The Rangers enter the season with the kind of lofty expectations that haven’t loomed over the franchise in years.
That will be an obstacle in itself, but one that can be overcome with a strong team mentality, which was a trait the Rangers didn’t display during their second-place finish in the Metropolitan Division and run to the Eastern Conference finals last season. The challenge now will be to carry it through under very different circumstances than the underdog team narrative that once surrounded them.
So much went right for the Blueshirts in 2021-22 in terms of injuries and Igor Shesterkin putting together a historic campaign that culminated in a Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender. That’s not guaranteed to happen again — no matter how promising Shesterkin’s play is — so the Rangers will have to step up as a team and likely overcome some adversity if they want to have the same success.
Longtime No. 2 center Ryan Strome and the four March trade deadline acquisitions (Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, Tyler Motte, Justin Braun) are no longer in the picture. As a result, a lot of responsibility will fall on the Rangers’ young core of players, who should be ready for it now that they’re all a year older and a playoff wiser. At least that’s the belief, and it will be up to them to see it through.
Rangers throws himself at a cap cracker, and that’s what makes this supposed championship window all the more important to take advantage of. With so much money committed to their top-six staples in Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and offseason addition Vincent Trocheck, as well as their top two defensemen in Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba, the newly named captain, the Rangers have their core set in a foreseeable future.
But competing in a stacked Metro Division under high expectations is no small feat for any NHL team. It will come down to the team’s belief, the expected progress of the youngsters and, let’s be real, an encore from Shesterkin if the Rangers want to build on last season and earn the right to compete for the Stanley Cup.
You can’t talk about the Rangers’ offense last season without mentioning how Kreider scored 52 goals, which blew his previous career high of 28 out of the water and was third most in the NHL behind only the Leafs’ Auston Matthews and the Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl. To declare it a fluke would be unfair, especially since anyone who watched Rangers last season could see how freely he played under head coach Gerard Gallant. There’s no reason Kreider shouldn’t be able to have the same offensive impact this season, and he will have to if the Rangers hope to keep up with the other high-scoring teams in the East.
A question mark still hangs over the right wing on the top line with Kreider and Zibanejad, whose 81 points last season were good for second on the team behind Panarin’s 96 points. It looks like Zibanejad and Kreider will have to make it work with whoever ends up in that spot, just as Panarin will have to figure it out with Trocheck and whoever completes their unit.
Whether the Kid Line of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko will get a shot together is unclear, but their offensive impact in the playoffs was crucial. Their five-on-five play was some of the Rangers’ best, which is an area where the team as a whole needs to improve significantly.
The Rangers have some invaluable continuity with their top four defensemen and as a result their defense has been pretty healthy. Fox finished last season with 74 points, fourth among NHL defensemen, after winning the Norris Trophy during his second campaign in 2020-21. The Rangers will want to be careful with the overextending Fox, who averaged 23:54 a night primarily next to Ryan Lindgren last season as the team’s best defender and special teams contributor.
K’Andre Miller is on pace for a breakout season in a contract year after making huge strides in 2021-22. His pairing with Trouba was easily the most effective last season, but it also had its fair share of playoff hiccups. The bottom pair was always a weak point for the Rangers, but it remains to be seen whether Zac Jones or Libor Hajek will skate alongside Braden Schneider, who is entering his second season after securing his spot on the team.
It won’t be easy to follow up the kind of numbers Shesterkin posted last season – .935 save percentage, 2.07 goals against average and six shutouts. Shesterkin was the runaway favorite for the Vezina early on because it was clear how much the team trusted him. The Rangers don’t want that to be the case for a second straight season, but the team has taken the position that it shouldn’t apologize for having the best netminder in the NHL.
Jaroslav Halak and his 16 years of NHL experience should be a more than adequate backup for Shesterkin while Louis Domingue waits in AHL Hartford if an injury strikes the Rangers’ goaltending.
In his second season with the Rangers, Gallant has given the impression that he finally knows his team. It was evident in the way the 59-year-old coach started training camp with a clear idea of where he wanted to start when it came to putting together his lineup. A Jack Adams finalist last season, Gallant should benefit from having a season in New York under his belt.
The most important offensive player
It’s funny how Panarin can be scrutinized for his offensive contributions during the playoffs, as he scored arguably the most important goal of the Rangers’ entire playoff run in overtime of Game 7 in the first round against the Penguins. However, the Russian star winger can be the difference between a good season and a great one. The Rangers may have their sights set on their playoff unfinished business, but they won’t get there without Panarin’s consistent production.
The most important defender
Putting Trouba as the answer to this question may have more to do with the fact that he recently had the ‘C’ stitched onto his No. 8 jersey rather than his defensive contribution, but that doesn’t diminish how important the 28-year-old is to Rangers. Serving as the captain of a team with Stanley Cup aspirations is a tall order, and one that Trouba cannot let get in the way of his day-to-day impact on the club.
It may be by default, but Vitali Kravtsov is the rookie with the most at stake this season. After turning down an AHL assignment last season, Kravtsov stepped back onto the Rangers scene this preseason and has taken the necessary steps to prove his commitment to the team. The next step will be to translate the dynamic game and high-scoring ability that made him the Rangers’ 2018 ninth overall pick in the first place.
Key coaching decision
The Rangers are built to have a top-heavy lineup, which is why the arrangement of the top six will be so important this season. Gallant has already tried four different players on the right wing on the top line, but it will be important to settle on a combination and let it play out to allow the three players to foster chemistry.
The Rangers have the tools to put together another productive season and another long playoff run, but it will take a team effort to make up for the acquisitions they lost this summer. A top-three finish in the Metropolitan Division and a return to the conference finals should be in play. When you have a goaltender like Shesterkin, anything is possible. The supporting cast just has to do their part.