Despite the Rangers’ struggles in 2019, the year was actually far better for the Blueshirts than their record shows. Now in 2020, they are in a much better place than they were following 2018, when the team sent out a letter to fans explaining that they were beginning to rebuild. With star players and an exciting young core, they are on the rise. Here are the top five reasons they should be hopeful as 2020 begins.
5. Ryan Strome’s Rise Following Trade
When the Rangers traded for Ryan Strome late in 2018, the young center wasn’t considered particularly valuable. The Blueshirts got him from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Ryan Spooner, who had just two points and was minus-five in 16 games at that time in the 2018-19 season. Strome, the former fifth-overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft had just two points and was minus-one in 18 games with the Oilers.
His play picked up after the trade though and Strome became a valuable penalty killer who played with grit and chipped in offensively, scoring 18 goals and adding 15 assists with the Blueshirts last season. He worked his way up to become the team’s second center behind Mika Zibanejad.
Strome is now in the midst of a breakout season, while centering a line with Artemi Panarin and Jesper Fast. He has 12 goals, 27 assists (20 are primary) and is plus-10 in 42 games this season. He’s on pace to shatter his career-high of 50 points, which he had posted in the 2014-15 season. He is just 26 years old and will be a restricted free agent after this season. The Blueshirts can re-sign him or look to trade him. His strong play makes him a candidate for a multi-year extension but if the Rangers do trade him, they should get a lot back in return. Either way, Strome has become a very valuable asset, while Spooner, for whom he was traded, is now out of the NHL.
4. Mika Zibanejad’s Development
In 2016, the Blueshirts traded Derick Brassard and a seventh-round pick for Mika Zibanejad and a second-round pick from the Ottawa Senators. Zibanejad played fairly well and delivered in big moments but struggled to stay healthy in his first few seasons with the Rangers. He signed a five-year, $26.75 million contract extension following the 2016-17 season.
Last season he managed to avoid injuries and had the best season of his career, developing into the team’s No. 1 center. He has become one of the team’s best players both on the power play and the penalty kill. Zibanejad set career-highs with 30 goals and 44 assists last season. He also played in all 82 games for the first time in his career.
Despite missing 13 games due to an upper-body injury this season, Zibanejad picked up right where he left off after returning. He has 17 goals and 16 assists in 29 games this season.
3. The Draft Lottery and Kaapo Kakko
The Rangers finished the season with the sixth-worst record in the NHL in 2018-19. Despite slim odds of landing a top-three pick, New York ended up with the second pick in the lottery, guaranteeing them a shot at either Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, widely considered the best two prospects in the draft. The New Jersey Devils took Hughes with the top pick and the Blueshirts selected Kakko.
Kakko has shown flashes of brilliance but has yet to consistently play his best. However, he still has seven goals and nine assists so far this season as an 18-year-old. It’s safe to say he has a very bright future as a Ranger, with the potential to become a star.
2. Young Defensemen and Goalies
Henrik Lundqvist is now 37 years old and the Rangers have begun their search for his heir apparent. So far it has gone better than even they could have hoped. Alexandar Georgiev took over as Lundqvist’s backup late in the 2017-18 season and has consistently played well since then. He remains unfazed under pressure, as evidenced when he stopped 44 shots in a victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs on New Year’s Eve. He is still just 23 years old.
In addition to Georgiev, New York also has 24-year-old Igor Shesterkin. He developed into one of the top goaltending prospects in hockey after dominating the KHL in Russia with St. Petersburg SKA for three consecutive seasons. He also posted a .932 save percentage and 1.93 goals-against average in the AHL with the Hartford Wolf Pack this season. Shesterkin earned his promotion to the NHL and beat the Colorado Avalanche in his debut. The Avalanche are just off the league-lead in goals per game with 3.61, but Shesterkin kept them in check and stopped all 13 shots he faced in the third period.
The Rangers are also developing a strong young core of defensemen. Tony DeAngelo leads the team in points by a defenseman with 31. He is 24 years old. Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren are in the midst of strong rookie seasons. Libor Hajek, also a rookie, is close to returning from an injury. Brady Skjei and Jacob Trouba are both just 25 years old. The Blueshirts have four defensemen with at least five goals and at least 18 points so far this season.
The Rangers also have a lot of blueline prospects. Joey Keane was named an AHL All-Star. Zac Jones and K’Andre Miller are having strong seasons in college, while Nils Lundqvist is playing well in Sweden. The Blueshirts also have multiple prospects in the OHL, WHL, and QMJHL, including Matthew Robertson, who was selected in the second round of the 2019 NHL Draft.
Having these talented prospects along with the young core of defensemen already in the NHL provides the team with tons of depth.
1. Artemi Panarin Signing
It’s no secret that the Blueshirts have lacked firepower offensively over the last few seasons. Signing Artemi Panarin changed that in a hurry. He was the most coveted free agent in the NHL following the 2018-19 season and he chose to sign a seven-year, $81.5 million contract with the Rangers.
Panarin leads the team in goals with 23, assists with 35, and plus/minus at plus-20. Just two seasons ago Mats Zuccarello led the Rangers with 53 points. Panarin already has 58 through 42 games.
He’s done this while spending most of the season playing on a line with Strome at center and Jesper Fast as a winger. Fast has never scored more than 33 points in a season and Strome has never scored more than 50 points in a season. However, while playing with Panarin both are now on pace for a career-high in points. Unlike many star players, Panarin never complained about not having the chance to play with other top players like Chris Kreider and Zibanejad. He has elevated the play of his linemates.
Panarin has been everything the team hoped he would be when they signed him and he is on pace for the most points by a Blueshirt since Jaromir Jagr had 123 in 2005-06. Having Panarin on Broadway gives the Rangers the dynamic star they’ve craved.
Yes, the record hasn’t been great but the rebuild is going smoothly and the Rangers have several players to build around. Although they aren’t yet where they want to be, the future looks bright.
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, rooting for the Rangers, Yankees, Giants, and Knicks. When my dream of playing shortstop for the Yankees fell short, I started writing about sports instead. I’m a proud graduate of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.