As opening night for the New York Rangers’ 2021-22 season nears, there are several young players on their roster poised to have a breakout season, much like Adam Fox did during the 2020-21 season. Players like Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and K’Andre Miller are prime candidates for this. Fox capped off his breakout season with a Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman. Who will it be this season? Let’s take a deeper look.
Lafreniere Ready to Improve
Coming off a rookie campaign where he had 12 goals and eight assists in 56 games, Lafreniere is looking to break out during his sophomore season. With his first season under his belt, Lafreniere showed up to training camp a lot leaner than last year. He said, “yeah, I feel ready, I had a big summer, I got leaner, a little bit faster. I feel ready to have big minutes. But I have to play [well] for that [to be] so.” (From ‘Alexis Lafreniere bringing newfound confidence to second Rangers season,’ NY Post, 10/5/21). 2020 No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft, is a year older and wiser along with the tightened body. He turned 20 on Oct. 11.
Head coach Gerard Gallant had this to say about Lafreniere’s play during training camp, “what I see, I like. He’s a little overconfident. He comes in and he’s — not cocky — but he’s loose and that’s a good thing.
“As long as you can handle it the right way and be ready for the game. He’s still a kid, so we got to bring him along and make sure he’s doing the right things.”
The Blueshirts were 14-4 in games where Lafreniere scored a point and 9-2 in games where he scored a goal. He’ll look for that trend to continue, and he can realistically double last season’s point total, if not more than double it. He’s spent most of camp on the first line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, which should make a big difference this season.
Bulked Up Kakko Hungry for More
Kakko returned from Finland before training camp with a beefed-up frame. He spent most of his summer focused on adding muscle. He added six pounds and appears much more solid. The former second-overall pick is entering his third NHL season, and he finished last season four points behind Lafreniere while playing eight fewer games, with mostly bottom-six minutes. He worked hard and developed his two-way game last season, and hopes to build on that and become a more complete player.
“You want complete hockey players, and I think he’s very capable of being a complete hockey player,” Gallant said. “You want to do a little bit of everything – corner work, go to the front of the net. But also, he’s got a lot of talent and a lot of skill for a young player” (From “NY Rangers training camp takeaways: Bulked-up Kaapo Kakko hoping for Year 3 breakout”, lohud., 9/27/21).
“It’s a big season for me,” Kakko said in the same article. “The first season wasn’t so good. I think last season was so different, but I think still I played better. Not that many points, but I think right now I have a good chance. I’m playing with good players right now and feeling good.”
He played on the second line with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome most of training camp. He and Lafreniere should have similar numbers in their new roles, but if one can step up and shine more than the other, remains to be seen.
Miller in a Bigger Role
Miller is slotted in on the second defensive pairing with Jacob Trouba. He’s coming off a season where he wasn’t expected to make the team out of training camp. However, he impressed former head coach David Quinn so much that he was in the 2020-21 opening night lineup. His play during his first training camp prompted Quinn to say this, “we all have to keep in mind it was bubble practices and training camp so far, but what has impressed me is how calm he’s been.”
The former head coach added, “he’s worked hard, he’s closed down people, he’s made good decisions with the puck and from a defending standpoint, he’s like a praying mantis with that stick and his arms and his legs.
“He’s tough to get around, and you think you have him beat, there he is with his stick. There’s just an awful lot to like about him.” (From ‘K’Andre Miller to play major role after dazzling Rangers’, NY Post, 1/11/21)
The now 21-year old defenseman had 20 points in 53 games while being plus-9. He was so impressive that he was voted to the Rookie All-Star team. He showed poise beyond his years and could very well have a major breakout season with the extra minutes he’ll get being in the top four on the backend.
Three Young Players Ready to Step Up
Lafreniere, Kakko and Miller have a combined five NHL seasons under their belt between the three of them. However, they’ve all put themselves in a position to seize the opportunity with their added responsibilities this season. All or one can have a stellar breakthrough season if they stay healthy. The season starts at MSG on Wednesday and these guys seem ready to go and contribute to a potential playoff run.
Scott Blair is an author and journalist from Los Angeles, CA, by way of Detroit, MI. Uniquely diverse experiences have shaped Scott’s life in both of those places he calls home. He is now traveling the world, learning and growing as a human and a writer. He was a professional hockey player and then turned to the arts, becoming an actor for about 15 years. His passions turned to poetry, prose, politics, and journalism when he got tired of the Hollywood machine and what it represents. Scott is available for interviews and welcomes questions and topic ideas.