If you’re scoring this one at home, the New York Rangers are entering this season much like they have every summer since their 2014 Stanley Cup run: With the expectation to be a contending hockey team.
There is one critical difference, however. This year they actually might be.
Oh there are questions, sure. The lack of a Derek Stepan replacement is the biggest one on the negative side of things, and I’m not sure we’re going to have a clear answer there until we see how Filip Chytil plays out. I am all for giving the kid as much of an opportunity as you can, but I’m also firmly of the belief that if he’s not going to get a developmental role with the team (read: top-nine minutes and a consistent role) then he needs to go back to the Czech Republic. At least there he’ll get a critical top-line role and still be playing against men. But we can burn that bridge when we get there, since as of right now Chytil is on the opening night roster.
The other “negative” question is how Vigneault will handle Anthony DeAngelo. We talked on the podcast Wednesday night (moved it to avoid the game tonight) at length about Vigneault and some of his issues with younger players. I addressed this with him specifically earlier this week:
DeAngelo’s existence will push a lot of Vigneault’s hot buttons, as well. He’s weak in his own zone as things currently stand, he can be a hothead, and he’s prone to the occasional boneheaded play. He’s also ridiculously talented and could be a very special player for the Rangers if allowed to spread his wings and grow. These are often the perfect ingredients for a long-term benching for inferior players (see: Buchnevich, Pavel for the most recent example) and the player to not have a clear role. It both hurts development and confidence and makes the team worse as a whole.
But like Adam said on the podcast Wednesday night: “If you’re going to fail you may as well fail trying to do something spectacular.” DeAngelo is a direct example of this. If the Rangers can push the right buttons with him, they will have a player that every team in the world strives for. True puck-moving defenseman are incredibly hard to find, and the Rangers might have one who is just 21-years-old. That’s a big deal.
More importantly, the Rangers have actually address major organization issues for the first time since Vigneault became the bench boss. The removal of Kevin Klein and Dan Girardi would be looked as as a positive “addition by subtraction” even if they didn’t bring anyone else in. To have brought in Kevin Shattenkirk (easily a top defenseman in this league) to partner with Ryan McDonagh (ditto) turns that into something like going from living in your car to winning the lottery and buying a mansion. I can’t wait for all the “wow Ryan McDonagh really turned it on this year” stories from the media who don’t realize that McDonagh didn’t change, but who he played with did.
Couple that top pair with an actual top-four and you suddenly have a very formidable defense for a team that as of three months ago was the laughingstock of the league. If you’re going to not replace Stepan, having an actual defense to help mitigate some of the sheltering needs of the forwards isn’t a bad way to go. And as much as you can’t replicate Stepan’s defense, I would bet he and Shattenkirk have the same number of points this year.
You can make an argument that Henrik Lundqvist might lose a step (he is 35, after all) but even if this is true (and there’s really not evidence to support this without the “well, that defense in front of him, tho” caveat), again, a true defensive unit in front of him should help mitigate those issues. If they exist. Because more than likely Lundqvist is going to be Lundqvist, and that’s all you can ask for.
Yes, keeping Brendan Smith and bringing in Shattenkirk can create that much of a ripple effect. We haven’t even started talking about the penalty kill and the power play, both of which should be improved this year (no more Tanner Glass/Girardi on the PK, gang!). Brady Skjei even being as good as he was last year would solitify this whole argument top to bottom, and there’s a chance he can actually improve. I’m not sure how you can look at this team and not think they’re going to be better than last year.
Here’s a list of players that you can expect a reasonable amount of growth from this year: Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey, Skjei, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, and Kevin Hayes. Hayes, actually, remains to be seen since it appears that he’s going to be continued to be pigeonholed into a defensive role. This is something to keep an eye on on the negative side as well.
I think a lot about the summer of 2015. I can’t help it. There were so many bad decisions (some defensible, but most weren’t) that derailed the Rangers true Stanley Cup momentum the year before. Today is the first time that I’m sitting at my computer the day of opening night with true hope. I think the Rangers got a hell of a lot better, risks be damned, and I can at least support the direction the team is going in, even if it doesn’t work.
Like Adam said, if you’re going to fail, do it spectacularly.