At first thought, the New York Rangers don’t seem like a group that would be teeming with players on the verge of traditional breakouts.
Led by a core of highly-skilled, star-level players in their primes, the Blueshirts are no longer an up-and-coming outfit: They boast a veteran-heavy lineup that’s in the midst of what they hope is a window of Stanley Cup contention. Mass development of young players isn’t at the forefront of their 2023-24 priorities.
The paradox the Rangers face, however, is that to take a championship leap, they’ll need the handful of key youthful pieces who dot the roster to keep rising. With an extremely tight salary-cap situation, the improvement needed to advance out of the Eastern Conference and into the Stanley Cup Final will have to come from within.
That’s why our list of Blueshirts breakout candidates include players who have established themselves as NHLers, yet are poised to make the jump to the next level of production. Or at the very least, the Rangers hope that’s the case.
Here are four players who could make major progress for the Blueshirts this season:
The second overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft does so many good things – controlling the puck with strength and skill along the walls, driving possession (career 52.7 Corsi for percentage) and defending well. Simply put, Kaapo Kakko makes his team better when he plays. What he hasn’t done to this point is to consistently unlock the attribute that compelled the Rangers to make him the easy choice in the No. 2 spot in the draft four years ago: An elite scoring touch.
The idea of a make-or-break season for a 22-year-old seems ridiculous, so it’s perhaps better to look at 2023-24 as a season that’s set up for Kakko to finally begin fulfilling that promise. The Finn has played only 239 games in his four NHL seasons due to the COVID pandemic and injury, but he’s coming off a career-best effort in which he recorded 18 goals and 22 assists while playing all 82 games.
Maybe just as important, Kakko should finally get his chance to stick in the top-six forward group after playing mostly on the third line over the past two seasons. With a dearth of viable options at right wing, there’s every reason to believe new coach Peter Laviolette will heap plenty of responsibility on Kakko to deliver in the final season of his two-year bridge contract.
Kakko stayed busy improving his game this summer, playing in the world championships for Finland and recording six points with a plus-1 rating in eight games. It was his performance at the 2019 worlds, during which he scored six goals and posted a plus-10 rating in 10 games, that cemented his status as one of the top two prospects in the draft. Can another strong effort at the tournament provide a springboard for a season in which his supposedly exceptional offensive gifts finally begin to emerge?
We know, we know – Filip Chytil’s been in the midst of a breakout since the 2022 playoffs, when he delivered seven goals and two assists in 20 games, then followed it up with career-best efforts of 22 goals and 23 assists in 74 games in 2022-23, doubling his previous-best point total.
What the 21st overall pick in the 2017 draft has shown to this point is proof that he belongs in the NHL, a sentiment that was in doubt over his halting first four full seasons. The breakout Chytil might be on the precipice of in 2023-24 is one in which he firmly establishes himself as a top-six mainstay.
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Chytil’s size, speed and quick wrists give him every opportunity to surpass veteran Vincent Trocheck for the second-line center job behind Mika Zibanejad. Is a 25-goal, 60-70 point season while possibly playing in the middle of Artemi Panarin’s line in the cards? After last season, it seems risky to bet against it.
Doubters will point to the soon-to-be 24-year-old’s 39.8 faceoff win percentage last season, but that might be misleading: Chytil won 61 percent of his draws in the seven-game first-round playoff loss to the New Jersey Devils, so perhaps that part of his game is finally coming along.
Like Kakko a strong driver of possession, Chytil’s 53.8 Corsi for percentage last season brought his career mark to 51.3 (he’s at 52.3 in 30 postseason contests). Having signed a four-year extension March 29, everything should be set up for the Czech Republic native to bust into the ranks of rising star in 2023-24.
K’Andre Miller is in somewhat of the same category as Chytil – an ascending young player who should have a bright NHL future, not a prospect trying to prove he belongs. Yet Miller’s tantalizing performance over his first three seasons has been due more at times to reliance on his freakish physical abilities – and that vast, largely untapped potential is why he’s listed here. When/if Miller’s experience and comfort level meet with his physical talent, the Rangers are hoping that a dominant No. 1 defenseman will be the end result – maybe as soon as this season.
The size and strength, the powerful skating strides and speed for a big man (6-foot-5, 215 pounds), the long reach and jaw-dropping closing speed in getting back on puck carriers, and the offensive ability have hardly been fully brought forth and refined yet.
Miller put up 43 points last season – more than double his previous best. The 23-year-old’s possession metrics have climbed in each of the three seasons of his entry-level contract, with his Corsi for rising from 46.1 to 48.2 to 49.6 last season. He’s a plus-44 for his career.
Armed with a new two-year bridge deal worth $3.872 million per year, there’s a good chance Miller will make the Rangers pay dearly for not locking him up long-term. That’s a problem the front office would love to be facing in the summer of 2025 with the former forward, who jumped straight from the University of Wisconsin to the Rangers in 2020.
Alexis Lafreniere is last on this list because he seems like the “least sure” breakout possibility – a strange thing to say about a former No. 1 overall pick who was expected to be filling up nets by now. Yet the consensus top prospect in the 2020 draft remains something of a mystery, failing to reach the heights of Tim Stutzle, a fellow left wing taken two spots after Lafreniere by the Ottawa Senators. Stutzle recorded 90 points last season and has so far looked like the best player from that draft.
There’s plenty of questions as to why Lafreniere has failed to develop in a similar manner – was he overhyped coming into the draft, or have the Rangers done a poor job of teaching him and putting him in situations where he can learn and eventually succeed? Rumors abound about his skating, fitness and commitment level – all of them just rumors at this point.
What is known is that Lafreniere’s 44 even-strength goals in his first three seasons rank third on the Rangers in that time frame, behind Chris Kreider (56) and Panarin (49). Lafreniere has held no significant role on the power play, and like Kakko, has spent most of his young career on the third line. So his inability to establish himself as a rising star might be due to a combination of the aforementioned factors.
The only way to find out what the club has in Lafreniere is to give him more responsibility and some room to fail and learn. It seems likely that Laviolette would have had to address his plans for the 21-year-old during the interview process. It seems even more likely that general manager Chris Drury wouldn’t have hired him if Lafreniere’s improvement wasn’t a priority in the coach’s agenda.
Having signed a two-year bridge contract Aug. 23, it’s time for the Rangers to find out what they have in Lafreniere and whether he’s part of the future core. Doing so means giving him significant minutes and more responsibility – or it will be unrealistic to expect a breakout effort in Lafreniere’s fourth season.
Laviolette’s Touch With the 20-Somethings Will Prove Critical
Drury picked Laviolette in large part because of the strength of his personality, looking for a respected veteran coach that can get veteran stars to buy into his style of play. Yet when it comes to the younger players, Laviolette will need to strike the right balance between forceful – creating a structure of accountability – and fortifying to their psyches. He’ll need to treat them differently to get the most out of them, without creating the appearance that there are two sets of rules for his roster. Such is life for the modern NHL coach.
Laviolette certainly seemed to be of that mindset at his introductory press conference June 20.
“Those young players do need an opportunity to grow,” Laviolette said. They have to be, not given, but they have to be given the opportunity to be counted on more. …
” … You’re talking about a couple players who were coming off I think maybe their best years, and they’re still really young players. And there’s a growth that goes with that. You certainly would like to see them take the next step. More minutes, maybe a little higher up the lineup, maybe more power-play time. And so with that, there has to be opportunity.”
The Rangers’ top candidates for a 2023-24 breakout appear to have a good chance to lift their games under Laviolette – and with that, perhaps lift the team closer to elusive championship heights.