The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.
Stanley Cup odds: 80-1
Key Additions: Adam McQuaid, D; Fredrik Claesson, D; Dustin Tokarski, G
Key Departures: David Desharnais, C; Ondrej Pavelec, G; Paul Carey, C; Ryan Sproul, D
Not much is expected of the Rangers, as GM Jeff Gorton preps the franchise for a future built on the draft, rather than free agency. But we’ve seen rebuilding teams surprise in recent years, and New York has the foundation to make some noise. Despite the loss of Ryan McDonagh, the blueline still has a nice mix of veterans (Marc Staal), puck-movers (Brady Skjei) and veteran puck-movers (Kevin Shattenkirk).
Up front, the Rangers can hurt teams with their depth. There is no one star to key in on, but instead a sturdy cohort led by Mats Zuccarello, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. Behind them are tiers of youngsters, from Vladislav Namestnikov, Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich to rookies Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil. They may not have a 65-point player this season, but if everybody contributes and most of the top-nine can hit 40, the Rangers won’t be a doormat.
In new coach David Quinn, the Rangers have brought in a communicator who knows how to shepherd young talent thanks to his days at Boston University. Handling the crease duties as always is Henrik Lundqvist, who is coming off a poor year but can still steal games.
The Kings is toast, long live The King. Lundqvist posted his worst goals-against average last season (2.98) and it’s doubtful he’s going to find the fountain of youth at 36. Without that stability, the Rangers find themselves in a big hole. The team’s best offensive players are in the “potential” range and the established scorers are basically in a waiting room until the trade deadline: Kevin Hayes signed a one-year contract in the summer that makes him trade bait, while Zuccarello is also a pending UFA who would attract a nice return. The defense is a shadow of what it used to be.
In the here and now, that means a lot of losing. As good a coaching prospect as Quinn is, recent history has shown many first-year bench bosses need a season before their systems take hold (Jared Bednar in Colorado is a perfect example), which means a lot of pain in Year 1. Long term, this is not a problem: New York is not expected to contend this year and accruing more high-end prospects is the name of the game. Should the team really bottom out, they’d have a decent shot at Jack Hughes, the dynamic center and top prospect in the 2019 draft. His game would look great on Broadway.
Are we witnessing the decline of Lundqvist in New York?
From his debut campaign in 2005-06 all the way through to his age 33 season in 2015-16, Lundqvist, it could be argued, was the best and most consistent goaltender in the world. Across a decade-long span to begin his career, Lundqvist finished no lower than sixth in Vezina Trophy voting, winning the award once and landing himself on two end-of-season all-star squads. He fell out of the Vezina race three seasons back, however, and his combined numbers over the past two campaigns aren’t all that impressive. To wit, among the 31 goaltenders to have played at least 82 games over the past two seasons, Lundqvist’s .913 SP ties him for 20th, his 2.87 GAA is fourth-worst and once heralded as a game-stealer, he’s only posted four blankings in his past 120 games.
What suggests Lundqvist could be in for another difficult year is that the defense in front of him isn’t going to be able to provide him the type of insulation he’s grown accustomed to. The evidence of that was present last season, when the Rangers had the second-worst shots against per game total, and the blueline simply doesn’t have the wealth of talent necessary to keep playing heading in the right direction.
If any veteran keeper could laugh in the face of age-based decline, it’s Lundqvist, but the outlook isn’t awfully positive with the season on the horizon.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 7th in the Metropolitan Division. Glimmers of hope are to be expected, but the Rangers are heading for the Eastern Conference basement. The early stages of a rebuild are always the most trying.
Want more Season Previews? The Hockey News has you covered. Click here.