Sports

Blueshirts hope retoole roster will lead to postseason return

With the season opener just days away, the New York Rangers are looking for a fresh start.

After a disastrous campaign last season, in which the team failed to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2010, the direction and focus of the organization appears to have taken a sharp left turn from what fans have been used to.

Every year, the Rangers are among the handful of teams that are all but guaranteed a spot in the postseason and a chance for that ultimate prize: the Stanley Cup.

However, after years of playoff futility and coming up short, the clock struck midnight on the Rangers’ core dynasty and their short-lived success.

The team became sellers rather than buyers at last season’s deadline, trading away familiar faces and franchise cornerstones.

Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller were no longer Blueshirts after the highly-anticipated February trade deadline, as they were dealt to championship contenders for future assets, including high draft picks, young talent and prospects.

To add fuel to the fire, the Rangers fired head coach Alain Vigneault after five seasons behind the bench.

Vigneault led the team to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014, two Eastern Conference Finals appearances, three 100-point seasons, and a President’s Trophy in 2015 as the league’s best regular season team.

Replacing Vigneault is David Quinn, who has no prior NHL coaching experience, but had a very successful stint as head coach of Boston University and is a current assistant coach for the USA National Team. Quinn’s hiring signaled a change of direction of the team.

A new coach was the logical fit for a young rebuilding team.

Thus began a new era in the Rangers’ storied history, as their current goal is future success through rebuilding and player development.

The team had three first-round draft picks in this past NHL Entry Draft, two of which were acquired via trades last season.

With the ninth overall pick, they selected Russian right-winger Vitali Kravtsov, who played for Traktor Chelyabinsk of the Kontinental Hockey League.

With the 22nd pick, they selected defenseman K’Andre Miller from the U.S. National Team Development Program, a program designed for developing the most elite junior talent across the country.

With the 28th pick, they selected Swedish defenseman Nils Lundkvist, who played for Lulea HF of the Swedish Hockey League.

None of these three players made the current active roster, which means the Rangers are willing to take the time to properly develop these three players through their American Hockey League affiliate, Hartford Wolf Pack, and other minor league systems.

As for the current Rangers roster, some familiarity appears, with plenty of new faces expected to make a significant impact.

Henrik Lundqvist is still the number-one option at the goaltending position.

This will be his 14th season with the Rangers, and although he is still a very serviceable goaltender, age and attrition is definitely kicking in.

Last season, he recorded just 26 wins, which made it his first full season without recording 30 victories.

Looking beyond the numbers, it was obvious that Lundqvist’s play has deteriorated, although the poor defense had something to do with that.

Players such as Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Pavel Buchnevich, Kevin Hayes, and Jesper Fast had significant roles for the team the past few seasons and will be expect to carry the load going into this campaign. Zibanejad is the Rangers’ top center and led the team in scoring last year with 27 goals.

He is very effective on the power play and continues to improve on faceoffs, setting very high expectations for his production.

Buchnevich, Hayes and Kreider will also be expected to add to the scoring, as they all became top-six forwards on the roster. Hayes drastically improved his play last season after a disappointing sophomore campaign.

After scoring 25 goals last year, he will be expected to continue that production and be a reliable top-two center night in and night out. Fast and Kreider both play with speed, high-caliber defense, and a physical edge.

Those factors led to them having solid seasons last year and both are expected to keep their respective roles.

Fast will definitely see more ice time and exposure on the top two lines, as he keeps improving every year through great hockey IQ and solid all-around contributions.

Zuccarello is arguably the second face of the franchise after Lundqvist, as he led the team with 53 points.

He is an excellent offensive player and has a keen eye for the puck on defense and in the neutral zone. Zuccarello is also a locker room leader and one of the veterans on this team.

The defensive side of the team is led by Brady Skjei, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Brendan Smith. Skjei is an outstanding young defenseman that continued to see his role increase last season.

He did not disappoint, as he was a solid shut-down D-man against the league’s top forwards and contributed serviceably on the offense.

He was rewarded for his performance with a six-year, $31.5 million contract extension in the offseason. Shattenkirk was the big splash in the 2017 offseason, as he signed a four-year, $26.6 million deal with his hometown club.

His season was cut short due to a torn meniscus that was suffered during training camp.

He played through the first half of the year, but was ultimately shut down for the rest of the season after the Rangers fell out of playoff contention.

Shattenkirk will be expected to add to the offensive contribution, especially on the power play.

His defensive game will have to improve, however. Smith signed a four-year, $17 million deal in the 2017 offseason after he was acquired from the Detroit Red Wings.

He contributed well enough to earn the contract, but did not play well at all last season, during which he was waived and spent time with the Wolf Pack in the AHL.

Smith ultimately earned his roster spot back with an excellent training camp and preseason.

The main focus for this season, however, will be the play of the young guys on the team. Goaltender Alexandar Georgiev earned the backup spot after an excellent sample of games last season and a solid preseason.

He should see more playing time, as Lundqvist may not play the usual hefty amount of games he plays in net.

Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil, Vinni Lettieri, Ryan Spooner and Vladislav Namestnikov headline the young forwards group.

Andersson, Chytil, and Lettieri made their NHL debuts with the Rangers last season and both got some professional experience, each scoring their first NHL goal in the process.

Their roles will be increased, as they make up a huge part of the rebuild.

Spooner and Namestnikov were acquired at the trade deadline last year and both made an immediate impact, heavily contributing to the scoring.

Namestnikov and Spooner were both re-signed to two-year extensions after being restricted free agent at the end of the season.

Defensemen Neal Pionk and John Gilmour impressed in their short stint with the Blueshirts last season, though only Pionk made the Rangers roster.

Overall, the 2018-19 Rangers roster is a combination of experienced veterans, young players with very significant roles, top prospects at all positions, and new faces that will get their first taste of a full NHL season.

This is not a roster that will likely make the playoffs this season, or even the next few seasons after that.

However, this will be a brand new era of rebuilding and retooling the team for a potentially successful future.

With that in mind, fans should not expect a very good team record, but should also look beyond the numbers.

There is plenty of young talent and it will be interesting to see how the rebuild and development unfolds.

The Rangers open their 2018-19 season at home against the Nashville Predators on Thursday, Oct. 4.

October 9, 2018

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Felix Malamud


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