In the first NHL contest televised on TNT, the New York Rangers will open the 2021-22 season in Washington against the Capitals. With puck drop just hours away, the Rangers carry the hopes of a fan base eager to see them back in the playoffs. They are young, talented, and full of question marks heading into this season.
What will happen to the team during an 82-game campaign is anyone’s guess. New York could become the offensive juggernaut we expect, they could become the Broadway edition of the Broad Street Bullies, or they could leap forward defensively with a new system and improved defenders. But they could just as easily unravel and fall short of their goal: a playoff berth.
Here are five bold predictions for the Rangers this season.
5. Igor Shesterkin Will Be a Vezina Finalist
For the Rangers to make the postseason, Shesterkin will have to solidify his position as not only their number one netminder, but also as a top-10 goaltender in the NHL. In his first full season as the Rangers’ top goaltender, he will look to build on an already impressive start to his career (43 starts, a 26-16-3 record and a 2.59 goals-against average) to catapult the Blueshirts from pretender to contender.
The number one concern is Shesterkin’s durability. He suffered injuries in his first two seasons, albeit including a freak car accident that kept him out of the lineup during his debut campaign. If healthy, Shesterkin can be a top-flight goaltender and has shown a natural ability to be a game-changer.
The Rangers have improved on defense, and their new system should cause fewer high-danger chances. If that holds and Shesterkin performs well, he could be a Vezina Trophy finalist come season’s end.
4. Artemi Panarin Breaks 120 Points
Despite missing time in 2020-21, Artemi Panarin still finished third in the NHL in points-per-game average (1.38). That translates to 113 points over 82 games. If you’re thinking it’s hard to sustain that pace, consider this: In 2019-20, he averaged 1.38 points per game, the same last season. He is as consistent as they come, and there is no reason to believe he will fall short of the 100-point total (if healthy).
What’s more, I believe he will eclipse that point-per-game pace, and top 120 points this season. Playing alongside Ryan Strome for the third-straight season means the chemistry has been perfected. Add in a hungry and improved Kaapo Kakko, and Panarin enters his third season with Rangers playing with the best pair of linemates yet.
Panarin needs to be a Hart Trophy candidate for the Rangers to be legitimate playoff hopefuls. He has done it the past two seasons, so expect it to hold in 2021-22.
3. Mika Zibanejad Scores 50 Goals
Since the beginning of the 2018-19 season, Zibanejad has ranked eighth among NHL players in goals scored with 95. Because of his ability to find twine so often, and his leadership qualities off the ice, the Rangers rewarded the 28-year-old forward with an eight-year, $8.5 million per year contract.
Related Link: Rangers Sign Mika Zibanejad to 8-Year Extension
In 2018-19, Zibanejad played a full 82 games, racking up 30 goals. That season he earned a 12.71 shooting percentage on 236 shots. Over the two seasons since his first 30-goal campaign, he has become a shoot-first player. In 2018-19, he averaged 2.87 shots per game which increased to 3.65 shots on goal in 2019-20 and 3.05 shots in 2020-21.
A higher shot volume and better shooting percentage indicate that Zibanejad is ready to eclipse 50 goals over 82 games this season. His health, as always, is the central question. But just as the Rangers rewarded him with a lucrative deal, the Swedish forward will reward the Rangers with a massive 50-goal campaign.
2. Rangers Crack The Top-10 in Fewest Goals Allowed
After finding themselves in the bottom third of the league in goals allowed per game played (GA/GP), the Rangers jumped to 13th in the NHL last season, allowing just 2.77 GA/GP. With improved goaltending, a collective step forward on defense and if the reigning Norris Trophy winner maintains his strong play, the Blueshirts should do better this season.
It is no secret that this group can score. I have already mentioned Zibanejad and Panarin’s prowess for offense, but Strome, Kakko, Alexis Lafrenière, Filip Chytil, and Chris Kreider all have offensive abilities. The Rangers averaged 3.25 goals per game the last two seasons, ranked eighth in the league.
An emphasis on defense and sustained offense could be the recipe for success under new head coach Gerard Gallant. With a top-10 defense, the Rangers will likely be in the postseason. Luckily, with Nils Lundkvist and Patrik Nemeth joining the defensive corps and Zac Jones waiting in the wings, they have the makings of a top-10 group.
1. Rangers Claim the Second Seed in the Metropolitan Division
I saved the boldest prediction for last. Most expect the Rangers to still be in a playoff battle come game 82. But if the bold predictions I’ve outlined here to fruition, I predict the Blueshirts will be competing for a higher spot in the Metropolitan Division.
The Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders seem to be the top two teams in the division. The Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, and Capitals are poised to be in the playoff hunt as well. The Rangers beating out all but one of these teams is improbable, but not impossible.
What a storyline it would be in Gallant’s first season on Broadway: from bottom-feeders to top dogs. The Rangers have their sights set higher than what most have pegged for them, and if they fire on all cylinders, they will prove their doubters wrong.
The 2021-22 NHL season will hopefully bring some sense of normalcy back to hockey. With inter-divisional play, road trips, and fans in the stands, these 82 games will bring twists and turns with it. Crazy things will happen, so expect the unexpected.
What are your bold predictions for the Rangers this season? Comment them below!
Brendan Azoff is a THW contributor and podcast host dedicated to covering the New York Rangers. His passion for hockey started when he first laced up the skates at three, growing into his love for writing and talking about the greatest sport in the world. His podcast, The Backcheck, breaks down the Rangers, Islanders, and NHL news and can be found on The Hockey Writers Podcast Network and Belly Up Sports. Brendan has been writing about the Rangers and the NHL for over two years, with his content also found on Puck Prose, Blue Line Station, and E2G Sports. If you want to connect with Brendan and stay up-to-date on his posts, follow him on Twitter. He is always available for content ideas and interviews, don’t be afraid to ask!