The New York Rangers entered this 2020-21 season as the youngest group in the National Hockey League. Though their shot of securing a playoff spot again this season seemed out of the question, despite never being the sole purpose of this season, the Blueshirts have won six of their last 10 games despite a tough schedule and COVID-related coaching absences.
The team seems to be recreating their late-season magic, as they had done the season before right as the postseason approached. Though a majority of star power and scoring lies within the veteran top-six players, the younger core is contributing successfully to the Rangers’ playoff push this season.
If the Rangers indeed win a playoff spot, the postseason experience for the young players would be useful for their overall development, but making the playoffs should not be the only focus, and there is still a lot of work to be done. With the rebuild chapter still open, several rookies were additions to Broadway this season and joined by several sophomores who continue to trend upwards.
Despite how reassuring the team’s recent performance is, this season has not been a breeze. The development of several young players was questioned at times, the team appeared to be flat up and down the lineup, and leads were blown. But the present circumstance is what matters now, as the league approaches the end of the regular season and the Rangers continue to fight in the brutal MassMutual East Division for a contending spot.
Looking Closely at the Rangers’ Last 10
The Rangers played six of their last 10 games on the road, and they faced fierce competition like the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, and the Washington Capitals, which are all clubs ahead of them in the division. They faced the Buffalo Sabres once, who, despite struggling, persisted but ultimately could not outscore the Rangers.
The Blueshirts put up a stunning 44 goals in this rapid succession of games that spanned 18 days. There were two hat tricks in this mix thanks to Mika Zibanejad, but players above 25 years of age accounted for 31 of those goals. There were also two games in this period that saw eight or more Rangers goals. In fact, nine different veterans recorded at least one goal: Chris Kreider, Ryan Strome, Pavel Buchnevich, Artemi Panarin, Colin Blackwell, Kevin Rooney, Jacob Trouba, Zibanejad, and Brendan Lemieux.
However, players of the age of 24 accounted for 13 of those recent goals, and they came from seven different skaters: K’Andre Miller, Julien Gauthier, Filip Chytil, Brett Howden, Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere and Adam Fox – two of whom are brand new to the NHL. Besides the amendable contribution, the young players show they are becoming more comfortable producing on the road as well.
Two of the four home games against Buffalo and Washington were dominated by goals from the kids, including two from Kakko on March 22 to open and finish the scoring for Broadway. Even though the kids are producing, they are also going through the ups and downs and navigating the same challenges that the rest of the team is, which should speak louder about their contribution.
Not to mention the discrepancy in ice time between the veteran and the kids. Head coach David Quinn is also known for hacking away at a player’s ice time mid-game if he feels compelled to do so – thus limiting scoring chances as is. His management style holds each player responsible, whether seasoned veteran or rookie and will reward a player with ice time accordingly so. Regardless, the older forward group sees an average of 18 to 20 minutes a night, whereas the young guns average around 10 to about 15 minutes per game.
Overall Development in New York
Kakko, unarguably, is having a much smoother sophomore year compared to his rookie year the previous season. He is seen doing more of the right things, allowing himself to get in a better position and go to the net. While this does not always translate to the scoresheet, anyone who was concerned about the 20-year-old’s game has a reason to relax.
23-year-old defenseman Ryan Lindgren has been a pleasant surprise this season. Though he was not one of the goal scorers, he has evolved well defensively in just one summer. The team has not forced Lindgren to linger on the scoresheet, as he is in a position where he can lean into his physicality and be that gritty presence for the Rangers right now. As the top pair with Fox, he certainly is making himself more known this season.
Fox is leading the team in assists with 26 helpers. It is hard to imagine he keeps finding a way to outperform himself from last season and even game to game. Yet he is, and he shows no signs of slowing down. The 23-year-old blueliner is a fabulous piece of the Rangers, both defensively and offensively. He registered 30 points in 34 games thus far.
Then we have nifty Chytil, who was out injured for part of the season and was certainly missed. At age 21 and in his fourth season with the Rangers, the young Czech emphasized his evidence of improvement this season as well. The forward collected two goals in his last four games and continues to stand out season to season.
To reiterate, this season for the Rangers was not about going all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. The vision was and still is to encourage the maturation process of the young skaters. In this recent stretch, the team shows they are aiding in just that. It will be a few seasons until the Rangers are ready for a legitimate playoff push, but when the time comes, it will be nothing short of thrilling.
Rachel is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. She can be followed on Twitter @RachelNHL.