Rangers’ Offseason Moves Open Opportunities for Their Young Guns

You can say Chris Drury has been under a microscope this offseason, but in reality, it’s more like a 4k microscope being projected on a plasma television. Every decision he makes is scrutinized, which is expected after the circumstances that led to his appointment as the New York Rangers general manager. After a seemingly flawless rebuild, Jeff Gorton and John Davidson were let go, paving the way for Drury to take the reigns in what is arguably the most important offseason since “The Letter.”

He has yet to reel in a big fish or make a big splash via the trade market. Instead, Drury has gone out of his way to open the door for the Rangers’ future. Some moves were needed to ensure that this group was ready to compete past the regular season. Some moves had to be made to free up cap space for the younger players asking for new deals in the coming seasons. And some moves still have to be made to ensure the core of this team will be around for the long haul.

A lackluster return from St. Louis in the Pavel Buchnevich trade certainly didn’t win the newly appointed GM many fan votes. But that trade and the subsequent signings hereafter will allow the youth movement to affect Broadway fully. The question is less of, “What is Drury doing?” and more so, “Will the youth make Drury’s vision come to fruition?”

Drury’s Dedication to the Youth Movement

The Rangers currently have four forwards on their opening night roster who are 22 years old or younger (Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytil, and Vitali Kravtsov). Overall, their opening night roster will consist of seven players under the age of 23. These players are viewed as pivotal parts of the Rangers’ future by Drury, who, barring any trades, would like to see them eat up as many minutes as possible.

By moving a Buchnevich, you free up the cap to sign back some of these younger players, and with Kreider likely taking a lesser role, two wing spots open up on the top line for Lafreniere and Kakko. Starting with the latter, ice time and powerplay time were hard to come by for Kakko in 2020-21. He averaged 14:21 a game and played just 63:19 on the powerplay the entire season, the ninth highest total on the Rangers. Despite another stagnant year offensively, the former second-overall selection improved twofold on the defensive side of the puck, turning into one of the analytical sweethearts of the NHL.

Kaapo Kakko Evolving Hockey Card
Evolving Hockey’s player card model of Kakko (Evolving-Hockey)

For Lafreniere, minutes were even harder to come by in his rookie campaign. The first pick in 2020 played just 13:53 a game and played 71:13 on the powerplay, just one spot above his Finnish teammate. He still tallied 12 goals in 56 games and looks to take a step next season after going through a normal offseason and training camp. Newly-appointed head coach Gerard Gallant promised that he wouldn’t bury the younger players, a promise that Drury will hold him to based on his moves.

But the two youngsters with the highest ceilings upfront aren’t the only two younger forwards who can benefit from Drury’s offseason plan. Kravtsov could see himself bumped up to the second line, playing alongside fellow countryman Artemi Panarin. After coming over from a superb KHL campaign, the 2018 first-round pick was buried on the fourth line for the remainder of the season. Now a clean slate and some maneuvering of the wing’s depth chart, Kravtsov seems poised to take a leap in 2021-22.

The last member of the under-23 core four upfront is Chytil, who does seem to be relegated to the same third-line center role. Chytil, who needs to improve on faceoffs, can use his start to last season as a marker for what he can do on that third line, especially if two big-bodied forwards join him in Kreider and Barclay Goodrow. Space would be easier to come by for Chytil, whose skill has been on display in spurts ever since he entered the league.

Protecting the Youth Movement

The Rangers got bullied by both Tom Wilson and the New York Islanders. Despite the two instances not altering the end game for the Rangers, it would be negligent if I failed to acknowledge that those two factors haven’t influenced their decision-making. But despite the popular belief that this is purely reactionary and not thought out decision making, these moves do not impact the future of this club at all.

The focus of the Rangers is still the speed and skill of their young forwards and defensemen. The additions of Patrik Nemeth, Sammy Blais, Goodrow, and now Ryan Reaves ensure that their expensive merchandise is safeguarded. Yes, the analytical base behind these signings isn’t there, but sometimes there is something to be said for defying the numbers and going with that “gut feeling.”

What these new elements bring to the Rangers’ lineup is obvious. Toughness, physicality, and old-fashioned hockey are components of a Gallant-lead team, and the reunion with him and Reaves adds a familiar face for the Bluehsirts’ bench boss. Don’t let their rough exterior deter you from acknowledging that the fourth line with Kevin Rooney, Reaves, and Blais might pin opposing defenses below their goal line. They may actually make the ice smaller for the opposition. And lastly, they may be impactful when it matters most, in the postseason.

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Reaves totaled 141 hits in 37 games this past season, registering over 300 hits in the two campaigns before that. Blais had 103 hits in 36 games in 2020-21, and Goodrow managed to register 111 over 55 games played. The new additions can bang and look to reincarnate the Rangers’ fourth lines of old when they were going to the playoffs annually.

Improvements Are Key

There is no consolation prize in the coming season. The moves make it evident that owner James Dolan expects a playoff game at Madison Square Garden next spring. The core group of budding stars has to make significant strides in this coming season for this to happen. And based on the moves made by Drury, he has faith they will.

Nils Lundkvist is finally in New York, filling out what looks to be an excellent defensive corps. With the young forwards rising in their roles, point production should increase, and skill plays shouldn’t be flashes but consistent sparks. There are reasons to be excited about this upcoming campaign, but the Rangers’ youth rising due to Drury’s offseason moves is definitely atop the list.

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