Rangers Need Panarin, Shesterkin & Defense for Playoff Run

The 2019-20 New York Rangers are at a crossroads. They face some tough decisions in the next six weeks before the Feb. 24 trade deadline. Considering the recent play of Artemi Panarin, the promise of (2-0) Igor Shesterkin, and a fresh defensive mentality, they may just be primed for a serious playoff run. Either way, the Rangers’ front office has some things to figure out.

A few weeks ago most people assumed the Rangers were strictly in rebuilding mode, but recent events have given some hope that they can make a substantial run. Though they are still rebuilding, bright spots are starting to surface. The Rangers haven’t really been a playoff-caliber team this season but there’s been a spark over the past week or so and the mood has changed. At the moment, they sit eight points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the last wild card spot with two games in-hand.

Can They Get in With Panarin?

Artemi Panarin has been on fire in the last five games, registering 12 points and a plus-five. In Monday’s game, Panarin led the Rangers to a 6-2 victory over their cross-town rival New York Islanders. He netted two goals along with three assists to cap off a strong performance by the entire team. However, this may pose somewhat of a problem for the Rangers if they were thinking of making some trades to help load the team for next year.

Artemi Panarin New York Rangers
Artemi Panarin, New York Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Panarin is fourth in league scoring with 67 points in 45 games, among the league leaders at plus-23 and seems to be building steam as the season goes on. He’s logging around 20 minutes of quality ice time per game while emerging as a team leader. Panarin won the Calder Memorial Trophy for rookie of the year with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015-16 and registered seven points in seven playoff games as well.

In two seasons with the Blackhawks, he had 151 points in 162 games but was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets after the 2016-17 season. In Columbus, Panarin helped the Blue Jackets make the playoffs in back to back seasons for the first time in franchise history, tallying 169 points in 160 games. As of now, he’s on pace to shatter his career-best in goals, assists and points.

With Panarin’s growth this season and excellent play of late along with some others, the Rangers really have to decide in the next few weeks which way they want to steer the ship for the rest of the season. Do they make some moves at the deadline for a bid at a deep playoff run? Do they make moves for the future? Or, do they sit tight and go with what they have? At the moment they’re probably leaning toward the future but nothing is certain. They have played well enough recently to warrant some extra time to ponder that decision at the very least.

Is Shesterkin the Answer?

Igor Shesterkin is 2-0 since being called up from the Rangers’ American Hockey League team the Hartford Wolf Pack. In his two starts, Shesterkin’s given up six goals on 81 shots while making several key third period saves. You’d have to say he’s played well and definitely brought a boost of energy to the team that not only his teammates are feeling but the fans are feeling too. A couple of times there were chants of “Igor… Igor…” during his first game at Madison Square Garden.

The goaltending situation in New York has been a hot topic of late. With the decent play of Alexandar Georgiev including Monday’s game where he stopped 34 of 36 shots for the win. He has a 3.11 goals-against average (GAA) at the moment and a record of 11-9. Talk around the league is that the Rangers are possibly showcasing him to move him before the deadline, especially since Shesterkin is showing huge promise and they can’t send Georgiev to the minors without putting him on waivers.

Colorado Avalanche Nathan MacKinnon New York Rangers Igor Shesterkin
Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon scores on New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (Sarah Stier-USA TODAY Sports)

It appears Shesterkin is staying in the big apple for the remainder of the season. The bigger question may be can he elevate his game enough to become a number one goalie that can lead his team to the playoffs? However, that might be too much to ask for the rookie who has only been with the team for 10 days, although stranger things have happened when it comes to goalies.

Partick Roy set the bar for rookie goalies leading the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup championship in 1985-86 while capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff’s Most Valuable Player. He posted a 1.92 GAA recording all 15 victories for the Habs to win the cup. Also, Ron Hextall comes to mind. Hextall took the Philadelphia Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final before losing in game seven to perhaps one of the best teams in NHL history, the 1986-87 Edmonton Oilers. Despite losing, Hextall still won the Conn Smythe that year which is a feat in itself, especially for a rookie. And let’s not forget a couple of other rookies, Felix Potvin in 1992-93 and Martin Brodeur in 1993-94. They led their teams to the Conference Finals before getting knocked off by Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings, and Mark Messier’s Rangers respectively.

Putting Shesterkin in with those goalies is obviously quite a stretch at this point, however, he’s excelled in every professional league that he’s played in thus far, and there’s no reason to think he won’t do the same in the NHL. The question is more when will he excel at this level and to what degree? Time will only tell here but the future looks good so far.

Defense Is the Key

When your team isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut, you have to rely on other things to be successful. The Rangers will need timely goaltending and strong team defense to make the playoffs. Rookie Adam Fox scored a hat trick last week and since the call up of Shesterkin, the team has played better defense as a whole.

Two weeks ago after a 5-4 overtime win against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Rangers head coach Dan Quinn said, “We can’t play that way and have sustained success. We just can’t.” Quinn was speaking in reference to their defensive woes. He also said, “If we want to achieve our ultimate goal we’re going to have to elevate our commitment to defense, managing the puck, and every single guy has to do it.”

On the season their team GAA is at 3.35 and since Quinn’s comments, they are at 3.00. That’s something to build on for sure. However, they still have a ways to go. If they can all buy-in and dig a little deeper to play a 200-foot game consistently they can turn things around.

The Henrik Factor

We can’t have this discussion without mentioning Henrik Lundqvist. He’s been the backbone of this team for over a decade, oftentimes carrying them on his back. What his role is going to be moving forward remains to be seen. However, many feel he’s still got some great saves left in him. He’ll definitely be leading by example with the way he prepares for games. It’s well documented how hard he works in practice every day. One could easily see a scenario where he can string together one last playoff run while standing on his head.

Moving him at the deadline may not be in the Rangers’ plans at the moment. He has a cap hit of $8.5 million and many believe he will be here to mentor either Georgiev or Shesterkin, or both. The growing consensus is that the Rangers will probably move Georgiev and get some value for him since he can’t be sent down to Hartford without clearing waivers. Shesterkin seems to be fitting in well and will benefit a great deal from being up in the show for the remainder of the season even if he doesn’t grab the reigns as the number one goalie.

There are 40 days until the Feb. 24 trade deadline and the Rangers’ next three games before the All-Star break are against Metropolitan Division foes. They play the Islanders in a makeshift home and home with the Blue Jackets sandwiched in between at MSG. As far as any predictions on the fate of the 2019-20 Rangers, your guess is as good as mine. They may fizzle out as the deadline closes in and make some moves for next year.

Or, will Panarin increase his output and win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer? Perhaps Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Tony DeAngelo will pick up the pace and help out Panarin and Ranger’s second-leading scorer Ryan Strome. Will the defense clamp down and provide their goaltenders with another layer of help? Maybe Shesterkin comes into his own ahead of schedule and puts his name up there with Roy, Hextall and the others? Or, will King Henrik reclaim his crown as King of New York netminders?

Whatever scenario plays out one thing for sure is there will be a lot of commotion surrounding the Rangers before the season is finished.