With the rumors swirling around the NHL community about the possibility of a 56-game season starting Jan. 15, I immediately realized that this proposal had the most potential. The timing needed to pull it off is still intact, and the length provides enough substance for players and fans to avoid placing an asterisk beside the winner’s name.
It’s almost certain that the NHL will be forced to geographically realign their divisions, placing the New York Rangers in a division with their closest counterparts. My money would be on the Rangers being placed with the New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, Boston Bruins, and Buffalo Sabres in 2021.
That division would be loaded with talent and competitive action, with each team facing the other seven divisional opponents eight times each. Yes, that’s right. The Rangers would face-off eight times against the Islanders, Devils, and other rivals in this proposed format.
Facing the same team repeatedly allows familiarity to develop. Coaches can craft game plans that directly attack their opponent’s weaknesses, something that the Rangers will often face with veteran coaches Barry Trotz, Bruce Cassidy, and now Peter Laviolette in their division. Still extremely young, the Rangers and their fairly new bench boss in David Quinn will have to be equally adept at making adjustments to have success this upcoming season.
With the Rangers having played every team in their geographically realigned division plenty over the past two seasons, let’s take a look at how they fared recently and are likely to fare in 2020-21.
Opponent: Boston Bruins
2018-19: NYR (2-1-0), 4 Points
2019-20: NYR (0-2-1), 1 Point
The Bruins are an elite team with top-end talent who typically reside in the Atlantic Division. Adding them into an already crowded division makes the Rangers’ tough path to the postseason even more challenging. Despite the contrast in where these two teams have fallen in the standings, the Rangers have been very competitive against Boston.
I can see the Rangers keeping these games competitive, finishing their eight games against the Bruins with a 3-4-1 record. That may not be great, but it allows the Rangers to have a postseason chance if they beat the other teams in the division.
Opponent: Buffalo Sabres
2018-19: NYR (2-1-0), 4 Points
2019-20: NYR (1-1-0), 2 Points
The Rangers and Sabres always find themselves in a battle regardless of where the two teams are in the standings. With that being said, the Rangers need to take care of business against Buffalo if they have playoff aspirations next season.
The Sabres have added even more scoring with Taylor Hall and Eric Staal joining the roster, but they still lack the goaltending and defensive depth needed to thrive. The Blueshirts have as much if not more offensive talent and should manage to go 5-2-1 against Buffalo.
Opponent: Carolina Hurricanes
2018-19: NYR (2-2-0), 4 Points
2019-20: NYR (4-0-0), 8 Points
Despite the Rangers’ regular-season dominance over the Hurricanes, Carolina got the last laugh, sweeping the Rangers in the qualifying round. The matchup was certainly an eye-opener for the Rangers and their fan base, but it doesn’t change the fact that the they know how to beat the ‘Canes in the regular season.
A major part of the Rangers’ domination of the Hurricanes stemmed from Henrik Lundqvist’s play, but his heir-apparent, Igor Shesterkin, seems poise to continue the trend. Shesterkin won his only meeting against Carolina last season, and I expect the Rangers winning ways to continue in 2020-21. My prediction is they will go 5-3-0 against the Hurricanes.
Opponent: New Jersey Devils
2018-19: NYR (3-1-0), 6 Points
2019-20: NYR (2-2-0), 4 Points
The Devils and Rangers rivalry has died down at a rapid rate since their meeting in the 2012 Eastern Conference Final. The 2019 Draft reinvigorated it some by adding the Jack Hughes vs. Kappo Kakko element, and now the rivalry appears to be trending up once again.
The Rangers and Devils will play each other close this upcoming season, although the Rangers are closer to the playoffs than New Jersey is. It’s a tough matchup to predict, given how closely they played in their four meetings this past season. In the end, I’ll give the Rangers a slight edge, going 4-3-1.
Opponent: New York Islanders
2018-19: NYR (2-2-0), 4 Points
2019-20: NYR (3-1-0), 6 Points
The Islanders had a run of dominance in this rivalry that seemingly came to an end in 2018-19. The Rangers, led by Alexandar Georgiev, were able to win the battle this past campaign, but I fully expect every single matchup to be close and intense next season.
Barry Trotz will be able to make adjustments over the course of eight meetings that will surely test Quinn and the Rangers, but in the end, the team is good enough to compete with the Islanders. Each game will be a dog fight, resulting in a 3-3-2 record for the Rangers.
Opponent: Philadelphia Flyers
2018-19: NYR (1-2-1), 3 Points
2019-20: NYR (0-3-0), 0 Points
If the Hurricanes’ regular-season kryptonite is the Rangers, New York’s is the Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers swept the Rangers last season after beating them in three out of the four meetings the year prior. It has been utter domination, and unless something drastic happens, it appears it will remain that way.
Herb Brooks famously said about the Soviet Team, “If we played them 10 times, they might win nine,” and that must be how the Rangers feel about playing Philadelphia. Eight games against one team should allow the Rangers to get a couple of wins, but those will have to be earned. The team will go 2-4-2 against Philly.
Opponent: Washington Capitals
2018-19: NYR (0-1-3), 3 Points
2019-20: NYR (2-1-0), 4 Points
For the better portion of a decade, the Rangers and Capitals have engaged in heated games both in the regular and postseason. The latest memorable moment came in March when Mika Zibanejad scored five times in a Rangers’ 6-5 overtime win.
Now with longtime netminder Lundqvist on the other side of this rivalry, these eight matchups are sure to be intense and emotional, regardless of there being fans in attendance. Ultimately, these games always have a grind-it-out style to them, exemplified by 2018-19 when the Rangers lost all four meetings, three of which in extra time. It’s a toss-up, but I’ll give the Capitals the edge and say the Rangers go 3-4-1.
There are no numbers or fancy stats used in these predictions, just strictly the eye test and how I see these games playing out. These estimates would put the Rangers at 25-23-8, which is good for 58 points. Would that be good enough for a 16-team playoff? Probably not. But we still are not sure if the playoffs will be returning to their traditional form this season.
I believe the Rangers’ upside is there, and they have the skilled enough players to outperform their expectations. Alexis Lafreniere and Kakko have the ability to push the offense to new heights, while surprising performances from Jack Johnson and Brendan Smith could propel the defense. In a strange season, the Rangers will face an uphill battle in a geographically realigned division, but hope remains.