Another year has come and gone. It has been a whirlwind: life returned to normal before a brutal winter came and zapped us back to the all-too-familiar COVID reality. Sports were in full swing with fans in the stands before an overwhelming rise in cases forced a pause that seemed to last an eternity.
We all hope 2022 will bring us close to the end of the pandemic. For the New York Rangers, the end of 2021 showed glimpses of promise, but they must hope 2022 is the year they return to the postseason and become a team to be feared once again. To achieve that, three Rangers must change their narrative in the second half. Their young careers have been marred by COVID, shortened schedules, and lofty, sometimes unrealistic expectations, but with great potential comes much scrutiny, especially when your stage is the mecca of the sports and entertainment world.
K’Andre Miller, Alexis Lafreniere, and Kaapo Kakko were all selected in the first round and were believed to be a prime piece of the Rangers’ future – the latter two were slated to be future stars. Those lofty goals, however unrealistic, have not been met. They have the talent and the talent around them to succeed. But for the Rangers to leap into contention, these three skaters will have to go from playing supporting roles to main characters.
3. K’Andre Miller
Miller’s size, raw skill, and offensive drive from the blue line made the Rangers trade up to select him 22nd overall in 2018. Now in his second NHL season, his career has been a rollercoaster so far, experiencing his fair share of highs and lows.
The 6-foot-5 defenseman has not been bad by any stretch, but there is another level to his game on both sides of the puck that the Rangers need him to find. He is offensively gifted, as we can see with this (video below) end-to-end rush against the Florida Panthers. He is good with his stick and can use his reach to disrupt the attack.
Despite his massive frame, the 21-year-old defenseman does not use his body enough. His counterpart, Jacob Trouba, has made headlines this season because of his physical play, but Miller has yet to follow suit. By no means does he have to light people up, but the Minnesota-native is much weaker in man-battles in front of the net or in the corners than he should be.
Getting more from Miller will solidify the Rangers’ top-four. Trouba has played well this season, and Adam Fox alongside Ryan Lindgren is a formidable top pair. Miller’s upside is evident, and I expect him to utilize his talents much more effectively in 2022.
2. Alexis Lafreniere
Since he was selected first overall by the Rangers, Lafreniere’s career has been a whirlwind. It took 26 games into this season for the Quebec-native to finally play game 82. With just 87 games of experience, the 20-year-old has an overwhelming desire to produce at a higher clip.
No, he doesn’t get meaningful power-play minutes. No, he doesn’t play in the top-six. But his draft status means there are expectations for him to carry the franchise on his back. The Rangers chose him because they thought they were adding an offensive machine to a promising group.
The flashes haven’t been there, and Lafreniere has not been as noticeable as the Rangers hoped their top pick would be. However, he can finish around the net and throw the body. He is the ultimate team-first player, taking a backseat to the stars on the squad when many talented 18-year-olds would want to be in their shoes right away.
With just eight points in 31 games, Lafreniere can turn the tide and change the narrative in 2022. Catching fire now would make the Rangers’ offense the formidable weapon it is supposed to be. It is way too early to be down on the snakebitten sophomore, but a big start to the new year could be what the doctor ordered.
1. Kaapo Kakko
The Ranger in need of the biggest 2022 is Kakko. The second-overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft has had more good moments than bad this season but has yet to see his points reflect his play and linemates. In his third season, Kakko is playing his best hockey, but there is another level ready to burst through at any moment.
Kakko has 11 points in 27 games this season but has only recorded three points in his last 10 games. He managed to find the assist column against the Panthers on Dec. 29 and will hope to continue finding the scoresheet into the new year. He has the hands and finishing ability, but his speed to the outside and the elusiveness he displayed on the international stage haven’t translated to the NHL.
Exemplified by his goal against the Buffalo Sabres, Kakko has the deception, hands, and touch to polish off goals in tight. The reason for his lack of production until now isn’t a question of talent but a lack of commitment to getting in front.
The Finnish forward has made significant strides defensively and is now waiting for his offensive improvements to catch up to his defensive ones. Like the other two players, Kakko is still very young, and with seasoning, he will learn how to find those scoring areas more consistently. Playing alongside Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, who can both find those scoring areas, Kakko will be able to learn and break out in 2022.
At 19-8-4, the Rangers have had an excellent start to the 2021-22 season. But they have yet to beat the top-tier teams despite close games. Breakouts from Miller, Lafreniere, and Kakko would rocket the Rangers from a one-and-done playoff team to a perennial contender. For the Rangers’ brass and fans alike, these breakouts cannot come soon enough.
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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!