The New York Rangers were just two points shy of a wild-card spot upon the NHL’s pause, and the success was a direct result of their rookies.
As the 2019-20 season began last October, the New York Rangers organization was anticipating a struggle due to the many rookies inserted into the lineup.
Over a few-month period, general manager Jeff Gorton and head coach David Quinn knew their decisions were verified as the Blueshirts made great strides and were the hottest squad in the NHL before the league’s pause.
The rookies have created quite a stir in RangersTown. On offense, Kaapo Kakko and Julien Gauthier have become recognizable everyday names.
Kakko, the No. 2 overall selection in the 2019 NHL Draft, has had a tough time adjusting to the NHL’s ways. In 66 contests, the Turku, Finnland native has notched 10 goals and 23 points. The speed of the game as a whole is seemingly his biggest issue. Nonetheless, his hand skills with the pucks have been great since the beginning of training camp and continue to improve as the season progresses.
The Finn has also needed to adjust to not playing on the top line every single night, which has reduced his ice time to around 14 minutes per game. Kakko has notched three game-winning goals on the season.
On Feb. 18, Gauthier was acquired by the Rangers and immediately became a prominent player on the fourth line. A hard-working forward, Gauthier’s best work on the ice hasn’t been his goal-scoring abilities (though he has a great shot), but instead his skating and defensive skills. He’s averaged 8.5 minutes per game but is noticeable every single time he steps onto the ice.
Rookies shine on defense
The Blueshirts have been weak on the blueline over the past four or five seasons. This year, they’ve found the dynamic duo in Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren.
Fox was acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes last season. He hadn’t signed an NHL entry-level contract and the Hurricanes knew they had to move him. Luckily for the Rangers, Broadway was the place he wanted to play.
Fox has turned out to be a diamond in the rough. He’s seemingly become a top-tier defenseman overnight. Having appeared in all 70 games this season, he’s assisted on 34 goals, 12 of which have been with a man advantage. The 22-year-old has become a leader on the ice, as his confidence in his game has improved throughout the campaign.
Fox has played on the team’s top power-play unit at times and has been on the ice against other teams’ best players. Simply speaking, he’s proven to be the defenseman fans haven’t seen since the era of Brian Leetch.
Not to be outdone, Lindgren has been Fox’s partner for most of the year. Ryan’s style of play is very similar to former Rangers defenseman, a warrior in his own time, Dan Girardi.
Lindgren is a fast skating, shot-blocking, no-holds-barred hockey player. He’s the complete package of what a team looks for in regards to standing the blueline in today’s NHL.
The new warrior has played in 60 games this season, having registered one goal and 14 points. He’s the perfect complement to Fox not because of his offense, but because of what he can do on defense.
He’s blocked 70 shots on the season and has handed out 94 bone-crushing hits. For the most part, games end with blood coming out of some part of Lindgren’s face or head due largely in part to his no-back-down attitude.
Igor Shesterkin recall puts NHL on notice
Jan. 6, 2020 is a day that will be remembered by all Rangers fans. The future became the present when the club recalled Igor Shesterkin from the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack.
The rookie wasted no time finding a niche in goal, winning his first NHL game against the Colorado Avalanche the following day. The heir to Henrik Lundqvist went on to win nine of his first 10 games and conjure up a 10-2 record before an unfortunate car accident. The season suspension then halted him from taking the team to an improbable wild-card position.
Shesterkin has held a .932 save percentage with a 2.52 goals-against average. Quinn named him the No. 1 starter on Feb. 13, all but ending the Lundqvist era.
The Rangers are ranked third in the NHL in games played by rookies (250). The two teams in front of them are the Chicago Blackhawks (303) and the injury-riddled Columbus Blue Jackets (328).
The outcome of this season may be in doubt, but one thing is clear: The future of the Rangers is bright.
The team added depth in scoring with the addition of superstar winger Artemi Panarin last summer. The build-up and unexpected success on defense will make the Blueshirts a dominant factor and Stanley Cup contender for years to come.