This has been the most stressful yet rewarding offseason for the New York Rangers in recent memory. With all of the pieces falling into the right places, the Blueshirts used this offseason to try and finish the Stanley Cup puzzle.
For president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton, this was the offseason to turn this free-falling franchise back into a Stanley Cup Playoff contender. After great selections during the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, as well as trades and acquisitions from the free-agent market, the franchise has gathered some of the top talent available.
The Rangers have been a sinking ship over the past two seasons, but the moves made this offseason should patch some of the holes. This is the first time in two seasons that the Rangers have glowing expectations, and a playoff berth is at the top of that list.
Now, what can we expect from the newly added Blueshirts.
The biggest free agent on the market took his talents to Madison Square Garden. Artemi Panarin shocked the world by selecting the Rangers as the next destination of his young but productive NHL career.
He signed a seven-year, $81.5-million deal on July 1. At $11.642 million average annual value (AAV), he is behind only Connor McDavid for the league’s highest AAV. The money shelled out for Panarin was certainly necessary, as he could be the answer to a lot of the Rangers problems.
Over his short career thus far, Panarin has shown an unequaled ability to create offense. Whether it is passing the puck or sniping it, he is as good as they come when traveling toward the opposing goaltender. The Chicago Blackhawks brought Panarin to the NHL from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League in 2015, and he won the Calder Trophy that year with 77 points in 80 games.
At the end of the 2016-17 season, Panarin was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The deal included Panarin and forward Tyler Motte, with a sixth-round selection in 2017, for forward Brandon Saad, goaltender Anton Forsberg and a fifth-round pick in 2018. Panarin held a point-per-game average with 82 and 87 points in the past two seasons with Columbus, respectively.
His expectations for this season are higher than anyone else on this roster. Panarin will have the spotlight on him whenever his skate blades touch the ice, and fans will want every shot taken to be a goal. He is a generational talent, and he has shown how well he can do inside of two completely different systems in Chicago and Columbus. Coming to New York, and being on a team that is focused upon the young talent around him, will only benefit him. Finally, he will be on the first line with Mika Zibanejad as his center, and it should be incredible seeing these two together. In terms of that right wing spot on line number one, it is still a mystery with the likely candidate being Pavel Buchnevich. Having the first line minutes with a comparable center in Zibanejad could be devastating for opposing teams.
For the 2019-20 season, a return to the 40-goal club will be an appropriate expectation for Panarin. In addition, keeping the streak alive for a third season of having a point per game would also be a key item to expect from Panarin. Ultimately, those stats will mean absolutely nothing if he cannot help lead the Rangers back to the only thing that matters, the Stanley Cup Playoffs. That is the top goal for him for this upcoming season.
On a battered and nearly broken defensive core, Jacob Trouba will be a bright refreshing light for this upcoming season and beyond. After the buyout of Kevin Shattenkirk, the right side and most importantly the power play has been replaced by Trouba.
Trouba came over to the Rangers in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets for defenseman Neal Pionk and a 2019 first-round pick, that resulted in Finnish defenseman Ville Heinous. Shortly after, before facing an arbitration hearing, Trouba signed with the Blueshirts over the next seven seasons for $56 million.
He had a career-high in points with 50 last season. The last Rangers defenseman to hit the 50-point mark was when Brian Leetch had 55 points during the 2001-02 season. This a high expectation for him, as the Rangers leading point-getter from the blue line last season was Tony DeAngelo with 30.
For the 2019-20 season, Trouba will be alongside Brady Skjei and Marc Staal as the leaders of this defensive unit. With Adam Fox likely to make his mark this upcoming season as well as the hopeful return of DeAngelo, it is a very young group of skaters. Additionally, there are other defensive prospects that could play this upcoming season that are younger still.
There are a lot of expectations for Trouba with none bigger than continuing to be a consistent player. For much of his NHL career, he has been stable in his defensive ability as well as chipping in with some offense. With an average PDO of 100.4 over his six seasons in Winnipeg, he has been able to help keep the puck out of his net and put it in the opposing team’s net.
Aside from Panarin, the only other Rangers player with a laundry list of high expectations is the second overall pick in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Kappo Kakko. This is the player that a vast majority of the fans wished for and got. Now, it is time to see if they should have been careful for who they wished for.
Kakko has all of the makings of an everyday NHL player. He was just a kid in Liiga, the top professional hockey league in Finland, and shined. With TPS, he appeared in 45 games and contributed 22 goals and 16 assists. This was good enough to be the third-highest scoring player on the team. Pretty good numbers for a kid that just turned 18 in February.
Coming to the Rangers he fits right into the grand scheme of this re-build, the youth movement. In a risky move, a good chunk of the veteran players from the 2014 Stanley Cup Final team have been traded to other clubs. The result of all of the transactions, is this re-tooled and re-established group of young players with an incredible amount of skill and upside. Kakko is one of those players.
Kakko is projected to have time on the second line, but may eventually find himself to the right of Zibanejad and Panarin on the first line. It will all depend on how well Kakko adjusts to the NHL level – if he is off to the races right out of the starting gate, then first-line minutes will be expected for him, but if he struggles to adapt, he will stay on the second and third lines.
His expectation is simple, but is a very tough one, and that is to adapt. Adapt the NHL level, adapt to his new teammates and adapt to head coach David Quinn’s system. His success will be vital for the Rangers to make any kind of playoff push. Especially, since this is the first season that they are not considered to be fully re-building.
Fox may be the dark-horse signing of the offseason. He has spent the past three seasons with Harvard and shined. As a blue-liner, he has contributed 116 points in just 97 games at the NCAA level. This includes nine goals and 29 assists in the 33 games he played last season for the Crimson. His performance last season was recognized, and he was a finalist for the greatest award in College Hockey, the Hobey Baker Award.
Even more, the Long Island native is living his dream and playing for his favorite team. This all came after he was selected by the Calgary Flames in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, and then had his rights traded to Carolina last season, before finally being shipped off to the Rangers. He signed an entry-level contract with the Blueshirts on May 2.
As a right-handed shot, he will be crucial on the right side of the defense. Behind Trouba and awaiting the re-signing of DeAngelo, Fox will fall to the third pairing for the time being. Of course, if DeAngelo isn’t signed, Fox would likely move up to the second line.
The 21-year-old will be a member of the Rangers this upcoming season, and will likely not have to play much at the AHL level. At 21, he is another name in a long list of young players on this roster that will go head-to-head with some of the world’s best hockey players. And just like all of the other young players, Fox will have to adjust to the NHL level and adapt to a new style of play.
Fox’s expectations will be to have a strong offensive game from the blue line. Losing Shattenkirk leaves an empty hole that will likely be filled by Trouba as the power-play quarterback, but Fox could also get a run at it. He shown the ability at the college level to constantly keep the puck moving at the blue line. One of his best features is his quick hands and creativity with the puck on his stick. Having quick hands that can elude defenders with the man advantage is a great thing to have.
The Rangers have a chance to turn everything around in 2019-20. With a blank slate and an upgraded roster on both offense and defense, the expectations cannot be any higher. A playoff berth will be at the top of the pecking order, and failing to finish within the top-eight in the Eastern Conference again this season is simply not an option.
Each of these players will be under the microscope this season. But, it isn’t just the newcomers. Henrik Lundqvist will be under constant surveillance with two backups battling for his starting role. Chris Kreider may not be on the Rangers roster after the Feb. 25 NHL Trade Deadline. And, last but certainly not least, Quinn is going into his second year as head coach. Can he help these young players reach their full potential?
There is no better time to be watching the Rangers. With just over a month left until puck drop, the anticipation is growing. Can these new players fix the struggling Blueshirts?