With the bulk of the NHL offseason transaction activity behind us, the start of the 2017-18 NHL season is just two short months away. For the New York Rangers — who suffered a disappointing six-game defeat at the hands of the Ottawa Senators in the Atlantic Division finals in 2016-17 — things had to change this offseason. And they did.
A handful of long-serving veterans sought pastures new as the Blueshirts elected to shuffle a roster that has grown stale. After failing to make bonafide title challenges since a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2014, it was time for a shake-up.
But instead of a full-blown rebuild, general manager Jeff Gorton and the New York brass elected to take the retooling route, essentially allowing the team to retain its young core while moving out overpaid veterans that don’t fit into a speedier, more modern system.
And it’s no doubt that the team got younger and quicker, but has it gotten better? Can we expect the Rangers to finish in the top three in the Metropolitan Division and challenge for the Stanley Cup?
The first casualty was veteran defender Dan Girardi, who played all 788 games of his 11-year NHL career with the Rangers. But time has not been kind to Girardi, who’s been declining on what seems to be a daily basis. Girardi’s performance last season — which yielded a 5v5 shots for/against average well below the league standard — was likely the last straw for the Rangers management and resulted in his being bought out. With a $5.5 million cap hit for the next three seasons, the Rangers freed up at least $1.9 million per year over the course of that time and are set to sacrifice an additional $1.1 million in cap space from 2020-21 to 2022-23.
The Rangers then lost centerman Oscar Lindberg to the Vegas Golden Knights via the expansion draft two days before Gorton traded a top-six centerman for the second straight offseason. The second-year GM packaged Derek Stepan with Antti Raanta and shipped the pair to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for defenseman Anthony DeAngelo and the seventh overall selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.
Moving Stepan, who tallied 50 or more points in five of his seven professional seasons, was no shock as it was already reported that the Rangers were gauging interest in the 27-year-old. But moving him with the team’s backup goaltender in a trade that failed to fetch a proven NHL roster player was surprising.
The team washed its hands of defender Adam Clendening and forward Brandon Pirri when Gorton declined to tender both players’ qualifying offers, and on July 7 veteran defenseman Kevin Klein announced that he was retiring.
The prize of the Stepan/Raanta trade was the acquisition of the seventh-overall selection, which ensured the team selected in the top-10 for the first since Al Montoya was taken sixth overall in 2004. With the pick the Rangers chose Swedish centerman Lias Andersson – a surprise to most since he was ranked outside the top-10 in most analysts’ pre-draft rankings, including Bob McKenzie’s list, on which Andersson slotted in at 13th.
On July 13, the Rangers signed Andersson to a three-year entry-level contract, though it is unclear where the prospect will play next season.
The trade also brought in DeAngelo who, despite having been drafted 19th overall by Tampa Bay in 2014, arrives at his third NHL organization at the age of just 21. DeAngelo split time with the Coyotes and their AHL affiliate, the Tucson Roadrunners, in 2016-17 and registered five goals and 14 points in 39 games with the big club.
The big splash of the Rangers’ summer was signing defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who was had for a very friendly $6.65 million per year for the next four seasons. After weighing numerous offers, the power-play quarterback, who grew up in New Rochelle, NY, left money on the table and chose his hometown team. The deal likely would not have happened had Girardi and Klein remained in New York.
New Look Defense
Shipping out Stepan and Girardi and seeing Klein allowed to depart proved that management was looking to move forward with a team better suited to fit the style that a) head coach Alain Vigneault wanted to implement and b) the league as a whole has been moving towards over the past five years.
Essentially, Gorton swapped Girardi for Shattenkirk, and if you look further into the analytics of the trade-off it’s clear the team is much better off from a possession standpoint.
DeAngelo, should he make the opening night roster, is also expected to help turn defense into offense. Highly successful at the junior level, DeAngelo, who scored 89 points in 55 games for the Sarnia Sting and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in 2014-15, boasted a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 51.1% last season, higher than every Rangers defensemen not named Adam Clendening.
Yet up to this point, DeAngelo has struggled to solidify himself as a full-time NHL defenseman. Transitioning from the junior game to the pro game can be difficult, but DeAngelo’s behavioral issues likely have contributed to his development struggles. In the past he’s been suspended for incidents involving referees at both the junior and pro levels and are directly a result of anger issues that Tampa Bay’s director of amateur scouting, Al Murray, said “manifests itself into behavior that he’s going to have to learn to control.” Murray went on to say, at the time of DeAngelo’s draft selection, that the risk in making the pick was “not very high.”
But expect to see Vigneault pencil Shattenkirk and possibly DeAngelo in on his power play units in hopes that the pair will help a squad that finished 15th out of 16 playoff teams last season with an atrocious 7.7% postseason power-play percentage.
Other potential defense candidates include 23-year-old Russian prospect Alexei Bereglazov, who at 6’3” and 205 lbs., spent the last four seasons with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL, and college free agent Neal Pionk, who scored 34 points in 42 games for the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2016-17. Though both prospects are promising, it’s tough to gauge how the pair would adjust to the NHL game should they make the team.
Desharnais and Pavelec: Gap Stoppers
In goal, the Rangers replaced Raanta with Pavelec, which could be a disaster. In 29 games last season, Raanta won 16 and posted a 2.27 goals-against average (GAA) and a .922 save percentage (SV%), all while being leaned on during Henrik Lundqvist’s rough patches. Following his departure, Gorton signed Pavelec, who played more games with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves (18) than he did with the Winnipeg Jets (8) last season. With the Jets, Pavelec posted a woeful 3.55 GAA and .888 SV%.
It’s hard to argue that the numbers aren’t worrying, but let’s see what Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire can do with Pavelec. After all, he’s helped Lundqvist develop into a future hall-of-famer and turned Raanta, Cam Talbot and Chad Johnson into quality NHL keepers.
Up front, the Rangers retained all notable wingers but had two holes to fill up the middle. Replacing Lindberg on the fourth line will likely be Desharnais, who potted 60 points in 81 games for the Montreal Canadiens in 2011-12 but was held to just 14 in 49 games for Montreal and Edmonton last year.
Though Lindberg recorded more points (20) last season, Desharnais’ CF% was higher (49.65%-47.61). The questions regarding Desharnais come in the form of whether or not the centerman can take advantage of fourth-line match-ups and if he could help plug holes on the penalty kill.
Who’s Centering the Second Line?
But the most glaring hole on the Rangers roster is one in the top-six. Stepan has been moved and, as of August 4, has not been replaced. It’s unclear what Gorton’s plan is, but with roughly $3 million in cap space a move conceivably could be made, though it would be difficult. An opening-night roster with $3 million in cap space would feature 12 forwards–one of which could be Matt Puempel–and seven defensemen, meaning if the Rangers wanted to carry additional players–or different players, for example Bereglazov or Andersson–that space would disappear quickly.
And since it’s tough to speculate on potential moves, we’re forced to explore current options. The first would be to slide JT Miller back into the middle, which may actually happen considering Gorton reaffirmed that the 24-year-old is a “natural center” following the Desharnais signing.
Miller, who had a career year in 2016-17 with 22 goals and 56 points, seemed freed by his transition to the wing last season. Although it may be totally necessary from a personnel standpoint, moving Miller back to the middle could be detrimental to his offensive development.
If management decides to leave Miller on the wing, prospects in the system could be considered. Kevin Hayes would have to slide up and center the second line, making way for a rookie to fill the third, or more likely, the fourth line. Is an 18-year-old Andersson ready? Clearly he was impressive enough to earn a contract in rookie camp, but can he make the jump so soon?
What about Boo Nieves, who tallied 18 points in 40 games for the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolfpack, last year. Nieves, who played in one game for the Rangers in 2016-17, boasts an impressive 6’3”, 219 lb. frame, but may be too raw for regular NHL duty.
True: The 2017-18 New York Rangers will be younger and faster.
Also true: The New York Rangers defense has improved.
But is the team, as a whole, better than its 2016-17 iteration?
The Rangers are short a top-six center, got worse in goal and employ several young, yet promising forwards that continue to produce inconsistently.
Fact is, Stepan may have grown stale and no longer fit into the team’s immediate or long-term plans, but he was good for 50+ points and was a prolific penalty killer. Considering the team’s current personnel, who is plugging the hole Stepan left behind?
In goal, Gorton replaced a rock solid back-up option in Raanta with a washed-up former starter that saw most of his action in the AHL last season. There were better options for Gorton via free agency, for example Chad Johnson and Anders Nilsson.
On defense, Vigneault will choose from a strong group of Shattenkirk, Ryan McDonagh, Brendan Smith, Brady Skjei, Marc Staal, Nick Holden, DeAngelo, Bereglazov and Pionk. There are lots of pairing options which gives Vigneault room to rotate personnel, which is key for success in a long 82-game season.
But the success of this team, once again, is likely hinged on whether or not the group of young forwards–Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, Hayes and Miller–can step up and take that next step. Will this tweaked system, with apparent emphasis on the defense’s ability to move the puck quickly through the neutral zone and onto the sticks of the speedy forwards, play a part in producing a more consistent offensive output? If it does, will it produce enough to outweigh the loss of Stepan, should he not be replaced with an outside acquisition?
There are just too many questions, but roughly two months out from the start of the season, it appears the Rangers will again find themselves in a dogfight for a wild card spot.