We are about a little over a year removed from the New York Rangers’ front office sending a letter to their fans stating that they were going to start rebuilding for the future. In the letter, it said, “As we approach the trade deadline later this month and into the summer, we will be focused on adding young, competitive players that combine speed, skill, and character. This may mean we lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect.” To the Rangers’ credit, they have held to that message.
In a flash, Ryan McDonagh, J.T Miller, Rick Nash, Michael Grabner, and Nick Holden were all gone. All shipped away for young assets, whether it was players or draft picks. The Rangers had little activity over the summer in 2018, other than locking a few players into short-term contracts. Three first-round picks in the 2018 Entry Draft helped to restock the cupboard even more.
This year was more of the same for the Rangers — trading struggling forward Ryan Spooner to the Edmonton Oilers. Moving on from Kevin Hayes, and longtime heart and soul of the team, Mats Zuccarello. Here we stand, with the draft looming in late June and free agency to follow. It is time to take a deeper dive into the Rangers rebuild and see where they stand.
Taking a Look at the Offense
The Rangers’ offense is vastly different from the one that took the ice at the beginning of the 2017-18 season. Some familiar faces have stuck around, most importantly Mika Zibanejad, who’s become one of the league’s most underrated stars at the age of 25. Hitting a career high in goals (30), assists (44), and points (74). Pavel Buchnevich, Jimmy Vesey, and Ryan Strome all turned in quality seasons offensively.
Chris Kreider, the Rangers’ longest tenured forward, also turned in a strong performance offensively, but the Rangers now need to decide on him. He has one year remaining on his current contract, making him a free agent at the age of 28.
It is safe to say the Rangers have seen about the best they will from Kreider, a fast and feisty winger who is incredibly streaky when it comes to scoring. The possibility of trading him before the end of his contract is becoming more and more likely.
Vladislav Namestnikov is another interesting piece. Since coming to the Rangers, his production has almost completely halted. With one-year remaining on his contract as well, the Rangers may look to trade him to free up cap space before free agency.
The Rangers have also injected a ton of youth into their lineup. Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil, and Brett Howden all played over 40 games this season — with Howden being 21, Andersson is 20 years old, Chytil at 19 years of age.
The Rangers just received word that Vitali Kratsov will be leaving the KHL to join the team, another 19-year-old. They also own the second-overall pick in this June’s entry draft which will give them either Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, 17 and 18 years old, respectively. That would give the Rangers four players opening night, none of whom can legally buy alcohol in the United States.
The stars are young, and bright on Broadway, which is something former President Glen Sather and current General Manager Jeff Gorton promised the fanbase last February. The acquisition of assets has been nothing short of impressive from the front office.
Time to Get Defensive
On the defensive end, this is much more of a mixed bag than the offense. The Rangers dealt McDonagh, the team’s captain at the time, to the Tampa Bay Lightning, officially signaling that the rebuild was underway. Three defensemen this past season played 60-plus games and were under the age of 25, Tony DeAngelo, Brady Skjei, and Neal Pionk. They are tied to two separate albatross contracts in the form of Marc Staal and Brendan Smith.
There is also the issue of Kevin Shattenkirk with his high price tag and low production. Shattenkirk signed with the Rangers with the expectation that he would be the powerplay quarterback they have desperately been seeking for years. His first season saw him play in about half of the games due to varying injuries. Coming into year two, expectations were that he would come back healthy and ready to play.
In a season where he played 73 games, he failed the analytics test, so his future is about as clear as murky water. I’m sure the Rangers will look to see if there are any takers for his services this summer, but at what cost to Gorton and his team? Retaining salary and attaching assets isn’t a move for a rebuilding team. With the addition of Adam Fox, the Rangers may look to move on quickly from Shattenkirk.
DeAngelo, while known to have personality issues, started to find his groove with the team throughout the year. The 23-year-old has some maturing to do, both on and off the ice, but if there is a beacon of hope for the future of the defense, this is it.
Pionk is another young defenseman who is coming off an abysmal year, even worse than Shattenkirk. Every advanced statistic shows he is not growing at the rate that the Rangers had hoped, and with his contract set to expire at this summer, the Rangers need to choose just how much they believe in Pionk.
Skjei as well saw he fair share of ups and downs throughout the season. The Rangers took a chance giving him a hefty contract extension last summer, so they are going to be looking for Skjei to prove his worth.
The prospect pool certainly isn’t shallow, names like Libor Hajek, Ryan Lindgren, K’Andre Miller, the aforementioned Adam Fox, and seemingly forgotten Yegor Rykov. Hajek and Fox are the most likely to see ice-time when opening night rolls around in October.
Ryan Lindgren needs more time in the AHL to hone his craft. When it comes to Rykov, there is no word on his move to North American, and he will most likely need AHL time to adapt to the NHL style. K’Andre Miller had a strong freshman year at Wisconsin, but he is nowhere near ready to occupy space in an NHL lineup.
Protecting Henrik’s Throne
Looking into the Rangers currently goaltending situation brings about a ton of excitement, but also brings with it a touch of sadness of disappointment.
Henrik Lundqvist is just shy of having played 1,000 games as a member of the New York Rangers, 857 regular season games, and 128 playoff games. The future hall-of-fame goalie is now entering the twilight of his career. A career full of close but no cigar moments. An entire career of, “The Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist they have a chance to beat anyone.”
Unfortunately, this has led to the wasted prime of one of the best goalies in NHL history, and hands down the best goalie in the history of the New York Rangers. With two years left on his current contract, it is unknown what the future holds for the former Vezina Trophy winner.
Alexandar Georgiev made his name in the latter half of this season. After only playing 10 games the season prior, Georgiev took center stage down the stretch for the Rangers and played surprisingly well. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Georgiev is the starting goalie going into next season.
This leads us to the Igor Shestyorkin. Shestyorkin signed his entry-level contract a few weeks ago and will be coming over to the Rangers this coming fall. Igor has made the KHL look like a weekend men’s league, posting an absurd 1.11 goals-against average and .953 save percentage. He will immediately come into camp and challenge for an NHL job. He could potentially start in the AHL to acclimate himself to the North American game, which vastly different from what Igor has seen in the KHL.
Georgiev and Shestyorkin look to be the goalies of the future on Broadway. Surely can’t say their names five times fast, but these guys can stop pucks.
Down to Brass Tax: Has the Rangers’ Rebuild Been Successful?
If someone said about 15 months ago that the Rangers would be this far ahead in their rebuild, I don’t think many people would have believed it to be true. Jeff Gorton’s ability to acquire future assets has put the Rangers in the position to contend for the next decade plus. There’s still work to be done, but any team that has succeeded in today’s NHL has a strong foundation of young players, and the Rangers have an embarrassment of riches.
There’s a reason the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Los Angeles Kings have won eight of the last 10 Stanley Cups. They’ve all followed this blueprint to near dynasty level success. It’s the same blueprint that the Toronto Maple Leafs, Colorado Avalanche, New Jersey Devils, Vancouver Canucks, Buffalo Sabres, and Edmonton Oilers have attempted to mimic, granted some teams have read that blueprint a little better than others.
The Rangers will open up training camp with a sense of optimism, with a sense that the future is right around the corner, and that future is shining bright.