The 2021-22 season will mark the New York Rangers’ return to the Stanley Cup playoffs after a four-year absence. The hiring of head coach Gerard Gallant has made a difference for the Rangers, who have improved dramatically and exceeded expectations after multiple years of rebuilding. I thought the Rangers would be a better team than in previous years but would qualify for the postseason as a wild-card team and not as one of the top three franchises in the Metropolitan Division.
A career year from Chris Kreider, a Vezina Trophy caliber season from Igor Shesterkin, and a record-setting number of assists for a Rangers forward from Artemi Panarin are some of the highlights of New York’s stellar season. The Rangers have increased their depth since the trade deadline, and have improved as a result. Let’s take a look at some Rangers predictions for the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Shesterkin Will Have at Least One Shutout During the Postseason
The Rangers will square off against the Pittsburgh Penguins or Washington Capitals during the first round of the postseason. The Penguins have gone 4-7-1 during the final month of the regular season and lost ground in clinching home ice during the first round as a result. The Rangers defeated the Penguins in three of the four regular-season matchups this year, and Shesterkin played well in the four games against Pittsburgh.
Shesterkin did not allow more than two goals in any of the games. He finished with a shutout during the last contest between the clubs on April 7, and appears to have the Penguins’ number. With the Penguins having difficulty getting pucks past the Rangers’ starting netminder, I think the 26-year-old goalie will have one shutout during the first-round series against Pittsburgh. He played in one game against the Capitals on Feb. 24 and allowed one goal. The Rangers and Capitals each have a win against one another and end their seasons in the upcoming game on April 29.
Despite missing the majority of games in December with a lower-body injury, Shesterkin has dominated in net during 2021-22 and is the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy. His play has been vital to the Rangers’ success, and he is in the mix for the Hart Trophy, which is awarded to the most valuable player (MVP) in the NHL. He is more likely to win only the Vezina, as a goaltender has only won the Hart Trophy eight times since its existence beginning in the 1923-24 season (2004-05 is not included as there was no season due to a lockout.
Related: Rangers’ Shesterkin Deserves Hart Trophy Consideration
Gallant echoed the team’s confidence in its starting goalie, “We trust him, he’s won a lot of games for us.” It is a valid argument that the Rangers may not be quite as good this year if not for Shesterkin’s reliability in his 53 games. He has a 36-13-4 record with a 2.07 goals-against average (GAA) and a .935 save percentage (SV%). He will aim to continue his incredible year during the postseason, beginning in the first-round series against the Penguins or Capitals.
Andrew Copp Will Have a Good Postseason and Re-Sign With the Rangers
Since his acquisition from the Winnipeg Jets at the trade deadline, Andrew Copp has been one of the Rangers’ best players as he has eight goals and 10 assists, including a first-period hat trick during the club’s victory against the New York Islanders on April 21. He provides versatility for the Rangers as he is known for his penalty-killing (PK) abilities as a defensive forward, but he has offensive upside too. He will finish with a new career-high in goals and assists after the season and is primed to carry his momentum into the postseason.
Copp has been dealing with a lower-body injury he sustained during the win against the Islanders. He did not play in the April 23 loss to the Boston Bruins and left the April 26 game against the Carolina Hurricanes due to aggravating the ailment. He will be held out of the remaining regular-season games this week so he can become as healthy as possible in preparation for the beginning of the postseason. He has emerged as a reliable player on offense besides the top players of Kreider, Panarin, and Mika Zibanejad.
Copp will be an unrestricted free agent (UFA) in the offseason and will be looking to maximize his value with his new contract. Ryan Strome is also a UFA and is earning nearly $1 million more annually than Copp, but he has not been as effective on offense as the former Jet. Based on his ability to be a solid two-way player and his impact with the Rangers over the last month, general manager (GM) Chris Drury should offer Copp a contract this summer to keep him over Strome as the New York’s second-line center. Strome will be motivated to see if he can increase his average-annual value (AAV) to $5 million in his new contract, while Copp will be looking to earn between $4-4.5 million annually.
Since Copp began playing for the Rangers, he has double the number of points in comparison to Strome and appears to have more value of the two forwards. If he is healed from the lower-body injury by the time the first-round series begins during the first week of May, Copp will produce on both offense and as a defensive forward which will make him a commodity heading into free agency. He can contribute to the Rangers in a variety of ways and will be worth signing to a new contract as he can help New York’s progression toward becoming an elite NHL franchise.
Schneider & Lafreniere Will Emerge as Future Stars During the Postseason
Braden Schneider has been one of the surprises for the Rangers this year and has turned New York’s depth at defense into a strength. He is a dependable player on the third pairing of the defense, which was a weakness at the start of the season before his promotion to the Rangers from the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League (AHL) at the beginning of January. He has been a good defensive defenseman, and his age (20) makes him another blueliner that will be a part of the young core of Adam Fox (24), Ryan Lindgren (24), and K’Andre Miller (22). Jacob Trouba (28) is the defenseman who rounds out the young core at the position for the next several years.
Alexis Lafreniere has progressed in his second year in the league, as he has nine more points in comparison to his rookie season and has contributed to several line combinations. He tends to tally goals and assists in bunches and can be a good depth offensive player during the postseason. The 20-year-old forward has proven he can step in on the top two lines and can be productive playing with various linemates such as Kreider, Zibanejad, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko.
The long-term goal for the former number one overall selection in the 2020 NHL Draft is for Lafreniere to be a top-six forward. He has shown he can be productive, as he spent time on a line with Kreider and Zibanejad, as well as on the second line when Panarin was placed on the COVID-19 inactive back in January. Between being moved throughout the four lines and being benched by Gallant during the course of games if the head coach is unhappy with the forward’s performance, he has had a rocky year at times. He has managed to provide hope for the organization as a potential core player for the next several seasons and can continue his progression during the postseason.
Gallant’s impact on a young franchise in his first year as head coach, as well as the excellent seasons from Kreider, Shesterkin, and Panarin, have propelled the Rangers from rebuilder to a contender in the Eastern Conference. The Rangers are not yet elite but have the potential to be a Stanley Cup contender either next year or the following season. The additions of Copp and Frank Vatrano have given the team more experienced players that will continue to contribute during the playoffs.
The Rangers have succeeded expectations in a difficult Metropolitan Division as they look better than the Penguins and Capitals, but the Carolina Hurricanes are superior to New York. The Rangers will struggle in a series against the Hurricanes, as Carolina defeated New York in three of the four games the clubs played each other this year. The Rangers will have the opportunity to become even better next year after taking a positive step this season in their progression toward winning a championship.