NEW YORK — Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers are ready to put their struggles from the last two seasons behind them.
After finishing 20 points out of a playoff spot for the second straight year, the Rangers added some new players and are looking toward returning to the post-season.
“The past is the past, you move on,” veteran goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. “We have a new team. You got to look at the possibilities and the good things we can accomplish this year, not so much what happened last year where we were as a team. We’re moving forward.”
Signing left wing Artemi Panarin in free agency was the big splash to boost the team’s rebuild, and New York also acquired defenceman Jacob Trouba in a trade and drafted forward Kaapo Kakko with the second overall pick. Now the Rangers believe they are ready to make big strides in the second year under coach David Quinn.
“We got some new players and some really good players coming in, and young guys coming in,” centre Mika Zibanejad said. “Obviously you want to take the next step in this whole process and just work from there, take it game by game.”
Panarin, who has totalled 116 goals and 204 assists in his first four seasons in the NHL, will be counted on to set the tone for the entire lineup. He will join Zibanejad (career highs of 30 goals and 44 assists last season) on the top line, with fellow Russian Pavel Buchnevich getting the early nod on the right side of the trio.
Chris Kreider will be on the left side of the second line, joined by either Filip Chytil or Lias Andersson — 20-year-olds who were the team’s first-round picks in 2017 —in the middle, and Kakko, 18, or Vitali Kravtsov, 19, on the right side.
“Having Panarin in here gives us a true first line,” Quinn said. “They take an awful lot of pressure off the other three lines. We hope they take some pressure off some of our younger players that are put in key positions.”
Brett Howden showed flashes last year and Ryan Strome was solid after coming over in a midseason trade. Oth will be counted on to be key players among the bottom six forwards.
LW Artemi Panarin, D Jacob Trouba, RW Kaapo Kakko, RW Vitali Kravtsov, D Adm Fox, C Greg McKegg, G Igor Shesterkin.
D Kevin Shattenkirk, F Neal Pionk.
Panarin and Zibanejad on the top line provide the biggest scoring threats the Rangers have had in years, and both could top 80 points this season. Trouba bolsters the defence and along with Panarin should also greatly improve a power play that struggled late last season. Kreider is in a contract year and his production could get a boost if he jells with the youngsters on what should be an improved second line. Lundqvist is 37 and entering his 15th season after going 18-23-10, with career-worsts of a 3.07 goals-against average and a .907 save-percentage.
It also marked the first time he had fewer than 24 wins. He struggled in the second half of last season, prompting both Quinn and team president John Davidson to say they want to manage his minutes to keep him fresher this time. That opens opportunities for Alexandar Georgiev, the primary backup last season, and Russian newcomer Igor Shesterkin, who has impressed in the preseason. One of the two will be the No. 2 and the other likely headed to start the season in the AHL.
The Rangers should be a better and more exciting team to watch this season. However, all the new additions could need time to jell, as well as the young players needing to grow and adjust to the size and pace in the NHL. Quinn has pointed to defensive zone coverage and penalty killing as two key areas the team needs to improve.
After making seven straight post-season appearances, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014, the Rangers went into rebuilding mode midway through the 2017-18 season. There were a lot of ups and downs in the first full season of the makeover, and they finished 32-36-14 with just five wins in the last 21 games (5-10-6) to end up seventh in the eight-team Metropolitan Division. Despite their youth, if the Rangers can avoid injuries and develop some level of consistency, they could challenge for a playoff spot in the East.
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Vin A. Cherwoo, The Associated Press