The New York Rangers have reported to training camp surrounded by questions of what this new lineup will look like and how the plethora of young players will play. It’s not just the rookies and second year players who are in the spotlight. Several Rangers need to prove their worth if they wish to stick around on a team in transition.
No, Kaapo Kakko or Vitali Kravtsov will not be included in this list. If both play well, it will not be a surprise to anyone. Libor Hajek on the other hand has fewer expectations.
Hajek will likely be competing with Yegor Rykov to be the left defenseman on the third pairing. He was called up a couple of times last season as the Rangers cycled through defensemen, and he looked solid in his few appearances.
Hajek is a stay at home d-man who complements offensive defensemen. His willingness to stay back allows his linemate to step into the play. Defense is the Rangers’ biggest question mark this season, so a good defensive defenseman will be in high demand.
If Hajek does make the team out of training camp, all eyes will be on him to see how he plays at the NHL level. If he’s able to stick to his game and limit his rookie mistakes, he could be poised to really surprise this season.
His biggest task will be beating Rykov for that roster spot, which will be determined in the next few weeks.
This is an odd one. Ryan Strome had a fantastic finish last season and could be ready to take another step forward. A former top-10 draft pick, he hasn’t fully matured. He had a couple of average seasons with the New York Islanders, but wasn’t impressive with the Edmonton Oilers.
Maybe Strome has found a home. He works very hard on the ice, has good hockey IQ, and began to consistently put the puck in the net towards the end of last season.
The biggest issue is that there is no guarantee that he will receive consistent ice time this season. With a very deep bottom-six forward group, Strome could find himself fighting with Vladislav Namestnikov for a spot in the lineup.
At this point, a huge portion of the Rangers’ fan base has written off Lias Andersson. The former seventh-overall draft pick has yet to prove himself in the NHL.
The issue isn’t his play, ti’s his ice time. Andersson consistently gets less TOI than he should. Still, he’s been with the Rangers for a couple of seasons now and he has to show why he was a valuable pick, and I think he will.
Andersson will likely center the third line this season, with occasional stints on the fourth line. He should receive more ice time which means more opportunities to make plays.
If he can learn how to contribute on offense more consistently, keep up with the pace of the NHL, and start to mesh with the roster more, then he will set himself up for a good season. Get ready for Andersson because he has a lot to prove and he should have his best season yet.
These three players could surprise many this year. Hajek will be looking to slot in on the third defensive pairing, Strome will be looking to fill a bottom-six role, and Andersson will try to quiet the critics and solidify himself in the NHL.