What is the true measurement of a successful rebuild? From all accounts, what the New York Rangers have done over the past three seasons has been seamless, transitioning from a veteran group that was a perennial threat to a young group with all the makings of a dynasty.
But, in the end, overhauling a roster and transitioning to a new age, as difficult as it may be, does not measure a rebuild’s success. Sustained postseason success following that time of repair does. For owner James Dolan and newly appointed general manager Chris Drury, the 2021-22 season will be the door to re-enter contention. A door to which they now hope Gerard Gallant holds the keys.
The last time the Rangers graced the ice during the Stanley Cup Playoffs was May 9, 2017. That was exactly 1,500 days ago. It has been a rollercoaster of emotions during that span, with the lows of youthful mistakes and the highs of a draft lottery victory. All of that has culminated in the consensus most crucial offseason for the Blueshirts since that Game 6 exit in 2017.
Hiring Gallant to fill the vacancy at the helm is a move that makes almost too much sense. He is a veteran coach who has taken numerous teams to the playoffs, including a memorable run to the Stanley Cup Final with the Vegas Golden Knights in their inaugural season. With the makings of this Rangers roster, Gallant’s tenacious style will surely steer this young ship on course towards the postseason.
However, it goes without saying that the brunt of this team’s success will fall on the shoulders of Drury, who has to decipher whom to protect, whom to let go, and whom to bring in to fill the toughness void that made Dolan clean house at the end of the 2020-21 season. How he maneuvers his way through the murky waters of this offseason will write the future of this Rangers squad in the sand.
Time To Make The Leap
It took just two seasons for the Rangers to overcome the first hurdle in a rebuild. The 2019-20 season saw the team finish above the .500 mark (37-28-5) after a COVID-shortened season stopped them from streaking to the finish. The Rangers showed that their previous record was not a fluke this past season, finishing 27-23-6 in a 56-game season that pitted them against the strongest division in hockey.
Now, they look to break through an even bigger hurdle, the one that rests between being a pretender and contender. The Rangers have the makings of a playoff roster. They have quality goaltending, defense on the rise, and a boatload of talent up front. Mix in a small amount of grit, and you are looking at a fearsome group. But, what a roster looks like on paper and how it performs on the ice are two separate entities.
Over the past three seasons, a playoff berth would have indicated that the Rangers were ahead of the curve. But, come next season, anything but a playoff berth has to be considered a failure, especially if Drury goes out and seemingly fills any visible holes in his roster. The assumption of a postseason berth is not being pulled out of thin air. There are several reasons to believe that this group has what it takes to get to the next level.
Five Reasons The Rangers Should Make The Postseason
1. A Sense of Normalcy
Barring any unforeseen setbacks, the 2021-22 NHL season should feature a return to normalcy. The fans have filled the arenas in force during the postseason, which means Alexis Lafreniere might actually get to play some games in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden for the first time in his career. However, more important than the fans re-entering the arenas, an 82-game slate will be back in effect.
Two seasons ago, the NHL season was cut short with 12 games remaining. Then, the Rangers were pushing their way to a playoff spot. A lot can happen over 82 games, and a slow start like New York had this season isn’t as detrimental. There is more time for a young team to find their legs in a full campaign, something that may prove pivotal for the Blueshirts.
A packed MSG has the ability to revitalize players, and this young Rangers group may thrive off the energy in a packed building over a full season.
2. New Head Coach
As mentioned earlier, the Rangers have brought in Gallant as their new head coach on Monday, first reported by Larry Brooks. The new bench boss is a veteran of 541 games behind the bench, owning a record of 270-216-4-51. He has been at the helm of three different teams, having success with each, culminating in a Jack Adams Award at the end of the 2017-18 season in Vegas.
Gallant will get the most out of this group, knowing what it takes to succeed at this level. But most importantly, his veteran savvy will allow him to make pivotal adjustments on the fly that David Quinn struggled with. The transition from Quinn to Gallant is a prime indication that the Rangers are entering a win-now mode, and if his start with Vegas was any indication, this next season could be a wild ride.
3. Chemistry With The Core
The letter penned by the Rangers’ brass a few years ago made it known that familiar faces would be traded, and roster turnover should be expected. Rebuilds are notorious for causing a team to lack chemistry, as players year after year are moved out to bolster the future cupboard. However, over the last two seasons, the turnover has started to slow, with a core emerging, led by Artemi Panarin, Adam Fox, and Igor Shesterkin.
Now, this group that has familiarized itself with one another can take that next step together. We see how important chemistry is all the time. Boston’s “perfection line” is a great example, as they have an innate understanding of where each of their linemates will be at any given time. For the Rangers to succeed, a core will have to remain intact and gel to the point where they too can become a feared group in the NHL.
4. Rookie Seasoning
Both K’Andre Miller and Lafreniere were thrust into action last year after a 10-day training camp. They got a harsh dose of the reality of life in the NHL by being forced to face-off against the same seven opponents eight times, playing arguably the most difficult schedule in the league. Shesterkin was tabbed the starter for the first time in a Rangers uniform, feeling the number one option’s highs and lows.
Those three players are now accustomed to what it takes to succeed in the NHL, and doing so in a normal season will do wonders for their mental well-being. Not to mention Vitali Kravtsov got some valuable experience at the end of last season, and Kaapo Kakko is now entering his third season as well. Fox and Ryan Lindgren have become a reliable tandem, and Filip Chytil hopes to continue his offensive rise.
The young talent on this roster is endless, and with each gaining valuable experience, expect them to be much more dangerous next season.
5. Offseason Help
Arguably the most important reason here is also the most unknown. Whatever Drury does this offseason to bolster the roster is what will turn out to be the difference in whether the Rangers get back to the postseason or not. Physicality and grit seem to be the two biggest necessities, but the name Jack Eichel keeps emerging as a prime target as well.
Could Drury add that grit and bring in a superstar in Eichel? Will he be able to acquire the Sabres captain without hemorrhaging the prospect pool? These two questions will be answered over the next two months, which will surely be hectic and crucial for the first-year general manager.
The Rangers have a phenomenal opportunity to emerge as contenders once again. A lot has to go right for them to propel themselves above the gauntlet of the Metropolitan Division, but they have the talent to do just that. With Gallant’s tutelage and experience, the Rangers enter 2021-22 with simple expectations; it’s officially playoffs or bust.
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!