With only a few preseason games remaining and the team’s season opener on October 13 a week away, I can say that it feels like hockey season.
Yes, the calendar has been flipped from September to October for a few days now and cooler weather has come along with it, but for whatever reason it was hard for me to make the transition from offseason mode to “game on.” Maybe this is just fatigue as a sports fan because of how the Mets fell apart for the umpteenth time, but a week from today it is truly going to be hockey time!
Storylines to Watch Throughout the Season
There’s a couple of key storylines this season, and I happen to think these are the biggest.
- Youth Movement Continues
- Year 1 of Gerard Gallant
- Addition of Grit and Grind to Balance Lineup
- The Future at Center
The Rangers are all in on their young talent from Alexis Lafrenière, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, and Vitali Kravtsov up front, to the back end with Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, K’Andre Miller, and newcomer Nils Lundkvist. There’s also Igor Shesterkin in between the pipes, but the soon-to-be 26-year-old is more of a veteran than he is a kid.
The subtraction of Pavel Buchnevich (more on that later), means that the Blueshirts will be in a position to give a ton of opportunity in the top-six to kids. The lone veteran in the top-six on wing could be Artemiy Panarin, depending on Chris Kreider’s deployment this season, and while Panarin certainly will be an impact player for the Blueshirts, a lot of the team’s success this year hinges on some of the kids taking some big leaps forward.
Lafrenière had an up and down rookie season in the league, but looked more comfortable as the season progressed. There was a lot of expectations placed on him as a No. 1 overall pick coming to a team in a major market, and it didn’t help that a significant amount of time passed between his last QMJHL game and his NHL debut. This year Lafrenière had a regular offseason, and will look to take what he learned last year and improve upon the -1.7 GAR (Evolving-Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement) he finished with to end last season. As I pointed out in his report card, Jack Hughes was worse in Year 1 than Lafrenière was, and he took things to another level in Year 2. Lafrenière has a smaller gap to close, so there’s reason to feel positive regarding his game heading into 2021-22.
#NYR Gerard Gallant had an interesting observation on Alexis Lafreniere:— Mollie Walker (@MollieeWalkerr) October 5, 2021
“He’s a little overconfident. He comes in and he’s – not cocky – but he’s loose. And that’s a good thing. As long as you can handle it the right way and be ready for the game."
Is Alexis Lafrenière ready for top line minutes this season?— Rangers Videos (@SNYRangers) October 5, 2021
"Yeah, I feel ready. I had a big summer, got leaner and a little bit faster" pic.twitter.com/6kQKG2UQI2
In many respects, Vitali Kravtsov is a wild card. His long winding journey from draft day to the NHL has had multiple twists and turns, but this year is a clean slate of sorts, and a fresh start. In 20 games he had an underwhelming GAR of -2.7, and he averaged 12:24 a game skating primarily in the bottom-six. David Quinn was unable to find enough time and opportunity for Kravtsov, and that’s something that will change under Gerard Gallant who rewards players who work hard and also likes to balance ice time.
There’s a good chance he will start the season as the third-line right wing, assuming his injury doesn’t hold him back, and he could find himself with Chytil at center, and Barclay Goodrow on the left. This situation puts him with a talented center who can get him the puck, and a defensive nose-to-the-grindstone winger who will retrieve pucks and cause havoc at the net mouth, both of whom should help Kravtsov do what he does best.
This season could be a big one for Chytil too, as his 2020-21 campaign was derailed by a hand injury that lingered even when he returned to the lineup.
Interesting convo with Filip Chytil today. It really sounds like that hand injury lingered last season & he offered a strong response when I asked about playing center.— Vince Z. Mercogliano (@vzmercogliano) September 30, 2021
“If the coach puts me at wing, I’ll play there. But for me, center is my main position. I want to stay there.”
Despite the injury, Chytil finished with a career best season in GAR at 5.2 which was eighth overall on the Rangers. His 22 points in 42 games were one shy of his career high, but it was a career high in points per game at 0.52. The Rangers plan on using him as a center, and ideally it would be great if he’s ultimately able to take over the No. 2 spot from Ryan Strome. If he can continue his progression forward, it will make things a little less complicated for the Rangers as they contemplate to do with the top-line spot, whether that involves keeping/trading Mika Zibanejad, or trying to work out something with Jack Eichel way down the line. Or soon, because it is an ever changing situation.
Sources say the Eichel saga may be shifting. Ongoing discussions and additional access to Jack Eichel’s medical file has helped teams with trade interest clearly see his situation. Both sides are hopeful something can be worked out soon with one of the clubs in the mix.— Darren Dreger (@DarrenDreger) October 6, 2021
On the back end all eyes will primarily be on Nils Lundkvist, K’Andre Miller, and maybe Zac Jones depending on how many games he spends on the roster. Fox and Lindgren are an established pairing who the Rangers will continue to lean on, but the continued development of Miller, and the acclimation of Lundkvist is important to the Rangers’ success this season. Lundkvist had two amazing seasons in the SHL back-to-back, and the hope is that he’s able to bring that level of play to MSG. In the preseason he’s looked good, with some forgettable moments for sure, but overall he has shown why he was so touted in the first place.
As for Miller, he’s in line to start the season alongside Jacob Trouba, and his rookie season was mostly good. Toward the end of the year you could see some fatigue in his game, plus the division adjusted to him. He ended the year with a GAR of -1.4. It’s not the end of the world in the slightest as he performed very well for a rookie in context to someone like Libor Hajek who posted a -2.9 GAR in 44 games played.
I’ve mentioned him a bit already, but the second major storyline is the impact of replacing David Quinn with Gerard Gallant. Gallant was my top choice to replace Quinn, considering that Rod Brind’Amour wasn’t going to be available, and I outlined my reasons here.
As a refresher:
- Gallant has experience with young teams and players, and has shown the ability to utilize both youngsters and veterans
- He’s a player’s coach who lives game to game and puts trust in his players, doesn’t believe in extended benchings or punishment for bad play, and balances his squad’s ice time
- He’s a former offensive power forward who can relate to players on the roster and what they can bring stylistically
- His track record has shown the ability to elevate teams when he’s given time to do so, but his last two stints ended prematurely
At a minimum, Gallant can be successful if he gives the talent on his team the opportunity to play and make contributions, and let them work through things. Quinn was notorious for jumbling the lines and being a master tinkerer, but historically Gallant has been the exact opposite. There’s bound to be an adjustment period, but overall Gallant’s hiring should be a benefit to the organization.
Lastly is the how the Rangers’ shift toward adding grit and grind will impact their lineup. Departures for the Blueshirts include Pavel Buchnevich (traded to St. Louis), Colin Blackwell (picked by Seattle in Expansion Draft), Phillip Di Giuseppe (signed with Vancouver) and Brett Howden (traded to Vegas) just to name a few.
Barclay Goodrow (acquired from Tampa and signed), Sammy Blais (acquired from St. Louis), and Ryan Reaves (acquired from Vegas and signed) were added to the fold, and each was added to add grit, grind, and toughness. Goodrow is a versatile mostly defensive-minded forward who plays all three positions, is decent at the faceoff dot, and was part of a key line along with Blake Coleman and Yanni Gourde during the Tampa Bay Lightning’s last two Stanley Cup victories.
The organization grossly overpaid Goodrow ($3.6 million for six years) but he should be an effective, major pain-in-the-ass player for the next couple of years. He’s currently projected to play with Chytil and Kravtsov, and it is quite possible he benefits offensively, or at the very least picks up some much appreciated garbage goals.
Blais, along with a second round pick, came to the Rangers in the Pavel Buchnevich trade which remains quite a headscratcher as the team sits with $9,396,031 in cap space and a gaping hole in the top six. The addition of Blais isolated from the Buchnevich deal isn’t bad, as the 25-year-old does bring an element of ruggedness, with some skill, a blend the team didn’t have.
He’s an average offensive player who doesn’t grade out well defensively, but he’s got only 131 games under his belt. This is only to say that there’s some time for improvement, and he deserves a chance to show what he can do on a new team.
Lastly is Reaves who is pretty much the team’s hired gun and enforcer for Tom Wilson, and Tom Wilson-like issues. There’s no way of spinning it otherwise, as he’s not as effective in other elements of the game. At one point Reaves was a serviceable player who also fought, but at this point in his career his primary skill is dropping the mitts and throwing bombs.
How the addition of these forwards complement the team remains to be seen, and while I am not a fan of the moves and feel that there were alternatives that could have been explored, I am going to do my best to keep an open mind. This sport is weird and unpredictable at times, and for all we know Blais and Goodrow will click with their respective linemates and fit in seamlessly. I didn’t mention Dryden Hunt, because he’s seemingly the low buy, high potential upside for Blackwell, as he looks to start the year as a potential extra forward. He’s an interesting option, but it comes down to what opportunity he will have. We shall see soon enough in that regard.
Lastly, there’s the future at center. As I mentioned above, the Rangers need to figure out what they are doing with Mika Zibanejad. He’s in line for a big extension, which he has 100 percent earned, but the team needs to strike a balance. This can also be a big year for Chytil, and him showing the ability to be a long-term No. 2 center would allow the team to try and maximize whatever value Ryan Strome has at the trade deadline.
The Rangers freed up significant cap space when they dealt Buchnevich, but the money hasn’t been spent yet, or allocated for future extensions on someone like Adam Fox. The uncertainty around Eichel is going to be a storyline in the NHL until he has some type of surgery, and ultimately I think he’s not an on the-ice option for any team until 2022-23, assuming the stalemate continues on the trad front. That said, the Rangers still have options.
I think they will ultimately extend Zibanejad on a deal that neither particularly likes (shorter than Mika wants, more money than Chris Drury wants), and then go about building out the rest of the roster starting next offseason. The team’s next steps ultimately will be dictated by the on-ice performance, and for that reason I wouldn’t rule out a potential trade if things aren’t looking good at the deadline.
Player To Watch
Kakko took tremendous steps forward in his sophomore season, and there’s reasons to be bullish on him entering year three. The Rangers’ 2019 No. 2 overall pick was one of the NHL’s best defensive forwards last season, and overall he saw his GAR increase by 12.5, and his SPAR increase by 4.3.
A couple early chances for new-and-improved Kaapo Kakko. Being aggressive with that shot. #NYR— Vince Z. Mercogliano (@vzmercogliano) September 28, 2021
This summer was a productive one for Kakko which saw him focus on getting faster and stronger, and he is focused on being a more involved offensive player in 2021-22. Unless something catastrophic happens, Kakko projects to be a fixture in the top-six for the entire season, and will get power play time, something that was lacking under Quinn. He’s also going to get a look on the penalty kill, and that’s a situation that could be productive for him based on his ability to make defensive stops and transition the puck up the ice into the offensive zone.
While I completely expect Lafrenière to take steps forward, I feel Kakko’s the player to watch based on how big a jump he took last season, and how he’s put himself in a position to succeed this season.
Igor Shesterkin is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy
Last season was Igor Shesterkin’s first “full” season as a NHL player, and he put up a pretty impressive performance. The Rangers’ starting netminder posted a GAR of 16.4 which was ninth in the league, and I am predicting that he improves upon that in 2021-22. I believe Igor, much like Henrik Lundqvist before him, will be a big reason why the Rangers make the playoffs and therefore will be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as one of the league’s top goaltenders. He has a solid track record in professional hockey thus far, and him taking another big step is something fans can hope for in 2021-22.
Artemiy Panarin sets record for most assists in single season by a left wing
Depending on what list you look at, either Bob MacMillian (71) or Joe Juneau (70) hold the NHL record for most assists in a single season by a left wing. There’s some debate whether or not MacMillian truly played at left wing, but it may become irrelevant soon. So my *prediction, or my agreement with Down Goes Brown, is that Panarin will have a record year in assists. Panarin tallied 63 assists in 69 games during his first season on Broadway, and 41 in 42 games last season. This season represents an opportunity for Panarin to play a full season, and based on what he’s done previously there’s a really good chance he tallies close to an assist per game in 2021-22.