When New York Rangers president Glen Sather and general manager Jeff Gorton released a letter to fans back on Feb. 8, it officially marked the beginning of the anticipated rebuild. While there were moves made prior to the 2017-18 season that suggested such — including a trade with the Arizona Coyotes that sent away Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta in exchange for Anthony DeAngelo and a first-rounder — the changing of times fully set in after the letter. Soon, gone were the likes of Rick Nash, J.T. Miller and former captain Ryan McDonagh. Gone was an era that saw the Rangers make three Eastern Conference Final appearances, a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2013-14 and a Presidents’ Trophy win in 2014-15. Gone were the expectations of the Rangers being a contending team.
But it’s out with the old, and in with the new. While the Rangers could be down for a few years, fresh faces have emerged, eager to provide for the historic franchise and become faces of the team. Out of the six players on the Rangers’ active roster that were acquired during 2018, four are in their 20s — a 20-year-old and three in their mid-20s. The rebuild is not complete, and Blueshirts fans should anticipate more familiar faces being replaced by a new, growing core that brass hopes bring the team back to success. But it is still worth looking to see how these four new talents have held up in the first month of the season.
This is Howden’s debut NHL season; he was one of several pieces dealt in the Rangers’ deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning for McDonagh and Miller. At the time, Howden was just a blue chipper, who had a capability of breaking out but not a guarantee. Now, he looks to be quite possibly a key face in the Rangers rebuild.
Through the first 11 games of 2018-19, the rookie is tied for fourth in points with six — two goals and four assists. And so far, Howden has shown his potential as a true all-rounder. The 20-year-old has shown attentiveness to set up scoring opportunities for his teammates, an eye to creating chances for himself and even the ability to deal some hits. In fact, while he’s just third on the Rangers’ center depth chart, Howden appears to be outperforming Kevin Hayes and keeping up with first-liner Mika Zibanejad.
Howden’s hard work and success is paying off, as head coach David Quinn is giving the Calgary-born Howden more ice time and trusting him in key situations, such as the power play. Could he be a nominee to win the Calder Trophy, which no Ranger has won since Brian Leetch in 1988-89? It’s possible, though he’s dealing with competition such as Elias Pettersson and Henri Jokiharju. But regardless, as Rick Carpiniello of The Athletic NHL states, the 2016 first-rounder is definitely one to keep an eye on, and that goes beyond Blueshirts fans (from ‘Brett Howden is starting to show that he can be more than just a grinder’, The Athletic NHL – 10/12/18).
With Quinn, who is defensive-minded, coming in as a first-time NHL head coach, it made sense for the Rangers to try to give some new look to the D-unit — a front they’ve been working on since the prowess of guys like McDonagh and Dan Girardi began to fade away. And New York’s only unrestricted free agent signing turned out to be the 26-year-old Claesson, who has spent the last three years in the Ottawa Senators organization. While he was drafted back in 2011, Claesson spent most of his time with the Senators in the AHL until being called up to the NHL full-time in 2017.
Unfortunately for the Rangers and Claesson, things have not started as they hoped. While Claesson earned praise in his Rangers debut back on Oct. 11 against the San Jose Sharks, getting in four hits and a block while also providing five shots on goal in nearly 19 minutes on the ice. While his next three games saw him add on another eight hits and two blocks, he’s leaving a lot to be desired since his first game. To make matters more disappointing, he’s currently sitting on the injured reserve due to an upper-body injury. The hope is that his return will see a return to more performances like Oct. 11.
After spending years with the Boston Bruins since they drafted him in 2010, Spooner was one of several pieces traded to the Rangers in exchange for Rick Nash. He was an assist producer, contributing 12 in the 20 games he played in a New York uniform, but he was lackluster everywhere else — such as getting just four of his 37 shots on goal past the goaltender.
And unfortunately for the Ottawa-born Spooner, he hasn’t started 2018-19 on the right foot, to say the least. Spooner has mostly played on a fourth line that has been getting killed in puck control and production. With 19 shots on goal, Spooner is a minus-four and has just one goal and an assist — the former coming recently against the Los Angeles Kings.
That Oct. 28 game saw Spooner playing on a line featuring Hayes and Chris Kreider, and while Spooner did get that first goal of the season, fans may still not trust him if he does not pick up the pace despite all the lineup changes.
Namestnikov, who himself has been trying to find a way to fit in, was also a part of that disappointing fourth line. He was another piece dealt in the Rangers-Lightning trade, and management has hoped for such good things from him that they signed him to a two-year extension this past offseason.
But his play thus far may make some fans forget he’s even there. By the numbers, Namestnikov has done nothing to follow up on getting a goal and assist in his first day of season play back on Oct. 17. Yet, Quinn feels that Namestnikov has played well enough over the past three weeks to warrant a spot near the top of the lineup, citing his ability to apply pressure and work at a quick pace, something Quinn yearns to install in full to this Rangers team.
October was not the best start to the year for the team, but flashes of light have been shown. And while it is a rebuilding year, the hope is the team will gel together sooner than later.