Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, Kaapo Kakko
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

As the season approaches, which New York Rangers players should we keep a close eye on at training camp? There are several who stand out. 

Training camp for the New York Rangers is fast approaching. Very few teams made as much noise as the Blueshirts did this past offseason. Very suddenly, a team that was in the midst of a rebuild, may very well be contending for a playoff spot next year.

With great new talent coming in and some key veterans returning, the Rangers have plenty of guys to keep an eye on. It has a lot of fans optimistic for this season and the other seasons to come.

With that being said, here are the top five Rangers players to keep an eye on in training camp:

5. Jacob Trouba

Unfortunately, things just didn’t work out with Kevin Shattenkirk. The Rangers bought out his contract last week. Now, there needs to be a new quarterback on the powerplay. That player will likely be Jacob Trouba.

Trouba is coming to New York after playing six years with the Winnipeg Jets. He is a well-balanced player on both ends of the ice, which the Rangers can use help in both areas. He is coming off a career-high in points with 50 (eight goals, 42 assists).

The only thing to nitpick, if anything, is his +/- rating. Last season his +/- was eight and his career-high is 10. Though 18 of his 50 points last year did come on the power play. So maybe that’s just overthinking. The Blueshirts are getting a defenseman in his prime. Let’s see how the 25-year-old adjusts to playing in the big apple.

4. Vitali Kravtsov

With the big free-agent signing, the trades and the high draft pick this year, Vitali Kravtsov has been flying under the radar. The media hasn’t been giving him as much as attention as the likes of Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, Artemi Panarin or even Adam Fox.

Regardless, Kravtsov is not a player to sleep on. He’s a skillful player that can make some noise. Last season with Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL, the 19-year-old put up 21 points (8 goals, 21 assists) in 50 games. Keep in mind, Kravtsov played in a league with grown men on a team that was not a juggernaut to the likes of SKA St. Petersberg. Even without that much help around him, Kravtsov led the KHL in raw scoring for a player under 20-years-old.

Kravtsov might not be as big of a name as Kakko or Panarin. People have been sleeping on the ninth overall pick of the 2018 draft with all the other moves made. However, if Kravtsov can adjust to a different rink and transition well to the NHL, people are going to wish they didn’t turn a blind eye to the Russian winger.

3. Artemi Panarin

The big fish of the 2019 free agency class, Artemi Panarin left money on the table from the Columbus Blue Jackets and the New York Islanders because he wanted to be a Ranger. Though it was a discount, he still has a big cap hit of $11.6 million a year. With a cap hit like that, saying you hope he pans out the way you want him to is an understatement. However, Panarin gives Ranger fans a lot of reasons to be excited.

Last year with Columbus, Panarin reached a career-high in points with 87 (28 goals, 59 assists). Now, he is trying to bring that production to the Big Apple. Panarin is no stranger to the bright lights of a big city. The Russian native played his first two years in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks, where he has his career-high in goals with 31 in 2016-17.

Panarin being on the first line is almost guaranteed at this point. Now, he has to gel with his new teammates. If Panarin can develop chemistry alongside the number one center in Mika Zibanejad, it’s going to be very difficult to play against that first line.

2. Henrik Lundqvist

Last season, things started out good for Henrik Lundqvist. He even went on to represent the Rangers at the NHL All-Star game. However, as the season went on, the 37-year-old’s game did begin to decline as he gave three goals or more often.

There are two things to take in consideration there:

  1. The Rangers defense allowed him to get peppered with many shots every other night. The Rangers averaged the third-most shots against per game last season.
  2. Head Coach, David Quinn was in his first season behind the bench and perhaps gave Hank too much of a workload to start the year.

This led to Alexandar Georgiev starting many more games towards the end of the season.

Lundqvist holds himself to a very high standard. With two years left on his contract, Lundqvist is committed to the Rangers even when they announced their rebuild. This year, Lundqvist has a little more help on defense and Quinn most likely learned from his rookie mistake behind the bench. Can he get up to the standard of play we’ve known him for the past few years?

Honorable mentions

Mika Zibanejad

NHL.com put out a list of top 20 centers and Mika Zibanejad did not make the cut. Surprising, considering he is coming off a career year that saw him put up 30 goals and averaged almost a point a game (74 in 82 games). However, the people who made that list are probably waiting for him to duplicate those numbers before putting him there. So look for Zibanejad to have another great season on Broadway.

Adam Fox

New York native Adam Fox didn’t find a spot with the Carolina Hurricanes. It’s hard to blame him considering that the Canes have a solid defensive core as it is and it’s hard to find a spot for him. Their loss is the Rangers gain. Fox put up 48 points (nine goals, 39 assists) in 33 games with Harvard last season. Not only that, his +/- rating was 23. Given all the shots given up last year, Fox is a step in the right direction.

Chris Kreider

As it stands right now, Chris Kreider will still be on the Rangers roster at the start of the season. The Rangers still need to make some room in the salary cap and Kreider is entering his contract year and his name has come up in trade rumors. Last season Kreider was well on his way to a new career-high in goals until a lower-body injury slowed him down. Kreider has yet to have a 30-goal season in his career. If he is still on the roster come opening night, he might have to put up those kinds of numbers to force the Rangers to keep him and give him an extension.

1. Kaapo Kakko

Yeah, you all saw this coming. The second-overall pick of the draft possesses tremendous upside that he put on display at every level he has played so far. Kaapo Kakko is bringing his great skill, size and high hockey IQ with him to North America.

The question is this, how well is he going to adjust to a smaller hockey rink? I predicted he’s going to put up great numbers and I still stand by that. However, Kakko still needs to get used to playing on a rink that does not allow him as much space to make some of the nifty moves he is known for.

As if gelling with new teammates was not enough of a challenge. Regardless, Kakko is the future face of the franchise and arguably has the most to prove at camp this year. He is always going to be linked to Jack Hughes, who the New Jersey Devils picked before him. Kakko did close the gap between him and Hughes leading up to the draft, and if the Rangers and Devils rivalry wasn’t intense enough, they now have their own version of Auston Matthews vs Patrik Laine. A player with that much potential is sure to draw a lot of attention.

Kakko is not only one of the most anticipated players on the roster, but also the future of this franchise, and that makes him the number one Ranger player to keep an eye on in Rangers’ training camp.

Can these players, as well as the rest of the roster, bring the Rangers back into contention? As training camp and the preseason arrive and carry on, we will get closer to the answer of that question. In the meantime, keep an eye on these guys as the season approaches.

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