The King is gone but a new potential superstar has arrived. What have we learned about the New York Rangers during training camp?
The Rangers had a notable offseason, highlighted by several significant departures and a winning lottery ticket.
Homegrown, fan-favorite right winger Jesper Fast signed with the Hurricanes. The Rangers also traded Marc Staal to the Detroit Red Wings after having spent the first 13 years of his career in New York.
The divisions have been realigned and the Rangers will be playing in the East, which is arguably the most competitive division in the league. For that reason, returning to the playoffs is going to be a tall order.
However, the Rangers will focus the season on building chemistry and developing their young players. The future is brighter in Manhattan than almost anywhere else, and fans have so much to be excited for.
Let’s begin our breakdown of the 2021 New York Rangers with a look at the forwards.
Let’s start with some thoughts on the Rangers’ captaincy. After Chris Kreider, who is now the longest-tenured Ranger, was extended last year on a seven-year deal, the belief was that he would be named captain this year.
However, on Wednesday, head coach David Quinn announced that the Rangers would be going into the season without a captain and with four alternates, instead: Kreider, Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, and Mika Zibanejad.
Coach Quinn announces this season’s alternate captains at the end of practice:
Artemi Panarin pic.twitter.com/jRRyQPNeCx
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) January 13, 2021
It will be interesting to see how this leadership-by-committee approach works. Kreider’s future with the Rangers was solidified at the trade deadline last year when he received his new contract. After having a rough start to last season (scoring just 13 points in his first 28 games), Kreider was able to pick up the slack, scoring 32 in his last 35. He was third on the team in goals with 24 and second in shooting percentage (15.4%).
The 29-year-old left winger, who’s one of the fastest skaters and the best in the league at tipping pucks into the net, will work to use these strengths to make sure the top line continues to be one of the more lethal lines in the NHL.
The youngest face in the crowd is Lafrenière, who was regarded as one of the best prospects in years. Expectations are high for the 19-year-old left winger, who’s expected to be a superstar, but he should be able to meet them. The Rangers’ depth on the left side will relegate him to the third line to open the season, but a forward with skillset could easily push for increased ice time and more significant use on the power play.
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Up next is the guy who needs a huge year more than almost anyone: Kaapo Kakko. Taken by the Rangers with the second pick in the 2019 draft, Kakko couldn’t have had a worse rookie season.
He was not only one of the worst rookies, but one of the worst forwards in the league, as well. However, he did show improvement as the season progressed, and that’s all anyone could’ve asked for.
Kakko is going to benefit immensely from Fast’s departure. The right winger will be expected to fill Fast’s shoes on the extremely productive second line, something that should help improve his play-making and scoring ability.
Kakko will be turning 20 in February so he’s still young, but having a good sophomore season will be very important in his development, especially if he is to become what is expected of him.
Unlike Kakko, Panarin is coming off a tremendous season. The Rangers’ MVP of the 2019-20 season, Panarin had a dream-like introductory year at MSG. He recorded a jaw-dropping 95 points in 69 games, earning him strong consideration for the Hart Trophy.
Panarin is one of the best players in the league so we’ll all be watching to see if the 29-year-old sniper can match his production from last season.
After the Rangers, in somewhat of a surprising move, signed Morgan Barron to his ELC in July, the expectation was that he would see time in the NHL this season, especially because of the team’s lack of depth at the center position.
Barron was unable to find his way onto the roster (Quinn noted that he looked nervous throughout most of camp), but he did earn a spot on the team’s taxi squad.
Quinn did go on to say that he wouldn’t be surprised if Barron does end up making his NHL debut this season.
DQ said competition for 4th line was tight. I asked about Morgan Barron.
"Morgan looked nervous through most of the camp. People handle expectations differently."
He said they talked last night and noted, "I’m not going to be surprised he plays games for us this year." #NYR
— Vince Z. Mercogliano (@vzmercogliano) January 11, 2021
Barron, who turned 22 years old in December and just finished up a three-year stretch at Cornell University, is listed as a center but actually spent most of his college career at right wing.
His versatility will allow Quinn to have options when deciding where to put him if/when he does play.
For a career AHL-er, Colin Blackwell had a surprisingly good season with the Nashville Predators last year, scoring 10 points in his last 22 games. His signing this past offseason was a good move by the Rangers, providing them with a solid depth option.
The general expectation seemed to be that Blackwell would end up on the taxi squad, and that’s where the 27-year-old center has found himself after having cleared waivers.
This season is going to be an important one for Pavel Buchnevich, who’s entering a contract year.
Buchnevich, who’s entering his fifth year in New York, is a key player on the Rangers’ dangerous top line, but has yet to have the breakout season everyone’s been expecting from him.
Buchnevich did set a career-high in both assists (30) and points (46) and overall had the best year of his career, which should be an indication of good things to come. He was also a standout player at training camp, both on the ice and as a vocal leader.
Talking to DQ now and he brings up Pavel Buchnevich right away.
"Best camp he’s had since I’ve been here."#NYR
— Vince Z. Mercogliano (@vzmercogliano) January 9, 2021
A breakout season from the 25-year-old right winger could mean one of two things: that he gets a big check from the Rangers when the time comes, or that he brings them a good return at the trade deadline…
Speaking of big years, this is going to be the most important season of the young Filip Chytil’s career. Chytil, who is expected to be the Rangers’ 2C of the future, has improved annually.
He set a career-high in goals last season with 14 and tied his career-high in points with 23, which he did in just 60 games.
Chytil, who turned 21 during the offseason, will be reclaiming his role as the 3C and will look to take his game to an even higher level this season. His name has been prominently mentioned in Pierre-Luc Dubois trade rumors, however.
After some members of New York’s group of forwards sustained some injuries last season, Phillip Di Giuseppe was recalled from the Hartford Wolf Pack to serve as a temporary fill-in.
Di Giuseppe was so impressive that he was able to remain with the team throughout the season and even earned a new contract to stay with the club through the 2021 season.
The left winger, who turned 27 during the offseason, has made the opening night roster and will likely serve as the team’s 13th forward.
Julien Gauthier is another player to watch for the Rangers this season.
The former first round pick was acquired by the Rangers last season from the Hurricanes in exchange for Brady Skjei, and he immediately joined the team, where he would spend the remainder of the season.
Gauthier, who turned 23 in October, hasn’t really met the expectations that were set for him when he was drafted, but the potential is there.
The right winger has played in just 20 NHL games and should benefit from consistent playing time on the team’s third line.
Gauthier bears a resemblance to Kreider, a big speedy winger, and if he can start to play like him, the team’s bottom six will be dangerous. The Rangers will look to see what it is exactly that they have in Gauthier.
Brett Howden has grown to have a bad reputation among Rangers fans, and rightfully so. Once a highly-praised prospect, Howden hasn’t even looked like a serviceable NHL-er for most of his career.
Granted, he’s never truly had good linemates but, even so, he’s been poor. The fact that the 22-year-old center, who’s also been used by Quinn on the wing, had a very impressive training camp makes him worth keeping an eye on this year.
If he can have an uncharacteristically good year just as everyone has seemingly begun to give up on him, the Rangers’ situation at the center position will become very different. Look for Howden to center the fourth line on opening night.
There isn’t a whole lot to be said about Brendan Lemieux. The left winger has been featured in the bottom six since joining the Rangers in 2019, but now that Lafrenière is here, the 24-year-old will be the team’s regular fourth line left winger.
A physical player, Lemieux will continue to bring grit to a team that’s lacking in that regard.
Kevin Rooney is another new face that’ll be featured in the Rangers’ bottom six. Rooney is joining the Rangers after spending the first four years (technically just two NHL seasons) with the New Jersey Devils.
Rooney, who is 27 years old, will be more of a depth piece, likely serving as the team’s fourth line right winger to begin the season.
The fate of Ryan Strome on the Rangers was unclear for much of the offseason, but the organization ended up signing him to a two-year deal.
Strome is coming off the best season of his career when he set career-highs in assists (41) and in points (59), and was on pace to set a new career-high in goals, as well.
Strome was second on the team in assists and third in points. Clearly, playing alongside Panarin did wonders for the 27-year-old center. I
It’ll be curious to see if Panarin and Strome, who will now be playing with Kakko, will be capable of being as impactful as they were last year.
Last but certainly not least is Zibanejad. Arguably one of the most underrated players in the game, Zibanejad and his elite numbers prove that he’s one of the best centers in the game. He set a career-high in goals last season with 41 and in points with 75.
He led the team in goals and shooting percentage and was second in points and point shares. His ridiculous 0.72 goals per game last year was good for eighth among all players in the last 30 seasons.
Zibanejad missed the first several days of camp after testing positive for COVID-19, but has recovered and will be ready for opening night.
Mika Zibanejad said he tested positive for COVID-19, which is why he was delayed starting camp. He said he feels good now.
— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) January 11, 2021
The 27-year-old will take his place as the focal point of the Rangers’ top line and will look to do what he does best alongside his dangerous linemates.