No place celebrates the holiday season quite like New York City. December in the Big Apple means extravagant decorations, festive bright lights, and engaging in timeless traditions. Under normal circumstances, the exciting holiday time does not exactly indicate the beginning of hockey season, but that is hopefully the case this year.
Yet the prospect of watching something magical unfold on the ice is just as exciting as well. The New York Rangers will enter this season as they begin one of the most unique chapters in the team’s lengthy history. Characterized by talent, youth, and potential, the season just cannot seem to start soon enough.
In the spirit of the holidays and the distinctive era the Rangers are about to enter, let’s take a look at the top five wishes for the team heading into this upcoming season.
Wish #5: Kreider’s Presence Increases
With longtime Blueshirt forward Jesper Fast gone, Chris Kreider’s veteran presence will be more important now than ever. Given his leadership role and capability to connect with each teammate, Kreider is a huge piece of the organization. Add the long-term extension he signed last year to the list of reasons he will need to keep up his consistency.
Though a fan favorite, he will need to live up to the new contract. One main argument against the Kreider extension and his contention for captaincy revolves around his tendency to “disappear” during various parts of the season. Though the gritty winger has seen some injuries, this is not the main factor in his career lulls.
In his 523 career games with the Rangers, he tallied 316 total points (157 goals, 159 assists) 19 of which were game-winning goals. He has been a member of the historical franchise since 2009 when the team selected him as their first-round pick. He finally made an appearance during the 2012-13 season.
The need for his constancy is exemplified each time he is out of the lineup or is in the midst of a drought. Provided his experience, top ice time, and being the longest-tenured Ranger, Kreider holds a position that cannot be immediately replaced (From Chris Kreider’s injury exposes Rangers’ youth problem’, New York Post, 3/3/2020).
One of Kreider’s primary upsides are his refined passing abilities. Setting up his linemates is a large part of the forward’s game and with players like Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin on the ice, that is huge. His strong frame allows him to be a punishingly physical, yet fast skater. His on-ice awareness is quite commendable.
The 29-year-old comes with an extensive list of intangible qualities as well. As an introspective individual and team player, Kreider has always exhibited an apt for leadership. His unwavering guidance, work ethic, and professionalism are just a few additional qualities that distinguish him as a successful influencer.
Wish #4: Kakko Has a Breakout Season
While it had not been the rookie season for Kaapo Kakko that all had dreamt of, the young Finn had numerous promising looks, especially in his first postseason against the Carolina Hurricanes. Sure, there were lofty expectations placed on Kakko but he has time to meet those expectations, or at least aim for them.
Kakko registered 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists) in 66 games with his team. At surface level, his performance was underwhelming, but looking more deeply depicts an even worse reality. Yet, his strengths so far include his stickhandling ability and that he has more of a calculated, deliberate style to his game.
Nearing the end of his lukewarm debut season, the young winger had been working to increase his confidence but also made improvements physically by putting on some muscle. While it may still be too soon to expect drastic improvement from Kakko, there is an open spot within the top two lines following Fast’s departure. Improving his two-way game will be key to becoming a franchise name, he has the size to be more defensive but will need to use his body more.
Wish #3: Defensive Cohesion
As the weakest link for several seasons now, the New York defensive core is in need of revitalization. With the addition of several young blueliners in Adam Fox, Ryan Lindgren, and Libor Hajek, the Rangers have shaken up their options.
In order to get the most out of their defenders, the pairing will have to be seamless. Particularly, Jacob Trouba is in need of a solid partner, so that he can play at his top level as well. As of now, there are numerous right-shot options for the left side, but any changes that the coaching squad makes to the defense pairings will likely interrupt the meshing process.
Since veteran Marc Staal was moved, a top spot with top minutes opened. The team has several options, whether they fill in recent acquisition Jack Johnson, move Tony DeAngelo to the left, or split up the prosperous Fox/Lindgren pair. Wishfully, whichever route they go allows for long-term chemistry and success.
There is really an art to creating defense pairings, but with an established top four and with multiple prospects in the pipeline, the Rangers have the freedom of option on their side. Though handedness is typically a factor in pairings, the Rangers have several productive defensemen who are likely capable of overcoming hurdles playing on their offhand. Especially with time and youth on their side, it’s not too late to work on adjustments if needed.
Wish #2: Lafreniere Has an Astounding Rookie Season
Although Alexis Lafreniere did not land as the top wish, this should be regarded as a good sign. The strong likelihood he will jump in just fine is what holds him at the second-highest spot. As an elite scorer who dominated every league he entered, the homecoming of 19-year-old Lafreniere has been a long-awaited event.
His potential as a top-six player is blatantly obvious, but the question is when he will see the top two lines. The top two lines constructed by the coaching staff have consisted of veteran skill for the most part and for good reason. The Rangers stacked the first two lines with seasoned skill, therefore Lafreniere’s line placement is still a mystery.
Ideally, in addition to showcasing his offensive gifts, the Rangers would like to see Lafreniere’s strong defensive skills translate immediately over in the NHL. Going up against bigger, older, and stronger players, Lafreniere will need to hold his own but it would be beneficial to have the defense step up and assist in keeping guys off him.
At this point, it is well known in the hockey world how special Lafreniere is. The teenager’s creativity, slick passing ability, and explosive shot are just a few qualities that set him apart. With the star power already possessed by the Rangers, it is certainly exciting to have another piece of the puzzle join the club.
Wish #1: Shesterkin and Georgiev Are a Shutdown Duo
With the Henrik Lundqvist era finalized in New York, the goaltending workload is now dealt solely upon the shoulders of Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev. The pair of 24-year-old netminders will need to navigate the rest of the young team to success without the veteran presence Lundqvist provided.
Though the Rangers experienced a firsthand glimpse of Shesterkin’s talent last season, the big league sample size is simply too small to have 100% faith he can take on the bulk so soon. He was unarguably stellar in those 12 games, but there needs to be cautious moving forward — his success and development in this league are not guaranteed.
Finding the right playing pattern for the two young netminders will be a task that is hopefully established early on. Whichever route the organization goes with goaltending, this area of the game will be a large indicator of success.
Shesterkin, who made his long-awaited appearance late last season, provided his team a chance to win each night and put in the extra work to compensate for the patchy defense in front of him. He ended his 2019-20 campaign with a .932 save percentage and 10-2 record. Shesterkin’s strengths are his positioning in the crease, his rebound freezing, and his calmness in high-pressure games.
On the other hand, Georgiev had been a fine backup for Lundqvist the past several seasons and with the shift in goaltending dynamic, it will be fun to see how the new duo performs. Both goaltenders have the same thing to prove — that they are NHL starting goaltenders.
Georgiev enters this upcoming season with an impressive repertoire as well. A 55-save game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a shutout against the Vegas Golden Knights, and a road win against the relentless Ottawa Senators were all highlights of his 2019-20 season.
Items on the Fans’ Wishlist
Rangers fans in particular, are sure to be experiencing a whirlwind given the current state of the team. After many exciting signings and moves, the shot to win a Stanley Cup in the upcoming decade feels legitimate again.
With the NHL and the NHL Players Association still eyeing a Jan. 13 start date for the upcoming season, all teams will wear the Retros during select games this season. The throwback designs are in addition to the typical home, away, and alternate jerseys, but since the Rangers have lacked an alternate design, fans are hopeful to see the beloved Liberty logo more often.
Ever since news broke that the Rangers would don the iconic Liberty logo as their Reverse Retro jersey design, fans have been scouring the internet to find details regarding the usage of these jerseys during the season.
Aesthetics aside, of course fans should want head coach David Quinn to excel in his role and see new assistant coach Jacques Martin click well with the team also. It has been a bit since the Rangers had a solid defensive system, and Martin’s Stanley Cup experience is sure to add guidance.
There has also been increased chatter surrounding the naming of the captain. Zibanejad and Kreider are the main frontrunners for captaincy with the fan base about evenly polarized. Both forwards would be well-rounded captains and with an influx of youth, the organization should fill the dignified role.
Regardless, the Rangers are in the midst of an exhilarating and hopeful chapter, just another reason to be thankful this holiday season.