TORONTO, ONTARIO - AUGUST 04: James Reimer #47 of the Carolina Hurricanes makes a save against the New York Rangers during the first period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Qualification Round prior to the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena on August 04, 2020 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
(Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)

The New York Rangers’ time in the bubble wasn’t ideal, but the future is bright, especially on the attack.

When the NHL season came to a halt in March, the New York Rangers were one of the hottest teams in the league but were still out of a playoff spot.

Lucky for them, the NHL decided on a Return to Play Plan in which most teams in the league would be invited to Toronto or Edmonton to compete in the playoffs.

Prior to play resuming, Phase One of this year’s strange NHL draft was held, which would determine the order of the first eight picks.

Picks two through eight were assigned to the seven worst teams in the league, the teams that weren’t invited to the bubbles. The first pick was given to “Team E,” a placeholder for one of the eight teams that would be eliminated in the Qualifying Round.

What made this intriguing is that the best prospect in the draft, who is expected to go first overall, Alexis Lafrenière, is regarded as the best prospect since Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews.

That’s saying something, especially since this is supposed to be the deepest NHL draft in years.

Rangers fans fantasized about losing to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Qualifying Round and subsequently drafting Lafrenière, but making a run was the priority, especially given the team’s historic success against Carolina.

Things didn’t go well for the Rangers in Toronto: they lost to Carolina in three games and were the only team to suffer a sweep.

It was clear that while the season had been a fun one for the team and for the fans, the Rangers still aren’t quite there yet. There’s still work to be done.

Phase Two of the draft would determine picks nine through 15 and, most importantly, would determine who would receive the first pick.

One of the most pleasant surprises in recent memory, and potentially in Rangers history, occurred when it was revealed that the first pick belonged to New York.

The future of New York already looked bright: The Rangers have promising youngsters and one of the best prospect pools in the league. With the likely addition of Lafrenière, the future just got brighter.

However, the team still does have its weaknesses and there are decisions to be made. That’s why it isn’t too early to get a look at what the Rangers’ lines might look like in the 2020-21 season.

Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich
Artemi Panarin-new addition/Ryan Strome-Kaapo Kakko
Alexis Lafrenière-Filip Chytil-Julien Gauthier
Brendan Lemieux-Morgan Barron/Brett Howden-Vitali Kravtsov

Let’s dissect these lines.

At least to kick start things, the “KZB line” shouldn’t be split up and should be the team’s top line. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Yes, this line was far from effective during the playoffs but during the regular season, it was one of the most productive in hockey. Its three players should be kept together as the top unit until it doesn’t work anymore.

The second line is where things start to get interesting.

Artemi Panarin, who is a Hart Trophy finalist and was one of best forwards in the league in his first year in New York after putting up 95 points in 69 games, is an obvious choice for the second line.

The situation at 2C is more complicated. During the 2019-20 season, Ryan Strome centered the second line. However, Strome is due to become a restricted free agent and his situation is complex.

When the Rangers acquired Strome in November 2018, he was coming off an unimpressive 100 games with the Edmonton Oilers and hadn’t lived up to the expectations that were set for him as a former first-round pick.

He registered 162 points in 358 career games with the New York Islanders and Oilers. After he was traded, however, he looked much better, recording 33 points in 63 games with the Rangers.

He took it one step further, putting up fantastic numbers across the board this past season. Strome recorded a career-high 59 points in 70 games, setting a career-high in assists, as well, with 41 and was just one goal away from tying his career-high of 19.

It is worth noting, however, that 33 of the 59 goals Strome contributed to also involved Panarin.

It’s evident that Strome benefited from Panarin’s presence more than any other Ranger and that’s important to note when the organization decides whether they want to extend Strome or let him go.

Something to keep in mind: Strome is one of six centers between the ages of 25 and 30 to record between 55 and 65 points. The player with the cheapest contract is Sean Couturier of the Philadelphia Flyers, who currently makes $4.3 million a year.

While that’s still an inexpensive deal, it’s an upgrade from Strome’s $3.1 million deal. There’s also a great chance that Strome’s next deal will be worth more than Couturier’s. For these reasons, it’s tough to expect Strome to stay in Manhattan next season.

The Rangers do, however, have a significant problem at the center position, where they have no depth. Filip Chytil is expected to be the Rangers’ 2C of the future but he’s still very young and hasn’t shown that he’s capable of taking over that role yet.

For that reason, the Rangers could re-sign Strome to a short-term deal. However, they can also make a trade to acquire a legitimate 2C that won’t cost them an arm and a leg. I speculate that they’ll do the latter.

In any event, the 2C role will be occupied by either Strome, who will look to continue his great play alongside Panarin or a new player.

Long-time Ranger and fan-favorite Jesper Fast likely will not return as his contract is up and the Rangers are stacked on both wings. Fast was the regular RW on the second line, but the young Kaapo Kakko is ready to take his place.

Kakko was the second pick of the 2019 NHL Draft and although he didn’t exactly meet expectations in his rookie season, he showed promise, particularly in the Qualifying Round. It’s time to move him up to that second line permanently.

Many think the idea of Lafrenière playing on the third line is absurd, but it’s unrealistic to expect him to make the top six without having proved anything.

There’s a significant chance he does too well to remain a bottom-six forward and may force coach David Quinn to move him up, but he’ll almost certainly begin his NHL career as the Rangers’ third-line left-winger.

Chytil should begin the year in the same role that he occupied last year, as the team’s 3C. If he does break out, he may very well earn a promotion to the second line alongside Kakko, his linemate this past season.

In terms of the third line right-winger, Julien Gauthier seems to be the guy. It may be neck-and-neck between Gauthier and top prospect Vitali Kravtsov, but Gauthier gains the edge because of the fact that he has more NHL experience.

Brendan Lemieux should fit in as the fourth-line left-winger, but we have another complicated situation at 4C.

Brett Howden and Greg McKegg were used here in the 2019-20 season, but McKegg is on a one-year deal and almost certainly will not return while Howden is yet to find his footing.

The signing of prospect Morgan Barron to an entry-level deal on July 31 complicates things further. Barron’s signing came as a surprise, and signs are pointing to him being in the mix for a roster spot come next season.

If Barron does make it, the Rangers will have another dilemma on their hands. Howden, for the most part, has looked nothing short of bad since making his NHL debut, but Quinn has never hesitated to start him.

Additionally, the fact that Barron has no NHL experience yet might make Quinn even more inclined to start Howden. Kravtsov will certainly make the team and should feature as the fourth-line right-winger.

Of course, there’s always a chance that Quinn moves Barron or Howden to the wing, but as was previously mentioned, the Rangers are stacked on the wings, and Barron and Howden’s services are needed much more at center.

The Rangers are going to have a lot of talent at the forward position but will have many decisions to make before the season kicks off.

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