Rangers’ Kreider Looking Like Next Captain With Red-Hot Start

“New York Rangers captain Chris Kreider … “

Such an announcement has never been made over an arena’s public address system, never uttered by an NHL analyst or commentator, because, well, it’s not the case and never has been. The fact is, though, that Kreider’s stature as his team’s clear leader these days seems to only be lacking official approval.

That’s because the career Blueshirt has been the pace-setter for his club’s 10-4-3 start, mixing together brilliant offensive production, physicality, emotion and responsibility to spark the Rangers to a crucial fast leap from the gate as they look to return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2020 “qualifying round.”

Amidst nearly four years of frequent hand-wringing over who would take over for Ryan McDonagh, a situation that was bizarrely stop-gapped by new coach Gerard Gallant choosing to go with six (?) alternate captains this season, Kreider – one of those assigned an “A” – appears to be growing into the role organically. The 11-year veteran has looked every bit like the 28th captain in franchise history, with or without the “C” stitched on his sweater.

Kreider’s 12 goals in 17 games tell only a part of the story. Engaged and fiery throughout the season’s first month and a half, he sent a message in the Rangers’ third preseason game. When New Jersey Devils defenseman P.K. Subban began his Slew-Foot Season Tour by taking out Ryan Reaves, Kreider went furiously after Subban twice, attempting to fight him in both instances and succeeding the second time.

Kreider Powering Rangers Emotionally and Offensively

It’s been more of the same since. Kreider has followed most of his goals in 2021-22 with fist-pumping, raucous celebrations, looking more like a rookie overjoyed over his first NHL tally than someone who came into the season with 177 career goals. In tandem with the outpourings of excitement has been his hearty embracing of teammates, who have clearly fed off the emotional fuel Kreider is generating.

” … Kreids is great. He’s a confident player right now,” Gallant said. (From ‘Chris Kreider’s Shootout Goal, Kaapo Kakko Breakout Lift Rangers Over Devils’, New York Post, 11/14/21)

Gallant’s compliments came after Kreider’s seemingly effortless shootout goal defeated the Devils 4-3 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday (a game in which another questionable play by Subban cost the Rangers winger Sammy Blais for the season). His easy backhander past goaltender Jonathan Bernier was followed by more fist-pumping, the frenzied home crowd roaring in approval.

One game later, the 6-foot-3, 217-pounder sped down the middle and redirected a pass from Mika Zibanejad into the net for a key goal in the second period of the Rangers’ 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens on Monday, their fourth in a row. Yet Kreider’s leadership has hardly been relegated to the good times.

In his quiet postgame voice – one that seems at odds with the shouting, intense way on the ice – Kreider essentially called out his teammates and himself after a season-worst 6-0 loss to the Calgary Flames on Nov. 6 in which the club’s lax defensive effort in the third period led to a rough go for goalie Igor Shesterkin.

Related: Rangers Should Name Kreider Captain

“We’ve talked about it, we haven’t beaten the Edmonton’s or the Calgary’s of the world yet,” Kreider said. “We gave ourselves a chance the other night against Edmonton, got away from our game, I don’t know if we got bored with doing the simple things. And then tonight, didn’t trust the system when we were down 3-0 and the wheels fall off.

“Igor has been our best player and has carried us to this point, and for us to do that to him in the third is unacceptable.” (From ‘Rangers Ripped By Flames, Filip Chytil Exits With Injury’, New York Post, 11/7/21)

The Blueshirts’ four straight victories came immediately after. Hallmarks of their win streak, which concluded with a 2-1 defeat to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday, were sound defensive play and a clear recommitment to being responsible to each other – exactly what Kreider was hinting at after the debacle in Calgary.

It’s difficult to say whether Kreider’s emergence as the primary candidate to take the long-mothballed “C” is a product of the Rangers’ encouraging offseason personnel changes, or the aforementioned natural rise into a top leadership role, or both. The 30-year-old Kreider was already a tone-setter for the team’s younger players, but it seems obvious that his stature in that department has significantly expanded.

Kreider Taking Pressure Off Rangers Youngsters

One of the reasons that former general manager Jeff Gorton blinked and agreed to a seven-year, $45.5 million extension with Kreider hours before the 2020 trade deadline was the concept that Kreider’s offense and veteran presence would make him, along with Mika Zibanejad and new addition Artemi Panarin, part of a group that could provide cover for the team’s growing stable of talented but green youngsters – a group that would eventually be expected to carry the team offensively, but wasn’t going to be saddled with that pressure at the outset of their NHL careers. That part of Gorton’s vision has certainly come to pass, with the production of those three established stars over the past two-plus seasons allowing Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil time to develop.

Kreider is among the league leaders in goals, and perhaps this proves to finally be the season in which he reaches the 30 mark for the first time after looking like a lock to hit it in other seasons.

Of course, it’s important to point out that we’ve seen stretches like this from Kreider before, extended periods during which he’s engaged and drives the team offensively with goals in bunches – only for him to seemingly “burn out” and then disappear for an even longer stretch. Inconsistency and hot-and-cold streaks have unfortunately been a hallmark of Kreider’s career.

It happened in 2020-21, when he followed up a scorching run of nine goals in six games by going 22 contests without an even-strength goal, delivering little nightly impact before a one-game demotion to the fourth line by then-coach David Quinn.

Are things different this time? Kreider seems more focused than ever and is certainly more productive than he’s ever been early in a season. Though he didn’t score against the Maple Leafs, he threw his big body around to record five hits – giving him 40 on the season – and was all over the ice. That kind of non-scoring contribution has often been absent in past seasons during Kreider’s “dormant” spells.

Any decision on the Rangers’ captaincy likely wouldn’t come until after the season. If a “race” exists for that spot, however, it seems as if Kreider has separated himself from other top candidates such as Zibanejad and Jacob Trouba. Already a role model for teammates with his work ethic and commitment, Kreider’s outsized goal production and on-ice fire has made him look every bit like this team’s undisputed leader in 2021-22 – and perhaps beyond.

Maybe all that’s missing now is having a different letter sewn onto his No. 20 sweater.