets in shorthanded ice time and will take some of the pressure off Marc Staal and Skjei.
Quinn demands pace and passion, so that should continue, but the young players will have to step up and eliminate mistakes. The overall team defense, which often left opponents wide open in high-danger zones, is suspect again, and that could be a sore point. The Blueshirts allowed the ninth-most goals last season.
All eyes, especially during the Hudson River rivalry games between the Rangers and New Jersey, will be on Jack Hughes, the No. 1 overall draft pick, and No. 2 Kakko. Hajek and Rykov will challenge for opening-night spots. Kravtsov and Shesterkin will get looks during the season.
The new core pieces – Panarin, Kakko, Trouba and Fox – should elevate the club, but they come with questions. Will contract security affect Panarin? Is Kakko NHL-ready? Are Trouba and Fox enough to upgrade the defense corps?
With his retirement, the Glen Sather era has ended, and Davidson was handed the reins. Team owner James Dolan approved the rebuild but will still spend to the cap limit. Gorton seems to be on very solid ground, and there’s a renewed focus on the minor-league system.
– Steve Zipay
Stanley Cup Odds: 57/1
Predictions: 6th in Metro
Much more than a Jack Hughes consolation prize, 2019 No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko is a super-prospect himself, blending size, skill and smarts to set the expectations bar high. A proven winner (he scored the gold-medal goal for Finland at the WJC) and clutch performer, he’ll step in right away. Offensive D-man Adam Fox and big Russian winger Vitali Kravtsov may join him. Ace goalie Igor Shesterkin is also coming over from the KHL for his first North American action.
1. Kaapo Kakko, RW
Age 18 Team TPS (Fin.)
A dynamic and flashy scorer. He defends well and had the strength to play as a teen against men.
Acquired 2nd overall, 2019 NHL ’19-20
2. Vitali Kravtsov, RW
Age 19 Team Chelyabinsk (KHL)
Elite offensive skills and plays with an edge. Soared to No. 5 in league-wide FW19 rank.
Acquired 9th overall, 2018 NHL ’19-20
3. Adam Fox, D
Age 21 Team Harvard (ECAC)
Crafty puck-moving defenseman had 95 assists across three seasons with Harvard.
Acquired From Car, April, 2019 NHL ’19-20
4. Igor Shesterkin, G
Age 23 Team St. Petersburg (KHL)
An athletic and competitive stopper who is on target to replace Lundqvist in a couple years.
Acquired 118th overall, 2014 NHL ’21-22
5. Matthew Robertson, D
Age 18 Team Edmonton (WHL)
Fantastic skater for a big player. Watch for him to add more offense with his booming shot.
Acquired 49th overall, 2019 NHL ’21-22
6. K’Andre Miller, D
Age 19 Team Wisconsin (Big Ten)
Played with impressive poise as a college freshman. Production starting to match ability.
Acquired 22nd overall, 2018 NHL ’22-23
7. Libor Hajek, D
Age 21 Team Hartford (AHL)
Struggled in his first pro year. He has the intelligence and talent to adapt to a tougher level.
Acquired From TB, Feb, 2018 NHL ’19-20
8. Nils Lundkvist, D
Age 19 Team Lulea (Swe.)
Still getting bigger. Plays a safe and reliable brand of defense that is always coveted.
Acquired 28th overall, 2018 NHL ’22-23
9. Karl Henriksson, C
Age 18 Team Frolunda (Swe.)
Doesn’t let his smaller stature get in the way of being a hard-nosed, physical player.
Acquired 58th overall, 2019 NHL ’24-25
10. Adam Huska, G
Age 22 Team Connecticut (HE)
Injuries caused an up-and-down sophomore season, but he has good size and athleticism.
Acquired 184th overall, 2015 NHL ’23-24