The New York Rangers will have a different look in 2017 but the organization continues to have their eyes on the Stanley Cup.
As the dog days of summer transition to the fall season, New York Rangers fans are counting down to Opening Night.
And when the Blueshirts take the Madison Square Garden ice for the first time on October 5, there will be a different look to the franchise — and that’s not taking into account the new Adidas jerseys each team will wear this season.
After tweaking their core to start the 2016 campaign, Jeff Gorton and the rest of the front office parted ways with two veterans who were big parts of the Rangers’ DNA over the last number of years this offseason. Dan Girardi — who was a key, longstanding member of the blue line for 11 seasons — was bought out, while Derek Stepan — who served as the team’s number one center — was traded alongside Antii Raanta before the NHL Draft.
Both players were alternate captains and did a lot for the organization, both on and off the ice.
But with both Girardi and Stepan out of town, head coach Alain Vigneault will look towards young players maturing into stars themselves while also relying on new faces to contribute just as much.
The Rangers’ top four goal scorers remain on the roster — and although Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello continue to be primary offensive weapons, many believe (more so hope) that Chris Kreider, 26, and J.T. Miller, 24, not only continue their upward trajectory of top-line forwards but also become a one-two punch that can lead the Blueshirts into the next decade.
That sentiment also rings true with a pair of second-year forwards, Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich. It’s hard to imagine either youngster being go-to talents next season, but both Vesey and Buchnevich have skated in top-six roles and certainly have the talent to be staples on either the first or second lines.
The depth at wing will be something to look for as well. Michael Grabner finished last season with 27 goals — good for second on the Rangers — but some believe that was an anomaly. With Jesper Fast sidelined for the first few weeks of the season due to offseason hip surgery, the team will miss one of their most consistent and underrated talents. David Desharnais, who signed with the organization this offseason, may be looked upon to fill in at wing, even with the holes at center.
Speaking of center, this is where the Rangers’ biggest questions lie. it’s not that they lack talent.
Fortunately, it’s not because they lack talent.
With Stepan in Arizona, Mika Zibenajad will be promoted to number one center. The native of Sweden has all the potential in the world to thrive in that role but he must stay healthy to match the expectations. Kevin Hayes remains one of the most enigmatic players on the Rangers roster. He’s shown glimpses of a dominance but has yet to put it all together. The organization is hoping Hayes finds consistency this year.
Behind that duo is a trio of unproven NHL talents that could make noise well before fans expected them to. Due to their preseason performances, both Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil — two first-round picks in 2017 — could very well crack the opening night roster. There’s also Vinni Lettieri, who’s also impressed in exhibition games and is a dark horse to be wearing a Rangers sweater next week.
Whether they’re found or unfound, there are concerns on the offensive end of the ice.
But when it comes to defense, the front office did their best in creating one of the top on-paper units in the league.
The Rangers made what many believe was the best signing of the free agency period, as they signed premier defenseman and New York native Kevin Shattenkirk to a four-year, $26.6 million contract, one that many believed was beyond modest. He won’t only join captain Ryan McDonagh on the top pair but will also be a much-needed upgrade on the power play.
Behind them will be the duo of Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith. Skjei was largely considered the best prospect in the Rangers system and blossomed last season. Because he won’t be relied on as McDonagh’s partner, it will give him additional time to grow into a number one defenseman. Smith — who the team acquired at last year’s trade deadline and was re-signed to a four-year, $17.4 million pact — provides a unique combination of skill and grit.
The third pair is where things get murky. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
As it stands, long time Ranger Marc Staal and Nick Holden will occupy the final defensive pairing. But with younger options like Tony DeAngelo and Neal Pionk on the cusp of the NHL, both Staal and Holden will have to fight hard to keep their jobs.
Either way, the defense is expected to be more mobile and athletic, two things that plagued the position a year ago. The adjustments will bode well for netminder Henrik Lundqvist, who will need additional help as he gets up there in age.
When the Rangers begin their season, the mix of familiar and new faces will be apparent.
But that doesn’t matter to Vigneault. His eyes are always on the final prize.
“Last year is behind us,” Vigneault told the New York Post. “Didn’t play as well as we probably should have. This is a new year. We’re going to work towards our first goal, which is to get in [the playoffs]. Then we’re going to challenge for that Cup.”