The youthful, rebuilding New York Rangers started from the bottom now they’re here—in a spot close enough to see the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The New York Rangers were smart in identifying the end of an era prior to last year’s trade deadline when a letter from management to fans preempted a house cleaning to begin a rebuild. Nearly a year to the day that the Blueshirts parted ways with their captain among other veterans, the team has hoarded assets and should be looking to improve versus tank.
With the trade deadline approaching later this month, there will likely still be opportunities to add some more young talent or draft picks for players that are on the wrong side of 30, such as Adam McQuaid or Kevin Shattenkirk. That being said, the team should be wary of moving a mid-20s core that could form the foundation of another contender in the not so far away future.
The centerpiece of that discussion has been Kevin Hayes who while having an expiring contract is only 26 years old and has shown capability as a top-six forward as he approaches his prime.
Another potential trade piece is 31-year-old Mats Zuccarello who, despite being a fan favorite, has the potential to garner a haul from a playoff team and could have his best hockey behind him. Still, if the offers aren’t worthy returns for a top-line forward, the synergy that has emerged between Zuccarello and linemates Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, along with his strong locker room presence, could make a case for why Zuccarello should stay in New York.
On top of the names mentioned, the Rangers could keep the majority of their core and have a clear top line entering what is hopefully a playoff-bound season this fall, as well as a second line center in Hayes.
They would also have the treasure chest of additions they have brought along in their on-the-fly rebuild to try and fill out a roster built to win. Pavel Buchnevich, Vladislav Namestnikov, Ryan Strome and Jimmy Vesey will all be approaching an age where fans can be optimistic about them turning the corner into regular contributors.
Beyond those more experienced forwards, Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, Vitali Kravtsov, and Brett Howden are all poised to break into the roster with boundless potential at the start of next season or towards the end of this year if the team fails to make a playoff push or finds itself with holes in the roster.
On the back end, where the team has struggled, Neal Pionk, Brady Skjei and Tony DeAngelo have already been able to compete at the NHL level and in the system are K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist from last years first round of the draft and Libor Hajek, who was part of the return for McDonagh.
In addition to those more well-known names are Ty Ronning, who despite being a seventh-round pick recently broke a WHL record for goals held by Evander Kane, Hartford Wolfpack standout Tim Gettinger and even another potential goaltender for the post-Henrik Lundqvist era, alongside Alexander Georgiev, in Igor Shestyorkin.
Between the pipes may be where not looking back, but looking forward is most valuable. Henrik Lundqvist has not been immune to father time but still is capable of putting together stretches where he is a top-notch goaltender.
When the Rangers are next playing hockey in May, that could be useful. There is precedent for goalies to play at a high level as they approach 40.
In order for a team to win consistently as the Rangers did for most of the last decade, player acquisition and player development have to be successful from a mixture of good decision-making, coaching and certainly some luck. On top of the names mentioned above, the Rangers have an extra draft pick in one of the first two rounds from the Tampa Bay Lightning, which round will depend on how their season shakes out.
Between those upcoming picks and the players mentioned above, they will have to find the talent to return to playoff level hockey. They will also have a good chance at adding talent through free agency and have a history of succeeding in that arena. They have already been linked to this offseasons top prize in Artemi Panarin. While luck will still be required, the Rangers have put enough chips on the table to feel confident that some of their numbers will be called.
Many of the aforementioned players have not played more than a season in the NHL, yet the team is still in the playoff hunt, albeit on the outside. It isn’t time to tank, it’s time to build.