After a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013-14 and then a Presidents’ Trophy-winning 2014-15 campaign that saw the club bow out in game seven of the Eastern Conference Final, expectations were understandably high for the New York Rangers in the 2015-16 season.
However, despite amassing 101 points in the regular season, the Rangers’ overall play was very unstable, especially with respect to defense. Their possession numbers were poor, as they were just 26th in the league in 5-on-5 Corsi-for percentage (47.4%). They got by with a combination of strong goaltending (a constant with Henrik Lundqvist in net) and luck.
The Rangers’ mediocre play caught up to them in the playoffs, where they were ousted in decisive fashion by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, as they managed just one victory in the first-round matchup. In the aftermath of that disappointing loss, GM Jeff Gorton and head coach Alain Vigneault acknowledged that changes were necessary for the team to ultimately work its way back to being a true Stanley Cup contender.
Team 2015-16 Record: 46-27-9 (3rd in the Metropolitan Division)
Key Roster Additions:
- Mika Zibanejad
- Jimmy Vesey
- Pavel Buchnevich (2013 3rd-round draft pick signed to entry-level contract after playing in KHL)
- Nick Holden
- Michael Grabner
- Brandon Pirri
- Adam Clendening
- Josh Jooris
- Nathan Gerbe
Key Roster Losses:
- Derick Brassard
- Keith Yandle
- Dan Boyle
- Eric Staal
- Dominic Moore
- Viktor Stalberg
- Raphael Diaz
Key Organization Changes:
- Chris Drury promoted to Assistant General Manager (was previously Director of Player Development)
The Rangers have a logjam of forwards, and at this point, the final roster and line combinations are still very much up in the air. Below is the best guess as of now, which also assumes that the Rangers do not make any trades prior to opening night.
*Oscar Lindberg would likely replace Jooris once he returns from IR, which is expected to be sometime in November.
Brandon Pirri (LW/RW/C), despite an impressive preseason, would be the 13th forward, as Vigneault would probably only want him in the top-nine and not on the fourth line.
Nash is coming off a disappointing, injury-riddled season where he scored only 15 goals in 60 games. He had 42 goals the previous season, so his scoring touch should still be there. Even at age 32, he is still the most gifted, natural goal scorer the Rangers have.
Despite persistent trade rumors throughout the offseason, Nash is still a Blueshirt, and as long as that remains true, so too does the fact that they need him to produce. While his strong play in all three zones cannot be overlooked, he and the Rangers know that at the end of the day, he needs to find the back of the net with regularity.
A fan favorite, the diminutive, yet ultra-skilled Zuccarello is still in the prime of his career, having just turned 29 on Sept. 1. Last season, he established career-highs with 26 goals and 35 assists.
Zuccarello is an outstanding passer with elite vision, and can also finish plays himself when he looks to shoot. He has been a critical spark plug for the Rangers the past few seasons and will continue to fill that role this season.
Stepan is a model of consistency and dependability for the Rangers. It seems as though he has been around forever, but he is still only 26 years old. Last season, the center set a career-high with 22 goals and also broke the 50-point plateau for the fourth time in his career.
While Stepan is a very good passer, there is nothing overly flashy or eye-popping about his game. He is effective because he is a cerebral player who is usually in the right place at the right time and rarely makes poor decisions with the puck. He can play in all situations, and the Rangers will continue to count on him to do just that.
Dylan McIlrath and Adam Clendening, the latter of whom has impressed in the preseason as a power play quarterback, would be the extra defensemen on the roster, and both could easily rotate in for Skjei and Holden.
McDonagh is by far the best defenseman on New York’s roster. The 27-year-old captain should be fully healthy going into this season, as he had been battling the after-effects of a foot injury for most of the last year.
With the departures of Keith Yandle and Dan Boyle, McDonagh will not only have to fill the role as the team’s top shutdown defender, but he will also be counted on as the primary source of offense from the back end. While McDonagh has some ability in that area (he tallied 43 points in 2013-14), he could definitely use some help, which the Rangers do not really have unless Clendening gets an opportunity and steps up, someone else exceeds expectations, or a significant acquisition is made.
McDonagh will be given every opportunity to have a big year, but the Rangers need to be careful to not overburden him.
The 32-year-old Girardi has been on the decline for awhile now, culminating with a disastrous season last year. He had trouble moving the puck out of his zone and hemorrhaged scoring chances against, as evidenced by his brutal 41.7% Corsi-for percentage during 5-on-5 play.
While he battled through a knee injury for most of the last season, it is still hard to imagine a much higher level of play from Girardi at this point in his career. While this might seem harsh, even a noticeable improvement from last year would still leave the Rangers with a largely ineffective defenseman.
Vigneault, however, will likely give Girardi every opportunity to bounce back, so the expectation is that he will take his usual spot in the lineup as McDonagh’s partner.
If Girardi continues to struggle, though, Vigneault and the Rangers might be forced to reduce his role.
Staal also struggled mightily last season, though not quite to the extent of Girardi. At 29, he might still have a bit more left in the tank, and if one of the two maligned defensemen is going to have a bounce-back season, the smart money would be on Staal.
Nevertheless, the once-excellent and more mobile Staal should be on a shorter leash this season, and will put the Rangers in a tough spot if he continues to play poorly.
Despite his age, the 34-year-old Henrik Lundqvist remains one of the elite goaltenders in the game and has yet to show any real signs of slowing down. He is the primary reason the Rangers have been a consistent playoff team for the past decade, and was particularly instrumental in the club’s 101-point season last year, as New York did not play very well in front of him.
There is no reason to expect Lundqvist will not be great yet again. The Rangers also have a very capable backup in Antti Raanta, who was re-signed to a two-year contract early in the offseason after posting 11 wins and a .919 save percentage for the Blueshirts last year.
The Rangers might also look to give Lundqvist more rest throughout the year to keep him fresh, which would thrust Raanta into a more important role.
#NYR Alain Vigneault said goalies who have won have been around 50-58 games. Says condensed schedule is factor, yet to speak with Lundqvist.
— Sean Hartnett (@HartnettHockey) September 22, 2016
It will be interesting to see if the Rangers end up adhering to this plan. How they fare in the early part of the season could go a long way in determining that.
Breakout Player: Mika Zibanejad
Zibanejad, a 23-year-old Swede acquired for the popular Derick Brassard in an offseason trade with Ottawa, could be on the verge of breaking out. He has already hit the 20-goal mark twice and is still on the upswing. He gives the Rangers more speed and physicality than Brassard, as well as a lethal shot which has already been on display in the preseason.
While he might not be Alex Ovechkin, he gives the Rangers a right-handed shooter who can one-time the puck effectively from the left side on the power play. It’s an element that New York has not really had in recent years. Zibanejad has also had great chemistry with Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich throughout training camp, so that gives New York a trio that has a great mix of size, speed, and skill.
Brassard was a productive player for the Rangers, so they will be counting on Zibanejad to at least replace his production this season and continue to grow in future seasons. It’s not out of the question for Zibanejad to reach 30 goals as soon as this season. Zibanejad should also be able to serve as a two-way center and help on the penalty kill.
Player with Most to Prove: Kevin Hayes
After a 45-point rookie campaign in 2014-15, Hayes, now 24, had his share of ups and downs last year, and was criticized by his coach and in the media (probably more so than he deserved). He still managed to produce 14 goals and 22 assists, but the Rangers will be looking for him to take a major step forward this year.
Hayes appears to be coming into this season with the right attitude and high motivation, as was readily apparent during the conditioning tests at the beginning of training camp.
In any event, Hayes has to prove that he is ready to not only rebound from last season but also take the next step in his growth as a player. The Rangers will need more production out of him, as well as Chris Kreider if they are to make noise in the Eastern Conference this season.
First Players in the ‘Call-Up’ Line: Ryan Graves, Robin Kovacs, Mackenzie Skapski
If the Rangers need to look past the eight defensemen listed above, Ryan Graves will likely be the first candidate to be called up. The 21-year-old has continued to improve and exceed expectations and should be the top defenseman for Hartford, the Rangers’ AHL affiliate.
The 6-foot-4, 226-pound Graves was an AHL All-Star last season and showed off an impressive 103.4 MPH slap shot at the event’s skills competition. He might not have the upside of someone like Skjei, but he should be able to fill in capably this season if needed, and possibly earn a regular spot with the club in the next year or two.
As far as forwards are concerned, the Rangers are overstocked. If any injuries, trades, or other events necessitate a call-up from Hartford, one intriguing name to keep in mind is Robin Kovacs. Nathan Gerbe should also be mentioned here, but A) that assumes that the projection of him not making the Rangers’ roster holds true, and B) it also assumes that the Rangers would send him down and that he would pass through waivers since he is on a one-way contract. Tanner Glass is in a similar situation, but it really is time for the Rangers to move on from him. Finally, Josh Jooris, who is on a two-way contract, could be sent down to Hartford once Oscar Lindberg returns from injury, so he would become another call-up candidate if things played out that way.
Getting back to Kovacs though, the Rangers selected the 19-year-old Swede in the third round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He is an offensive-minded player who had a strong showing in the Traverse City prospects tournament in September. While it’s not overly likely that he sees any time with the Rangers this season, he should emerge as one of Hartford’s top players and could present an interesting call-up option should the Rangers be put in such a situation.
— Alex Nunn (@aj_ranger) September 17, 2016
Looking at goaltenders, Mackenzie Skapski, who already has two games (and two wins) of regular-season NHL experience under his belt, could be the first call-up option for that position. Magnus Hellberg is another possibility.
Skapski, 22, struggled through much of last season in the minors, as he was working through a difficult recovery from hip surgery in the preceding offseason. Now, though, he appears to be back to full strength and top form. He has looked solid in some preseason action to this point.
The Rangers have a very strong and deep group of forwards, as well as great goaltending, which has been a given ever since Henrik Lundqvist started playing for them in 2005. Their Achilles’ heel is their corps of defensemen.
After McDonagh, there is a significant drop-off. The struggles of Girardi and Staal have been well documented. Kevin Klein is solid and has even produced some offense the past couple of years, but when he is arguably your second-best defenseman, that is not a good sign.
Skjei is a promising youngster but cannot be relied on to even come close to replacing the offensive voids left by the departures of Yandle and Boyle. He has also looked shaky so far in the preseason.
Nick Holden is a veteran who might be able to bring a stabilizing presence but likely will not be a huge difference-maker. McIlrath could well become a fairly effective player and ultimately get regular playing time, but that is far from a guarantee. Clendening could prove to be a good power play specialist, but his play in the defensive zone remains a question mark, as does his consistency. The 23-year-old has already bounced around the league quite a bit.
On a brighter note, the forwards should make the Rangers an exciting team to watch. The potential of Pavel Buchnevich and Jimmy Vesey provides a reason for optimism. Any meaningful contributions from them will turn the Rangers into a scary offensive team that will be difficult for anyone to match up against.
— Alex Nunn (@aj_ranger) September 20, 2016
J.T. Miller should also continue to develop, building on his 22-goal output from last season. Kreider, Hayes, and Zibanejad appear poised to break out and/or bounce back. The Rangers’ bottom-six depth looks to be another strength, and their penalty kill should be better than it was a year ago, with Michael Grabner adding a speed element that was missing last year in the absence of Carl Hagelin.
Overall, the Rangers have enough talent and depth up front and between the pipes to be a playoff team once again, but unless they acquire one or two more strong blueliners, their defense will keep them from being a true Stanley Cup contender.
Team 2016-17 Record Prediction: 45-29-8 (3rd in the Metropolitan Division)
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Tom has been with The Hockey Writers for almost four years. After previously covering the LA Kings and the New York Rangers, Tom now covers the Anaheim Ducks.
While in college at Clemson University, the 2016 college football national champions, Tom wrote game summaries and feature articles for the official team website of the Greenville Drive, a Class-A minor-league baseball team and affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. Tom is happy to be able to continue to fulfill his passions for sports and writing with THW.