Welcome back to the latest file in THN.com’s “Three Burning Questions” series. In this feature, we generate three big questions for every NHL team prior to the start of the 2022-23 regular season. In this file, we’re asking Three Burning Questions about the New York Rangers.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS FOR THE RANGERS IN 2022-23:
1. What can the Rangers do to ease the burden of superstar goalie Igor Shesterkin? No goaltender did more for his team in the regular season last year than Shesterkin, who earned his first Vezina Trophy as the game’s top goalie. The 26-year-old Russian stole many a game for the Blueshirts in 2021-22, often overcoming a lackluster defensive scheme to push the Rangers into the win column more often than not. However, Rangers GM Chris Drury chose a different look for Shesterkin’s backup – parting ways with Alexandar Georgiev, and instead going with veteran Jaroslav Halak.
Shesterkin played a career-high 53 games last season, but the Rangers will likely ask Halak to play 30-35 games to keep Shesterkin in prime shape for when the playoffs begin. Halak hasn’t played more than 19 games since the 2019-20 campaign, when he made 31 appearances for the Boston Bruins. But if he stays healthy, he’s a more dependable option than Georgiev (now the starting netminder for the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche) was. Regardless, Shesterkin’s play is likely to dictate how far the Rangers go in the regular-and-post-seasons once again. Their challenge, both on offense and in terms of their defense corps, it to make Shesterkin’s life easier.
2. Can the Blueshirts’ young forwards develop into frontline contributors? The Rangers got a brilliant, 52-goal season out of first-line winger Chris Kreider, and top-paid winger Artemi Panarin once again held up his end of the deal with a 96-point season. However, the Rangers’ future depends in no small part on the progress of a slew of young forwards, including 22-year-old winger Vitali Kravtsov, 20-year-old winger Alexis Lafreniere, 21-year-old winger Kaapo Kakko, and 23-year-old forward Filip Chytil. Cap Friendly projects the latter three to comprise the Rangers’ third line of forwards, while Kravtsov is projected to skate on the second line alongside Panarin and free-agent acquisition Vincent Trochek.
Lafreniere has shown the most development at this stage, posting a 19-goal, 31-point season in 2021-22, his sophomore NHL season. Chytil and Kakko both had their production on offense level out, with Chytil averaging only 13:10 of ice time, and Kakko averaging 15:26. To take some of the pressure off their veteran point-producers, the Rangers’ youngsters need to step up and grow their games this year. Three of the four players above will be restricted free agents next summer, with Kakko scheduled to be an RFA in 2024. They have the motivation to earn bigger paydays in short order, but Drury isn’t going to hand out long-term deals if he doesn’t see any improvement in their production.
This is not to suggest it’s a make-or-break season for Kakko, Lafreniere, Chytil or Kravtsov, the latter of who has only 20 games (all in the 2020-21 campaign) of NHL experience to his name. However, it’s clear Drury and head coach Gerard Gallant are interested in winning now, which will mean there’s much pressure on the kids to handle more of the load on offense.
3. Do the Rangers have an elite defense corps, or is there still work to do? Yes, the Rangers have a legitimate all-star D-man in former Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox. And yes, they also have above-average blueliners in new captain Jacob Trouba, third-year NHLer K’Andre Miller, and 24-year-old defenseman Ryan Lindgren. But there’s a significant drop-off in their final defensive pairing of 24-year-old Libor Hajek and 21-year-old Braden Schneider, who combined to appear in only 60 games last year.
Drury has slightly more than $1 million in cap space to provide depth on the back end, but he also has cap issues in the 2023-24 campaign, with $18.3 million in space, and only 11 players under contract. This means they need Hajek, Schneider and 21-year-old Zachary Jones to give them quality time, as well as continued improvement from the 24-year-old Fox, 22-year-old Miller and 24-year-old Lindgren.
Otherwise, they’ll be leaning too much on Shesterkin to bail them out of games, and no Rangers fan should want to see Shesterkin overworked heading into the post-season. Gallant will try to keep the dressing room relaxed in Manhattan, but there’s no hiding the fact that the Rangers will need better years out of many young players, and the defense corps needs to step up.