Rangers Burning Questions: Gallant, Lines, Captain & More

The New York Rangers are one of the top teams to keep an eye on this season. In the midst of a transitional phase, the organization is currently in one of the most interesting positions as they try to claim a tough Metropolitan Division postseason spot. There is a lot up in the air for this team, prompting a lot of important questions as we head into the 2021-22 season.

2021 New York Rangers burning questions

Advertised as young, quick, skilled, and now physical, the Blueshirts must navigate together this season with their newly acquainted coaching staff and players as they vie against successful clubs like the Boston Bruins, the Washington Capitals, and company.

Will Gerard Gallant’s Impact Be Immediate?

Newly hired head coach of the Rangers, Gerard Gallant, owns an impressive track record in the league. Most known for his prompt impact with the Vegas Golden Knights, the former Jack Adams Award winner will feel all eyes on him in the Big Apple right away.

Just as coach Barry Trotz was able to expedite his New York Islanders to the next level immediately when he joined the club, Rangers fans are going to expect the same, if not more. The pressure is amplified in the Eastern Conference as the team fights to stay relevant against their successful rivals in the brutal Metro. 

Thankfully, Gallant is well equipped to make an instant splash with the young squad. The team illustrated noticeable strides last season despite their navigation during a tumultuous 2020-21 season. The shortened season did not take mercy on the Rangers as they struggled with untimely injuries, COVID-19 exposures, and other dramatics. Yet, last season’s positive takeaways coupled with the recent front office moves show potential to make the team a better one, capable of going further.

Gallant expects each player to contribute offensively and defensively, regardless of position. He stated that he will require every name up and down the roster to play a role and will not settle for production from the same group of guys. Though former head coach David Quinn preached a similar approach, Gallant possesses more experience to see the vision through. 

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What Might the Lines Look Like?

The Rangers are better slotted to roll four deep lines after their offseason acquisitions. With a new head coach in town too, the possibilities are endless. The team also recently announced their new assistant staff hires in Mike Kelly, Gord Murphy, and Jim Midgley who will work together to form on-ice chemistry. 

Kelly and Murphy, who are extremely familiar with Gallant and how he runs a team, have the creative freedom to organize effective lines using the offensive power of the Ranger skaters. The popular KZB line that consisted of left winger Chris Kreider, centerman Mika Zibanejad, and right winger Pavel Buchnveich will have to go under renovation due to Buchnevich’s departure. Indeed, there is a sizable hole to fill in the top line now. 

In reference to the Vegas lines during his reign, Gallant favored the highly threatening first line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith. The three became the true foundation of the team and it was a power line made of nightmares. There is a chance Gallant keeps Kreider and Zibanejad as compositions in the top line in order to generate something similar — he expressed his intent to use Vegas’s structure as the blueprint.

With that “identity” line for Vegas, two of the three were more experienced players, in their late 20s, where Karlsson was earlier in his career. If Gallant chooses to use that template in New York, we can expect to see Zibanejad centering Kreider again. Though Karlsson, a center, was the young one of the line, Zibanejad is best for the top center position and that will likely remain as he returns to his peak form. 

Releasing Kreider from the top lines allows for Alexis Lafrenière to move up to the first line permanently. The former first-round draft pick got a taste of being Zibanejad’s linemate at the conclusion of the 2020-21 season. Yet, with Gallant more willing to give youngsters various opportunities, the lines could be regularly shuffled. 

This means Kaapo Kakko, the former second-overall draft pick could move up to the top line as well. It is time for the young player to break out of his shell — we saw numerous promising glimpses of this transition in the shortened 2020-21 season. Is he ready for top-line responsibilities, barring any trades? If not right away, it is likely he will be able to jump right in if he continues to develop on track. If Kakko is overwhelmed, Kreider could return to the top line, leaving it the same but with Lafrenière as Buchnevich’s fill in.

Kaapo Kakko New York Rangers
Kaapo Kakko, New York Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As for the second line, there is no need to divorce star winger Artemi Panarin from center Ryan Strome. Vitali Kravtsov can claim the other wing. The young Russian made his debut last season with a solid performance, even if he did not land on the scoresheet. In 20 games, the winger collected two goals and two assists. Extending him the role on the second line could be the leap of faith needed to spark his development in the league.

The bottom six is where things get tricky. The offseason acquisitions will fill in these two bottom lines, leaving quite a few routes this could go. Regardless, Filip Chytil’s development is still a goal for the organization, and keeping him the third center could keep him on the right path to become the team’s second center one day. Either Kakko or Kreider could fill in the wing, and new addition Ryan Reaves could see the other side. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound enforcer would make sense joining a kid line, but his gritty presence is welcomed any place down the lines.

Though Reaves may be seen as more of a “situational player,” he did play under Gallant in Vegas, which helps his case in getting more minutes than some might anticipate. Many would like to see more chances given to winger Julien Gauthier, who is known for his speed and size. He has not had ample ice time to showcase his full potential. The young gun could suit the third line nicely if needed as well.

The last line could consist of a few position swaps, which make them situationally interchangeable with the third line. Barclay Goodrow is skilled enough that he could be moved from center to wing and vice versa. He is a key pickup for the Rangers and his presence in the bottom six will be heavily relied upon.

However, Chytil could take a wing on the third line and Kevin Rooney can come in and center. There are many avenues for the Rangers to go here. Sammy Blais, Morgan Barron, Julien Gauthier, and Dryden Hunt could all be moved around. Lafrenière should be versatile enough to play either wing, which also gives the staff options.

The Safe Line Projections:

Alexis LafrenièreMika ZibanejadKaapo Kakko
Artemi PazarınRyan StromeVitali Kravtsov
Chris KreiderKevin Rooney Julien Gauthier
Sammy BlaisBarclay GoodrowRyan Reaves

The Bold Line Prediction:

Chris KreiderMika Zibanejad Alexis Lafrenière
Artemi PanarinRyan StromeVitali Kravtsov
Morgan BarronFilip ChytilKaapo Kakko
Sammy BlaisBarclay GoodrowRyan Reaves

Will There Finally Be a Captain?

Though one of the less urgent questions to answer, it is certainly a persistent mystery following the team. Captaincy has been a hot topic among the organization and the team has several solid leadership choices to pick from. From lifelong Ranger Kreider, to mature blueliner Jacob Trouba, to level headed Zibanejad, the team ultimately cannot go wrong if they delegate a leader. 

Mika Zibanejad New York Rangers
Mika Zibanejad of the New York Rangers. The Swedish centerman has donned the alternate captain “A” for the team. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The team even has a wonderful inventory when it comes to alternate captains options as well. Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Adam Fox together with his partner Ryan Lindgren, who is equally deserving, could make a wonderful pair of young leaders and either could captain the team one day in the future, too. Lafrenière, who is much too inexperienced to captain within the next few seasons would make a wonderful alternate as well. 

Under former general manager Jeff Gorton and president John Davidson, the desire to name a captain was not high on the checklist. Though Kreider and Zibanejad were the front-runners, neither was awarded captaincy. However, with Chris Drury taking over Gorton’s job, and as a former Ranger captain himself, this seems a bit more of a priority — if the right choice is obvious.

The 2020-21 season sifted out the strongest Rangers, which is when Trouba’s name became more and more apparent in leadership talks. The franchise also has a particular affinity for naming defensemen as team captain. As the options stand, none of the new acquisitions seem to beat out the favor of current Ranger players.

Which Young Defensemen Will We See?

Zac Jones and Tarmo Reunanen are two young defensemen who did not start the season with the Rangers, but found themselves in the big leagues last season. Reunanen saw four games with the team and tallied one assist. Jones skated in 10 games and collected four points.

Jones was solid in his short stint, but Reunanen’s sample size is way too inadequate to determine if he really will be more apparent this season with the team. With the defensive corps coming together nicely, the young defenders are required to develop their own unique skill set in order to earn a highly sought-after spot. Of course, given the risk of injury and the circumstances of playing during an international pandemic, any youngster could be given the green light.

Highly anticipated Nils Lundkvist, a right-shooting defender, is also preparing for his NHL training camp this season. It is a significant step for the Swede to be able to showcase his talent at camp.

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Braden Schneider, another esteemed blueliner, is more of a question mark than Lundkvist. Though he is invited to training camp, the 19-year-old is still heavily linked to their American Hockey League (AHL) team, the Hartford Wolf Pack. There is no need to rush the promising defender, especially at his age. The Rangers selected him in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft and even traded up in the draft order to nab him. It was believed the New Jersey Devils had their eye on him, which increases his popularity amongst Rangers fans.

Who Will Rise Above in Training Camp?

Buchnevich was the star (and a rather unsuspecting one, at that) of last season’s training camp. So, which player takes the title this season? Similar to the past invite-only events, the young players will have to show up and compete with countless other young talent to earn an enviable spot.

Lafrenière is a huge piece of the puzzle and I suspect he will have a great camp, possibly the top name heading into the season. Kravtsov is another fun name when it comes to talks of development. Though there should be no rush with development of the two, it would be a nice surprise to have their breakout seasons occur this year.

As for the older group, I have a lingering suspicion Rooney will step up. Similar to how Buchnevich was, Rooney will enter the second season of his two-year deal with the Rangers. Though the Rangers are scarce at center, the 28-year-old forward will have to plead his case to keep the title.

As with so many areas of the organization, a lot of question marks exist. The good news is, the organization has a lot of freedom to experience with different avenues. For many of the questions — only time can tell.

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