Every year, each NHL team’s training camp has its share of captivating stories. The John Biebe archetype holding onto his role and roster spot with unflinching resolve as his quickness erodes with age; the journeyman looking for yet another chance wearing yet another jersey in a new, but all too familiar setting; the big prospect who has more people counting on him to save the franchise than he has hairs on his chin; the unheralded kid, hungry to prove everyone wrong by making it on the opening night roster.
The Rangers’ 2018 Training Camp is now just weeks away. With a new head coach on the ice, the religion of rebuild being preached from the front office, and a glut of players — both young and old — looking to prove themselves, it will be a training camp to remember. So, which Rangers stand to benefit the most from a fresh start in camp with head coach David Quinn?
Let’s take a look at five guys who should be hungry to impress.
1. Brendan Smith
New Banter writer Phil Kocher recently penned an article that examined Smith’s second chance with the Rangers. Having a new coach behind the bench is exactly what Smith needed after a catastrophic first full season in New York.
From Phil’s piece:
Though unspectacular as a point-producer, his ability to skate with the puck combined with his physical aggression could quickly endear him to the new bench boss who’s vision for the team appears to marry the seeming polarities.
For whatever it’s worth, Smith has looked slim and fit in pictures that have surfaced on social media this summer. Anton Thun, Smith’s agent, summed it up best when he said that the big defender is committed to being “Brendan Smith again.” We’re still not sure who the guy we saw last season was, but right now that doesn’t matter. What matters is Smith will have a fresh start with Quinn to prove he was worth the investment the Rangers made in him.
2. Tony DeAngelo
DeAngelo, who is turning 23 in late October, needs this training camp to go well in the worst way. Last season his underlying numbers in the NHL were okay for his role on an awful defense, but DeAngelo’s poor play in Hartford and the injury that cut his year short were both strikes against him.
We all know that DeAngelo is a project. If he was a cat, he would be on his fifth or sixth life as an NHL prospect. The potential and skill is there, but so too is a troubling history of off-the-ice crap that goes back to him calling a teammate in juniors a slur. Just last season he engaged with fans on Twitter who were giving him grief for his political beliefs. Nope, not smart.
The good news is that Quinn likely has the toolbox he will need to get DeAngelo’s head on straight. Quinn is all about accountability and making connections with his players; he’s a mentor. He also has an abundance of experience working with college-aged kids. It’s also worth mentioning that the Rangers also have Greg Brown behind the bench, so Quinn won’t be the only guy rolling up his sleeves trying to turn DeAngelo into an NHL defenseman.
3. Matt Beleskey
In the latest Blueshirt Banter Mailbag, Shayna and I touched on Beleskey and what his role might be next season. It goes without saying that he is a better option than Cody McLeod, but can he prove to Quinn that he is worth a roster spot?
On paper, Beleskey looks like he should be a great fit for Quinn. He is a maximum effort guy who plays hard, knows how to take the body, and was a solid depth forward before the 2017-18 season. He’s also the second most experienced skater on the roster, trailing only Marc Staal in career NHL games.
Ultimately, Beleskey’s fate will come down to whether or not he can prove he is more valuable to have in the bottom-six than a younger player. In other words, the odds are not exactly in his favor. However, the Rangers are currently focused more on philosophy, leadership, and development than they are on winning games. That should give Beleskey a real chance at impressing Quinn and making the roster.
4. Pavel Buchnevich
Gorton got Rangers fans excited with his comments about Buchnevich’s role and future earlier this summer. “I can see this as a big year for Pavel,” Jeff Gorton shared with MSG’s Stan Fischler. “He’s going to be introduced (by rookie coach David Quinn) to a new type of system and will have bigger minutes... He’ll be a top-six forward for a long time and should move from a 43-point [last] season to much more in the future.”
Most of us can’t help but project KZB as the Rangers’ top line on opening night, but there’s a chance that Quinn might see things differently. With that being said, there’s a clear message from the front office that Buchnevich is a top-six forward. One way or another, that will influence Quinn — and that’s not a bad thing.
Regardless of what kind of impression Buchnevich makes on Quinn early in camp, his stock is already higher than it ever was when Alain Vigneault was coaching. Hopefully, the days of Buchnevich being punished for his creativity are over. It should also help that there are a few more guys who speak Russian on the team. Speaking of which...
5. Vladislav Namestnikov
Last season in Tampa Bay Namestnikov was averaging 17:30 TOI/GP before he was dealt to New York. With the Rangers he averaged 15:43 TOI/GP and his production fell off a cliff after a titillating debut. Apparently playing with Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey is just not the same as playing with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Who’da thunk?
A strong showing in training camp should be all Namestnikov needs to shake the Etch A Sketch and erase his lackluster 19-game performance from last year. He should also be hungry to prove that he’s a top-six talent after signing his bridge deal and having his value questioned. No one wants to see Namestnikov prove that he’s a top-six forward worse than he does.
The Hayes situation (or debacle, depending on who you ask) could also open a door for the Russian. Namestnikov is a versatile, two-way forward. He should appeal more to Quinn and his style than the more one-dimensional Ryan Spooner. Where Namestnikov lands on Quinn’s depth chart is one of the biggest questions surrounding this year’s training camp.
Honorable Mentions: Boo Nieves, Kevin Hayes, Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil, Brady Skjei