It was a relatively busy summer for the New York Rangers, who picked up one of the top forwards available in Artemi Panarin and snagged defenceman Jacob Trouba. The Blueshirts are hoping for advancement, but they’re also being sensible with their expectations. That may not exactly fill the seats with embellishments of Broadway splendour, but maybe moderation is the way to go.
“I want people to be excited, but I’m also the voice of reason, or I’m going to try to be,” said Rangers president John Davidson. “Two or three players don’t make a team, don’t make a real good team. We’re in a much better spot, I think, than what we were some time ago, and it’s going to be exciting, but it’s still hard. It’s hard to win in this league. It’s hard to make the playoffs in this league. We’re going to get there, but there’s no magical things that you do that make it quicker or easier.”
In the world of professional sports, talking about how it’s “hard to win in this league” isn’t exactly confidence-instilling. But pragmatism is refreshing and the Rangers absolutely have work to do. Last season, they finished 20 points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second wild cart spot in the Eastern Conference.
That 32-36-14 record is painful. They scored just 227 goals, tying them with the Detroit Red Wings, and they allowed a depressing 272 goals against. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist had an off year, to say the least, going 2-11-3 over the course of his final 16 starts. Alexandar Georgiev earned more than his share of starts to close things out.
The Rangers had three players with over 20 goals last season: Pavel Buchnevich, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. Zibanejad had 30 goals and led the squad with a total of 74 points in 82 games. It was a career year for the 26-year-old and marked a rare bright spot for New York, who’ll use Zibanejad along with Panarin for a slick one-two punch.
And believe me, Panarin makes this team better. The former Blue Jacket is an elite NHLer, scoring 87 points in 79 games last season, including 28 goals and 59 assists. He’s among the top five left wingers in the league and should see everything from a higher shot volume to more time on the power play.
It’s believed that the Rangers will look to number two pick Kaapo Kakko to make an immediate impact. He’s already seen time on the top line in pre-season play and even joined the big power play unit, skating with Zibanejad, Panarin, Trouba, and Chris Kreider. Kakko joins the Rangers having broken Aleksander Barkov’s Liiga scoring record for under-18 skaters.
Kreider is a dependable secondary scorer. He tied his career high in goals last season with 28 and has put up at least 0.64 points per game over the last three years. He notched a career-high 201 shots on goal last season and will probably find himself on the second line, although exposure to the top power play crew should boost production.
General manager Jeff Gorton stuck to his plan and acquired defenceman Trouba in mid-June, swapping a draft pick and Neal Pionk to the Jets. That pick came from Winnipeg in the first place as part of the trade for rental Kevin Hayes. Also part of the plan, the Rangers bought out Kevin Shattenkirk. He’s now with Tampa.
Trouba is joined by Marc Staal, Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith, Adam Fox, and Libor Hájek. Anthony DeAngelo is a restricted free agent, but the Rangers don’t seem too worried about it. They’ve had Smith in his spot and appear willing to wait it out, offering him about a one-year deal in a “take it or leave it” situation.
With Skjei and Trouba as the top pair and Hájek and Fox as the second, that sticks Smith with a few prospects. And that opens up the discussion for Staal. What part the 32-year-old will have on a team bursting with young blueliners remains to be seen, but it’s likely he’ll slip into a mentorship role. He carries a high price tag and can’t really keep up with the league game, but trading him out is a non-starter.
After Lundqvist posted his worst-ever stats in wins and save percentage, it’s tempting to hope against hope for a bounce-back season. And indeed, the veteran netminder has been capable of returning to form throughout his career. He is a storied presence on Broadway and is under contract for two more seasons, at which point decisions will have to be made.
That’s what makes Georgiev so exciting. It is almost a foregone conclusion that the 23-year-old will see more starts. Last season, he started 30 games – a big jump from the nine starts he made in his rookie year. Georgiev posted a 2.91 goals against average and a .914 save percentage to go with two shutouts.
The Rangers are moderating expectations this season and it’s only right for fans to do the same. While fantasy owners have more than a few potential picks to mull over, New York’s roster is probably going to come up short in the standings. That doesn’t mean Panarin, Zibanejad, Trouba, and Kakko won’t be worth a serious look.