Pondering the Importance of the Pre-Season

In spite of the excitement surrounding the return of Rangers hockey, it’s important to remember to take the pre-season for what it’s worth.

The New York Rangers are set to hit the ice for their first of six pre-season games leading up to the 2019-20 campaign tonight. Even though the games don’t matter quite yet, there’s always a sense of excitement when the puck drops for the first time at Madison Square Garden every fall. The Blueshirts’ pre-season schedule is the same for the fourth consecutive year, consisting of home and home sets with the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, and Philadelphia Flyers.

While the Rangers had a handful of high-upside prospects competing for roster spots last September, only Filip Chytil, Neal Pionk and Brett Howden managed to survive roster cuts throughout camp and make New York’s opening night roster. Lias Andersson was among the most surprising cuts of training camp, and he was joined by Libor Hajek, Ville Meskanen, Tim Gettinger, and a cavalcade of other prospects pushing for roster spots on Broadway.

Regardless of how certain players perform over the next two weeks leading into the regular season, last year’s situation is unlikely to repeat itself. While Chytil was the only prospect with “star” potential at last year’s training camp, there’s an argument to be made that last year’s Chytil would be the fourth most impressive prospect competing for a roster spot this fall.

Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Adam Fox are all expected to take the ice on October 3rd when the Rangers host the Winnipeg Jets to kick off the 2019-20 season. While none of those three should be expected to blow the doors off of the league, the trio should all be expected to make meaningful contributions to a Rangers team with playoff aspirations.

The same can be said for the team’s lower ceiling prospects in camp. Hajek will be joined by Yegor Rykov, Ryan Lindgren, and Joey Keane as young defenseman looking to help turn the team’s weakness from last season into a strength. Even with the arrivals of Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba, the exits of Pionk, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Freddy Claesson have created opportunities on the blue line that weren’t there for defensive prospects last September.

Add on to that the mystery of where Brendan Smith will begin the season, as well as Tony DeAngelo’s absence (for now), and it creates a perfect storm for the franchise’s other young defenseman. A strong training camp can be the first step of a running start towards a successful rookie season in the NHL.

However, with the excitement surrounding the return of hockey, some perspective tends to get lost when evaluating players. Coming into camp, fans and analysts alike tend to pencil players into roster spots, but come the end of the month, those same people can be clamoring for those same players to be buried in the minor leagues or thrust into a key role based on a handful of meaningless pre-season contests.

A player like Rykov could become a good example of this. Off all of the Rangers’ defensive prospects that’ll have to earn a roster spot in training camp, Rykov has inarguably the strongest credentials out of his peers. After getting drafted 132nd overall by the New Jersey Devils in 2016, Rykov has spent the last three seasons skating against grown-men in the second best league in the world. Although he had a limited role with the juggernaut SKA St. Petersburg team in his first two post-draft seasons, Rykov was transferred to HC Sochi for the 2018-19 season, and flourished in an expanded role.

Compare that with Libor Hajek, who struggled immensely in his first professional season with AHL Hartford last season before earning a five-game recall to the NHL (and actually playing very well!). Compare Rykov to Ryan Lindgren, another player who had a rough go of things adjusting to the rigors of professional hockey before being called up to New York, where he rode the struggle bus for five merciful games.

It’s a really strange thing that happens every September. If you made concrete judgements on whether a player was NHL-ready or not based on five games in the middle of the December, your stance might not be taken very seriously. Unless a player is clearly out of his depth, like Lindgren last season, a handful of games against legitimate NHLers giving 100% effort isn’t enough to draw conclusions from.

For some reason, a handful of practices and games against a mix of NHLers playing not to get hurt, minor league lifers on the ice to serve as camp bodies, and raw teenagers getting to put an NHL jersey on one or twice before heading back to major juniors is more than enough evidence to make roster decisions on. It’s a mystery why this continues to be the case, but training camp battles are always the focal point of every pre-season. Years upon years of game action at various levels seemingly get thrown to the wayside in favor of a couple of 15 minute spurts of play that get forgotten about three weeks later.

When the puck drops at MSG later tonight and you get to watch a Rangers game for the first time since last April, enjoy it for what it is: the return of NHL hockey. Just don’t make it out to be anything more than the glorified scrimmage that it is.