The New York Rangers have one of the youngest teams in the NHL. They have 14 players who are 26 or younger, five of whom are 21 or younger. Many of these players have struggled at times, but the team has remained patient while allowing them to develop. Now, that patience is paying off.
Brady Skjei had an excellent rookie season in 2016-17 with the Blueshirts. He had 39 points, was a plus-11, was strong defensively, and played his best hockey in the postseason. It looked as though he was on his way to becoming one of the team’s best defensemen.
Unfortunately, he followed up his great rookie campaign with a disappointing second season in 2017-18, and the Blueshirts failed to make the playoffs. Skjei had 25 points and was a minus-27. He struggled with his decision-making and positioning all season and never reached the level of play he had shown in his previous season. Rather than sending him to the American Hockey League or trading him, the Rangers put their trust in Skjei and signed him to a six-year, $31.5 million contract.
While Skjei was occasionally a healthy scratch, he continued to get opportunities and was much better defensively in 2018-19. He made fewer risky decisions and was stronger in the defensive zone, finishing with a career-high 178 hits. He was only a minus-four despite the Rangers finishing with one of the worst records in hockey. Skjei also looked more comfortable in the offensive zone, scoring a career-high eight goals.
This season he already has seven goals and has added 14 assists in 47 games without spending time on the team’s power-play units. He has also been a strong penalty-killer. Despite making some mistakes, he has still been much better with his decision-making and in the defensive zone than he was in 2017-18. The Rangers stuck with Skjei and he is now playing with Jacob Trouba as the team’s top defense pair.
Despite being a first-round pick in 2014, by the time the Rangers had acquired Tony DeAngelo, he had been labeled as a poor defender with offensive upside. He was also known for having a short temper. In 2017-18, his first season with the Blueshirts, DeAngelo had no goals, eight assists, and was a minus-18 in 32 games.
Despite the rough season, the Rangers continued to give DeAngelo opportunities in 2018-19. Early in the season he went back and forth between playing and being scratched but by November he had established himself as a key player, and spent most of the season as the team’s best defenseman. He showcased his offensive skills, making great passes out of the defensive zone, and using his shiftiness to set up teammates in the offensive zone. DeAngelo finished with four goals and 26 assists in 61 games.
More importantly, he was excellent defensively. He used his stick effectively and remained physical, winning battles consistently. He finished at plus-six despite the team’s awful record. He managed to control his temper, avoid taking silly penalties, and won over fans by sticking up for teammates, even when that meant fighting much bigger opponents.
DeAngelo has been even more aggressive offensively this season and has shown a knack for getting shots through traffic and on net. He already has 12 goals, 25 assists, and is a plus-five.
Just two seasons ago, it was difficult to imagine DeAngelo ever becoming a top-four defenseman. He has now become a force on the blueline and is an irreplaceable player for the Rangers.
When New York traded for Ryan Strome last season, he had just two points in 18 games and was trying to avoid being scratched from games. He was originally selected with the fifth overall pick in 2011 and was still just 25 years old at the time of the trade.
Despite his dreadful start, Strome played 16:42 in his first game with the Rangers. While he didn’t score immediately, Strome played with grit and continued to get opportunities with the Blueshirts. Eventually, the strategy paid off, as he began to chip in more and more offensively, while consistently playing well defensively. By the end of the season he had become the team’s second center behind Mika Zibanejad. He had 18 goals and 15 assists in 63 games with the Rangers last season.
This season, Strome began the season as the second-line center yet again, and has been rewarded by playing on a line with Artemi Panarin and Jesper Fast. He already has 43 points in 48 games. He has never had more than 50 points before but is on pace for more than 70 this season. Strome’s rise could not have happened without the team’s patience and continued belief in him, even while he was playing the worst hockey of his NHL career early last season.
Filip Chytil made his NHL debut with the Blueshirts in 2017-18 as an 18-year-old, but spent almost all of that season in the AHL. Last season he made the opening day lineup and spent the entire season in the NHL. Despite flashes of brilliance, including a few coast-to-coast goals, last season was a difficult one for Chytil. He finished with 11 goals and 12 assists but struggled to play with consistency, and looked uncomfortable when he was forced to defend. He finished at minus-22, the worst on the team. Despite his struggles the team never gave up on him and continued to give him playing time.
Although he started this season in the AHL, Chytil was called up to New York after playing just nine games with the Wolf Pack. It would have been easy for the team to bury him on the fourth line or leave him in the AHL for a season, as he is still just 20-years-old. Instead, they gave the young winger yet another opportunity to have consistent ice time, including time on the power play. This time he has taken full advantage of it.
Chytil already has 11 goals in 39 games and is a plus-five. He has looked much more comfortable at both ends of the ice. He is using his size to win battles, and playing aggressively and with confidence in the offensive zone. At times last season, he seemed invisible. This season, Chytil has been noticeable every time he gets a shift.
So far, the patient approach the Rangers have taken during their rebuild has allowed struggling players to steadily improve with the team. Given how young this team is, they will likely have to continue to think long-term with their young players, including Kaapo Kakko, who is having a similar season to the one Chytil had last season. Perhaps their decisions regarding Chytil can be used again to help Kakko develop.
Time will tell how good the young players on the team will become, but they certainly won’t reach their full potential overnight. It’s up to the Rangers to continue to work with them, not give up on them when they struggle, and stay patient as they continue to rebuild. If the Blueshirts stick with this approach, the team’s future looks bright.