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The Rangers’ Opening Night Roster Leaves Much to be Desired (Again)

In spite of having a solid lineup that appeared locked into place coming into training camp, some inexplicable decisions have made the Blueshirts worse off to open the season

2019 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s Groundhog Day on Broadway.

With a youth movement in full swing heading into the 2018-19 campaign, the Rangers appeared primed to let some of their top young players establish themselves as NHL players. That didn’t happen. Filip Chytil was the only major prospect to make the opening night roster, and the likes of Lias Andersson, Libor Hajek and friends started the season in Hartford. In their place stood players such as Adam McQuaid, Ryan Spooner, and Brendan Smith; sub-par veterans whose presence on the team went against everything the franchise’s rebuilding efforts allegedly stood for.

Over the last year, the Rangers have undergone drastic personnel changes, and those changes have muddied the waters in terms of their goals for the 2019-20 campaign. Former core players Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello have moved on to greener pastures, while the exits of Jimmy Vesey and Kevin Shattenkirk signified the the team’s splashy free agent signings of 2016 and 2017 had worn out their welcome.

In their place stand players that John Davidson hopes will be part of the team’s next core. Artemiy Panarin, Jacob Trouba, and Adam Fox were brought in from outside of the organization over the summer, and are poised to play a major role for the Rangers from opening night until the end of the season.

New York Islanders v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

In addition to external acquisitions, the Blueshirts agreed to entry-level contracts with a number of their top prospects and had them attend training camp for the first time. Vitali Kravtsov, Yegor Rykov, and Tarmo Reunanen headlined the list of players making their North American debuts with the Rangers throughout Traverse City and training camp. With the infusion of talent the Rangers have received since their last meaningful game in April against the Penguins, the team had multiple viable paths it could look to go down this season.

The youth movement could continue, with Kravtsov being joined by Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson as key players up front. While players like Panarin and Mika Zibanejad are still the unquestioned stars of the team, there’s still plenty of opportunity throughout the lineup to feed minutes to the team’s high-ceiling prospects and let them prove their worth.

Setting the bar as a high as the playoffs would be another reasonable expectation. Even though Kakko and Kravtsov shouldn’t be counted on to be major contributors immediately, second year leaps from the team’s sophomores isn’t unreasonable. Panarin’s addition up front gives the team a game breaking talent they’ve lacked since Marian Gaborik’s best days, and the additions of Trouba and Fox give the team a stronger back end to support Henrik Lundqvist.

Instead, John Davidson, Jeff Gorton, and David Quinn didn’t appear to arrive at either of those points.

This isn’t last season, where Andersson was joined by Michael Lindqvist, Ville Meskanen, and Ryan Lindgren in being victimized by the team’s poor decision making. Aside from Andersson, the players cut from last year’s camp didn’t have much pedigree to suggest they’d be impactful NHL players, so the decisions had minimal on impact on the on-ice product.

That isn’t the case this season. Micheal Haley, who attended camp on a PTO seemingly so the Rangers could fill their quota for dressing bad hockey players that like to punch dudes in pre-season, has signed a contract and officially made the team. Jeff Gorton had this to say about what Haley brings to the Blueshirts:

Greg McKegg, who many had penned as the top veteran call-up option out of Hartford, has made the team and is slated to be a regular on the 4th line. He’ll start the season next to Andersson and Brendan Lemieux. McKegg isn’t an otherworldly bad player in the mold of Haley or Tanner Glass, but he’s also not a player that should be seeing the ice unless he’s one of your 12 best forwards, and he certainly isn’t that for New York.

Brendan Smith, whose $4.35 million salary cap hit will burden the Blueshirts for the third consecutive season, has also made the team in spite of his onerous contract. There was a school of thought permeating around the Rangers’ world that if Smith made the team, it would be as something of a super utility player. As a perfectly capable depth defenseman with the “ability” (notice the quotation marks) to play forward as well, retaining Smith would allow the Rangers to bank cap space in the early part of the season by running a roster of only 18 skaters plus Smith serving as both the 13th forward and 7th defenseman.

All of that comes at the cost of Chytil, Kravtsov, and Yegor Rykov (once he gets healthy) opening the season in Hartford despite being wildly overqualified to do so. Chytil spent the entirety of last season on Broadway, and posted 23 points as a teenager in his first full NHL season. To throw that out and determine that he isn’t ready to man the middle on a team that’s giving 2nd line minutes to Ryan Strome based on a couple of pre-season contests is ludicrous.

Vitali Kravtsov is coming off of an excellent D+1 season in the KHL, and even with the additions of Panarin and Kakko, the Rangers could still use some offensive talent on the wing. McKegg and Lemieux will open the season on the 4th line, while Vlad Namestnikov and Jesper Fast will be flanking Brett Howden on the team’s third line. The latter two wingers are both perfectly serviceable players, and having them on the third line isn’t a problem. Bumping one of them down to the 4th line in favor of Kravtsov, would do nothing but positive things for the Rangers, so leaving the Russian rookie to toil in the AHL for now is beyond puzzling.

Although the Rangers open the season with a light schedule of three games in 13 days, the Wolfpack don’t play a whole lot more. The same times span the Rangers are playing three games, Hartford will skate in four. By the time week 8 of the NFL season rolls around, the final Sunday of October, both the Rangers and their affiliate will have played nine games.

There isn’t any justifiable defense for Chytil and Kravstov starting the year in Hartford. 13 minutes per game in the NHL is more valuable for them as opposed to 19 minutes a night in the AHL at this point. If the duo end up in the NHL sooner rather than later, it’ll minimize the on-ice damage. Regardless of how long they spend in the AHL, the Rangers’ roster decisions speak volumes about their decision makers.