2021 was a very productive year for the rebuilding Rangers.
Expectations weren’t too high for the New York Rangers in the year 2021. The 2021 season was supposed to be a key one of the rebuild and for the development of several players. It was just that.
They didn’t make the playoffs, but looked better than they did in years past and took a clear step in the right direction. Rookies Alexis Lafreniére and K’Andre Miller made their debuts and got their feet wet in the waters of the NHL.
The playoffs were an expectation for the Rangers heading into the 2021-22 season. Everyone knows that they aren’t supposed to be cup contenders, but their window is opening.
They cleaned house at the end of the 2021 season and during the offseason by firing President John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton as well as head coach David Quinn.
The new GM, Chris Drury, hired veteran coach Gerard Gallant to headline the next chapter in the storied franchise’s history.
The organization deemed physicality and toughness to be an issue, so they went out and added reinforcements in the offseason.
They signed Ryan Reaves and Barclay Goodrow while adding a veteran defenseman in Patrik Nemeth to play alongside the rookie and fellow Swede Nils Lundkvist.
Just a few months later, the Rangers are almost certainly going to make the playoffs and are actually one of the best teams in the league.
They aren’t perfect by any means and have gotten outplayed by the better teams, but they beat the teams they have to and it’s paying off. Very few have more points than the Blueshirts.
This was a wild and dramatic year for the Rangers and the fans. It began with Tony DeAngelo’s antics that resulted in his permanent dismissal from the team.
Then superstar Artemiy Panarin had to take a leave of absence after being accused of an assault that occurred 10 years ago. And then, like we’ve mentioned, members of the front office were fired.
Most recently, the Rangers have had drama involving prospect Vitaly Kravtsov, something we’ll get to shortly. Even though it wasn’t all pretty, the Rangers are in a great place right now and the rebuild has definitely been going great.
Let’s look at the highs and lows of the Rangers in 2021.
2021 Best Moment: Adam Fox winning the Norris Trophy and then signing an extension
Amidst all the craziness, there were many great moments for the Rangers in 2021. The best of them all, however, had to be everything Adam Fox, beginning with the Norris Trophy.
Fox was truly incredible in his sophomore season. Many Rangers fans will say it was the best they’ve seen from a Rangers defenseman since the great Brian Leetch.
The kid was unbelievable and it all paid off for him: Fox was awarded the Norris Trophy, which is given to the league’s best defenseman. He was the first Rangers defenseman to win the award since Leetch during the 1996-97 season.
Fox’s emergence as the best blueliner in hockey led to the Rangers extending him almost immediately. The deal is for seven years and worth $66.5 million, a bargain compared to what he what have gotten on the market.
Rangers fans not only got to call the best defenseman in the league their own and watch him bring home the Norris, but they also were able to breathe a sigh of relief once the team locked him up. It doesn’t get much better than this.
2021 Worst Moment(s): Trading Pavel Buchnevich and the the Vitaly Kravtsov drama
DeAngelo’s antics, the drama surrounding Panarin, and the unexpected firings of members of the front office are all candidates for the Rangers’ worst moment of the year, but none of these were worse than the Buchnevich trade and its consequences.
Last year, Buchnevich emerged as one of the Rangers’ best players as well as one of the best two-way forwards in the game.
Because of the cap situations, it was always assumed that Buchnevich wouldn’t be sticking around long-term, but the hope was that the Rangers could hold on to him for a little longer or at least get a great return for him.
In the end, Buchnevich was traded to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for a third-round pick as well as RW Sammy Blais.
Blais hadn’t had much success in the NHL up to that point, but showed promise when he did play for the Rangers. Unfortunately, he went down with a season-ending injury early.
In any event, as good as Blais might/could have been, he’s no Buchnevich. Since the team’s top RW left, they had to replace him, right?
Instead of doing that, it looked like the Rangers were going to roll with Kaapo Kakko and Goodrow or Kravtsov as the top-two RW. This isn’t ideal for a team looking to contend, but that seemed to be the plan and fans were ready to roll with it.
However, in a shocking move, Kravtsov didn’t make the team’s final roster for the 2021-22 season and was assigned to the Hartford Wolf Pack.
Kravtsov refused the AHL assignment and was given permission to contact other teams regarding a potential trade while being loaned to his boyhood club, Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL.
This really hurt the Rangers, who already didn’t have much in terms of RW depth. The Rangers are doing incredibly now, yes, but their most glaring issue is not having a top-six RW.
Kakko is having another decent season, but he doesn’t drive play like Buchnevich did. Dryden Hunt has been a nice surprise, but he would be much more effect in the bottom-six than on the second line.
RW will be a priority at the trade deadline for Drury. It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this and it hurts fans even more to see Buchnevich playing so well in St. Louis.
Imagine how much better this already fantastic team would be if they had a true top-six RW.
2021 MVPs: LW Artemiy Panarin, RHD Adam Fox, G Igor Shesterkin
The Rangers are lucky enough to have three superstars. Panarin, Fox, and Shesterkin are arguably the best players at their position.
That’s incredible. Their phenomenal play over the span of two seasons in the year 2021 is the reason they’re the team’s MVPs.
We already talked about Fox. He’s the best defenseman on the Rangers and the best defenseman in the league. The Rangers’ offense, defense, power play, and penalty kill are nowhere near as good as they’ve been without him.
Panarin has become the face of the Rangers since signing as a free agent three seasons ago. He missed time during the 2021 season because of the assault allegations and injury, but still averaged over a point a game.
He’s doing it again this season, even though he got off to a cold start. He’s still considered to be the best LW in the game and is instrumental to the team’s success.
The Rangers really went from Henrik Lundqvist to Shesterkin, huh? If we’re going to name a hero for the Rangers this year, it would be Shesterkin.
Much like his predecessor, Shesterkin has been called upon to steal games for the Rangers on multiple occasions in his young career.
He was great during the 2021 season and has been even better so far this season, arguably the best netminder in the league.
Shesterkin is probably the reason the Rangers are sitting so high in the standings. The team has been playing fantastically over the past month and a half or so, but got off to an ugly start.
Shesterkin was easily the team’s best player during that span of bad play and led the Rangers to victories they, quite frankly, didn’t always deserve.
Shesterkin has been so great that he’s almost certainly going to be a Vezina Trophy finalist and has a serious chance of winning it.
2021 LVP: LHD Libor Hájek
Hájek isn’t worth spending much time on because he isn’t part of the future (or present) of this team, but he definitely was the Rangers’ LVP this year.
Hájek is not an NHL caliber defenseman and the Tampa Bay Lightning are probably laughing at the fact that they got Ryan McDonagh for him.
One of the best things about the offseason for the fans was that it meant that they wouldn’t have to see Hájek play on a nightly basis.
When Lundkvist went down with a minor injury, watching Hájek play was a nightmare and reminded everyone of things they were trying to forget.
It’s unfathomable, to a degree, that sending down Kravtsov helped the Rangers protect Hájek from waivers. Hájek has clearly been nothing but a nightmare for the Rangers since arriving, in more ways than one.
Overall 2021 Grade: B
2021 was a good year for the Rangers. There was some ugliness, there always is, but the Rangers did what they had to do. The rebuild has been going great and we’re seeing several guys growing before our eyes.
This year was a step in the right direction towards the ultimate goal: the playoffs.