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The Kids Have Fight: Skeleton Squad Rangers Making Most of Remainder of Season

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Despite the deadline-day losses, New York’s blossoming young core is showing early signs of future contention

Washington Capitals v New York Rangers Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Having stripped down their club for parts and futures at the trade deadline just over a week ago, the New York Rangers have entered a skeletal state for the second straight year. Only this time, much of what’s left isn’t flotsam from the wreck, but pieces much more likely to define the success of this rebuild over the coming seasons.

Gone are fan favorites Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes. Adam McQuaid, too. Each shipped off to varying states of contenders with only the mere idea of a return ticket this summer — however unlikely — left to hold out hope for. Left in their wake though, is a load of salary cap space and plenty of runway for the club’s young hopefuls to take their shots with.

It’s no coincidence, either, that despite their winless record since the deadline in which the team has gone 0-1-2 over their last three games, and 0-1-3 just prior to it, the quality of their games played has been markedly improved. It’s almost like many of these youngsters are playing like they’ve got something to lose — like the roster spots they’ve suddenly found themselves in possession of.

Brendan Lemieux, acquired in the Hayes trade to the Winnipeg Jets, has been a physical presence in each game he’s dressed for, including a particularly memorable Rangers’ debut filled with piss and vinegar. If you’re failing to find an unfinished check or scrum he’s passed up an opportunity to enter since he’s come to New York, it’s because there hasn’t been one.

He even scored his first goal as a Ranger, and 10th on the year, in the team’s regulation loss to the Montreal Canadiens last Friday night. His attitude — part of the swagger that no doubt endeared him to the Rangers’ front office — followed him to the dressing room following the match in which he spoke to the moment with reporters.

”Meaningless,” Lemieux said of scoring his first goal in a Rangers uniform to reporters. “It doesn’t mean anything, you know? It’s obviously cool to get one, but it’s about winning hockey games. It’s not about individual anything.”

”He works hard and he’s got good stick skills — there’s a lot there,” head coach David Quinn said in response. “I’m certainly glad we traded for him.”

Between his endless effort and the hockey-speak — in this case, a positive for him — it’s difficult to envision Lemieux failing to make Quinn’s Rangers’ squad out of the gate next season, if not becoming something of a roster staple to boot.

Brendan Lemieux and Lias Andersson crashing the net Shayna Goldman | @hayyyshayyy

But he’s not the only one who’s taken charge of this newly found runway created by the loss of roster regulars who were dealt last Monday. Filip Chytil, who found himself scratched for a pair of games after the Rangers dropped an overtime contest immediately following the February 25 deadline, has been a force rewarded since drawing back in for the Blueshirts’ 3-2 shootout loss to the Capitals on Sunday afternoon.

”It seems in the week he’s been out, it’s been a different Filip Chytil,” Quinn said of the winger following the game. “He’s gone to another level with his work ethic and demeanor, and I thought this would be a good game to get him in.”

Chytil had just one assist in the game and played 13:31 of total ice time, but seemingly made the most of every shift. Perhaps nothing highlighted his bounce-back efforts more than his work on Pavel Buchnevich’s game-tying goal that knotted the game at 2-2 with a 5:40 to go in the second period. Shoved to the ice by Dmitry Orlov for it, the young Czech deflected a forced shot from the blue line by Tony DeAngelo and recovered his own attempt, finding a wide-open Buchnevich, who buried it. All from his back.

Filip Chytil finds Pavel Buchnevich from his back for the game-tying goal Shayna Goldman | @hayyyshayyy

”I did feel different,” the 19-year-old told reporters from the New York Post. “We had a lot of talks. The season is so long. I never played so many games. When I was out, I worked hard in practice and when I watched the games, I tried to focus on the details of what the coaches want from us. I tried to do that in this game.”

Whatever that was, exactly, was clearly noticed by Quinn, who responded by noting how much he “liked his approach to this game.”

Meanwhile, on the blue line, DeAngelo has arguably found the biggest role among this growing core of young building blocks. Not only is he running point on the club’s first power-play unit — ranked 15th in the league — but he was the most productive defender on the team through the month of February. His 11 points — all assists — topped next-best Kevin Shattenkirk’s seven points (also all apples) in one fewer game (12). He has a point in nine of the team’s last 10 contests.

DeAngelo, who established a single-game career-high in ice time (26:32) in the 4-3 overtime loss to the Lightning on February 27, has also been a physical presence in most of his games both prior to and following the deadline. This is of particular interest given he’s seemingly no longer playing under much threat of being made a healthy scratch due to the Rangers’ insistence on carrying eight NHL defenders this entire season, or the perception of “maturity issues” cited in early February that he seems to have bounced back from in a big way.

Lias Andersson and Brett Howden have both returned to the lineup at their proper positions with only room to grow ahead of them. The former has returned to the lineup since being recalled from Hartford back on February 21. He has just one assist since then, but has been relentless on the puck, especially on the penalty-kill, which should give him plenty of rope to work in finding his offensive game.

Lias Andersson makes a strong defensive play on the penalty-kill to strip Washington’s puck-carrier of possession. Shayna Goldman | @hayyyshayyy

Ryan Strome, who while not quite a kid at 25 or even necessarily thought of as the future of the team, is another player benefitting from the expanded role available on this skeleton squad. He has eight points in his last ten games and has moved into the club’s second-line center position for the time being, showing that it’s still too soon to give up on the former fifth overall pick. His strong play of late was even rewarded with the highest time on ice he’s played since joining the Rangers (20:11) against the Capitals on Sunday.

Even Libor Hajek, despite his early struggles this season in the AHL, earned high praise following his debut game against the Canadiens last Friday night.

“Loved his game. Loved it,” Henrik Lundqvist told reporters in the post-game. “He looks so poised, smart. Great skater. So many good things about his game. That was great to see him be out there, play a lot of minutes and do it really well.”

The rebuilding club still lacks star power and high-end offense, especially now without Zuccarello and Hayes, but is quietly building the kind of work ethic and game-to-game consistency that can underpin future renditions of the Rangers’ lineup — ones that should be far more productive should the team add a high-profile player or two this summer.

If you’re only following this team from the boxscore given the near-certain likelihood they’ll miss the playoffs for the second time in as many years, not to mention the lack of Zuccarello and/or Hayes, it’s understandable. Their record since selling off what few parts were worth tuning in for is surely no indication of must-watch-TV.

But beneath the bad luck and the bad endings, a world of good is brewing. Good that, given the right conditions to grow, could quickly be cast into the kind of young core needed not just to return the Rangers to the playoffs, but deep into them, making all this pain both the fans are team are suffering through at the moment worth it in the end.