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Measuring Success for an Artemi Panarin-less New York Rangers

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Why even without the Russian superstar, the Blueshirts have a supremely bright future

Columbus Blue Jackets v New Jersey Devils Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

We are presumably one day away from learning the outcome of the three horse race for Artemi Panarin — a sweepstakes the Rangers are serious contenders in, even if they’re not quite front-runners. According to all the usual insider suspects, the Blueshirts are in competition with the Panthers and Islanders for his services, though the front office does have an $11.5 million 38th parallel they’re unwilling to move beyond.

Should New York land Panarin, it’s clear that not only will the Rangers’ rebuild have been substantially accelerated, it’ll likely red line, with expectations for what this roster is supposed to be next year rising in conjunction. While the long-term goal of perennial Cup contention hasn’t shifted no matter the outcome, just how quickly the Rangers expect to open that window will largely hinge on Panarin’s decision.

Given the likely inclusion of both Vitali Kravtsov and Kaapo Kakko, not to mention the addition of Jacob Trouba, the Blueshirts could already be a dark horse wild card team. Add in Panarin, and it’s difficult to argue they’re not one, if only on paper.

”We think we’re going to have the team, if we continue to make moves, that is going to put us in position to [make the playoffs],” David Quinn told NHL.com late last week.

But the Panarin-to-New-York talk has reached such a fever pitch that it also feels as though it’s being willed into existence, which is going to leave a lot of fans terribly upset in the event it doesn’t happen. It’ll also require a dramatic realignment of their expectations next season.

The reality of the situation is this, though: even without Panarin, there’s nothing truly stopping the Rangers from being that scrappy, tough-to-play-against squad who could still threaten the East’s wild card picture, because that’s exactly the type of team they’re designed to be.

A lot can change — and likely will — between now and the start of training camp in September, but barring the floor falling out from under them due to injuries or unexpected regressions (or both), the Rangers stand to enter next year as one of the youngest, hardest-working teams with numerous players in their lineup that will command possession of the puck.

At the top of that list is clearly Kaapo Kakko, who is projected to spearhead this new era of hockey in New York. Back in May, Alex Nunn — one of Blueshirt Banter’s European correspondents — had this to say about the young Finn:

He’s big, strong on his skates, and extremely persistent. Kakko uses his frame and reach well to protect the puck in all areas and shield possession during offensive-zone battles. He forechecks and harries relentlessly, reigniting dead plays and often turning nothing into something with a steal and quick set-up.

From his dominating performance at the World Junor Championship earlier this year in which he set a Finnish league record for goals by a U18 player, to game-in and game-out clips from any of his games leading up to the draft — it’s not hard to see why he’s drawn comparisons to players such as Peter Forsberg, Rick Nash, and even Jaromir Jagr, all to varying degrees.

But Kakko won’t be alone in this endeavor. Vitali Kravtsov — who has drawn comparisons to Evgeny Kuznetsov, and who dazzled in the Rangers’ Prospect Development Camp last week — will likely be right there beside him.

”It was awesome,” Morgan Barron said of Kravtsov’s play in Development Camp. “When I saw him skating up the ice, I figured I should probably get as close as possible, because you never know what he’s going to do, he’s so creative.”

Watching him on the ice, it’s easy to see what the Rangers fell in love with to convince them to take him ninth overall last summer — a decision somewhat derided at the time given it left Oliver Wahlstrom on the board, but one the Rangers look vindicated for doing with each passing day.

One, if not both of Kakko and Kravtsov are probably top-six forwards to start the year, or if not out of the gate, not long thereafter given their impressive skill sets.

Once you’re past the hype of a pair of could-be Calder finalists, the talent doesn’t drop off far, either. There’s still 26-year-old Mika Zibanejad, who had 30 goals and 74 points on the sixth-worst team in the league last year. Zibanejad was the first Rangers center since Eric Lindros to hit the 30-goal mark as a Ranger.

Presuming neither is traded before the start of the year, Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich — both of whom easily meet the minimum standards of quality complementary scorers — follow suit here. The Rangers face a big decision on the former, who is entering the final year of his deal ahead of free agency next summer.

”Based on what happens in the next few months we may not have the Hayes and Zuccarello situations hanging over our head,” Quinn said of the pending Kreider situation. “You could sense as we were getting close to the trade deadline there was a different feel in the locker room.”

That feeling isn’t one Quinn wants back, and neither does the front office, so Kreider will either be traded or re-signed well before camp begins. But if he’s here for the long haul, he’s every bit a positive part of the makeup regarding the efforts to get the Rangers back into the postseason again.

19-year-old Filip Chytil, who will turn 20 to start the year, will be entering his second full season, as will 21-year-old Brett Howden. The former could even find himself in the advantageous position of filling the Rangers’ second-line center void where he’ll no doubt benefit riding shotgun to either Kakko or Kravtsov. Mike will have more on that later today, so stay tuned.

And there’s still hard-nosed types like Jesper Fast, Vladislav Namestnikov, Brendan Lemieux, and perhaps Lias Andersson left still to round out a bottom-six with. Plus whatever the Rangers shop for in the one- or two-year market that could include names such as Brian Boyle, Ryan Hartman, or Garnet Hathaway.

Panarin’s addition to this group, in any configuration, would improve their fortunes by an order of magnitude, but his exclusion wouldn’t leave them a wasteland, either. Because much of the work done by Gorton and the front office to inject this roster with young, dynamic talents holds true whether Panarin is in the picture or not.

On the back end, Trouba, who will logically assume top pairing duties once signed, will be counted on heavily to fulfill Quinn’s direction. And he has all the tools to make it work, including the kind of bite that should quickly endear him to both coach and crowd.

Adam Fox should also make for a difficult out in camp, provided his play in his own end improves enough to satisfy Quinn, who made note of the fact the Rangers won’t “throw him right in,” if he’s not ready for prime time.

”For a guy who has had so much success in his career driven by his offense and his ability to get out of the zone, he’s going to have to defend to a level he’s never has had to before,” Quinn said of Fox. “I also think he’s a guy who is driven and committed to it so there’s an opportunity for him to do that and he’s going to get every opportunity in training camp to make our team.”

Fox’s would-be addition would radically improve an already improved Rangers blue line (thanks to Trouba) that isn’t yet finalized, but is well on its way towards it with Tony DeAngelo left to account for and reinforcements on the way.

Who knows — perhaps Yegor Rykov and/or Libor Hajek perform so well they force the Rangers’ hands even more in turning things over on defense. There’s still a second buyout window at their disposal (though any decision made there would precede camp), and Ryan Spooner’s buyout in Vancouver just freed up another slot for potential salary retention should the team talk trade prior to the start of the season. It’s far too early to count chickens just yet.

The accelerator has been firmly pressed. There’s no denying that now. But defining “success” next season cannot, or should not, solely hinge on the decision Panarin makes. Doing so would be entirely reactionary and would discount the incredible progress that’s been made since last season’s trade deadline — much of which has already improved both the short- and long-term outlook of these future Rangers by a very real margin.

Panarin or not, the Blueshirts’ unique combination of skill and snarl, ability and bite, should make not only for vastly more entertaining hockey next season, but better fortunes, too.