The New York Rangers picked up a shiny new toy in second-line center Vincent Trocheck and got rid of scapegoat defenseman Patrik Nemeth this week, at least temporarily alleviating depression amongst the fan base over the loss of several key players from last season’s run to the Eastern Conference Final.
Yet when the excitement over those two shrewd moves – and it’s probably three, as the signing of fourth-line center Ryan Carpenter was also a very good one – fades, the faithful will have to come to terms with the fact that the Blueshirts will look different next season. The roster will have to rely on more youth, most specifically some of the high-ceiling kids that have been so celebrated over the past several years.
The Rangers are facing the salary-cap crunch they’ve known was coming for a while now. With Kaapo Kakko still needing to be re-signed to a bridge deal this summer, the club will be close to the threshold. That means keeping any of their trade-deadline acquisitions – Tyler Motte, Frank Vatrano, Andrew Copp and Justin Braun – was always going to be next to impossible, especially after the addition of Trocheck in free agency for seven years at an average annual value of $5.625 million.
Despite replacing the departed Ryan Strome with Trocheck, general manager Chris Drury still has holes to fill, and very little cap space with which to do it. That means young, cheap talent is on the menu for 2022-23.
With possibly a couple of forward spots and the third-pair, left-side defense job open, here’s a look at the intriguing internal – and most likely – options for a team that’s expected to be only $2 million or so under the cap once Kakko is back in the fold.
Is this the season Vitali Kravtsov, the ninth overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft, finally puts an end to his saga that’s led him from Madison Square Garden to the American Hockey League, to a wander back through his native Russia? The 22-year-old right wing looked to be on his way out of the organization after October’s “departure,” during which he refused an assignment to Hartford of the AHL after failing to make the opening-night roster and returned to home to Chelyabinsk, with reports of an acrimonious relationship between Kravtsov and the front office abounding.
A trade away from New York seemed a near-certainty, but one never materialized, either because the Rangers didn’t get an offer they liked or because they never had any intention of dealing him. Instead, Kravtsov remained in Russia and played 19 more games for Traktor of the Kontinental Hockey League, his hometown team, recording six goals and seven assists before compiling seven goals and three assists in 15 playoff contests. In doing so, he reminded the Rangers of the size, speed and powerful shot that caused them to draft him in the first place.
For its part, rather than cut ties with Kravtsov, the front office has remained in touch with the forward, who despite all that’s happened is still considered to be in good standing with the organization. Drury signed Kravtsov to a one-year, $875,000 extension through 2022-23 last month.
Are both parties ready to move past the past? Now would be a good time, with at least one vacated top-six right wing spot available to be claimed following Vatrano’s signing with the Anaheim Ducks – exactly the type of golden opportunity Kravtsov insisted he’d never get with the Rangers before bolting for home last season. Kravtsov performed well at times in a 20-game audition with the Blueshirts at the end of 2020-21, scoring two goals and adding two assists. Training camp should provide a pretty good indicator of whether he’s capable of being a part of the Rangers’ future.
It can be dangerous to put too much stock in stats at the junior level, but it was impossible to ignore the 16th overall pick in the 2021 draft last season after he ran roughshod over the Ontario Hockey League. Brennan Othmann piled up an eye-popping 50 goals and 47 assists in 66 games for the Flint Firebirds, posting a plus-17 rating and also exhibiting an edge to his game with 65 penalty minutes. He added 24 points in 19 playoff games (along with another 18 PIMs).
Drury has high hopes for his initial first-round pick after taking over as GM late in the 2020-21 season. However, he certainly doesn’t want to rush the winger’s development, and Othmann isn’t eligible to play in the AHL next season until the OHL season ends, either in late March or as late as early June, should Flint make a deep run in the Memorial Cup playoffs.
That means the 19-year-old has to make the Rangers’ roster out of camp or head back to his junior team for most, if not all, of the season. If Othmann wows the coaching staff this summer and early fall, they probably won’t hesitate to give him a spot with the big club, but a return to the OHL for more seasoning wouldn’t be a terrible outcome either. Othmann’s preseason performance should prove to be one of the most compelling storylines for the Rangers leading up to 2022-23.
The power forward is bound to get a long look in training camp, and might be a more realistic option to make the team over Othmann next season. At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Will Cuylle plays the kind of heavy game Drury and Rangers coach Gerard Gallant desire – and Cuylle succeeding in the NHL would also erase the sting of draft bust Lias Andersson, who the Blueshirts took seventh overall in 2017 but managed to flip to the Los Angeles Kings for the 60th pick in 2020, which they used to select Cuylle.
The 20-year-old says he tries to model his game after that of Washington Capitals forward Tom Wilson. Like Wilson, who exhibited steady increases in production in the OHL before joining the Caps for the 2013-14 season, Cuylle followed up a pair of 40 plus-point seasons for the Windsor Spitfires with an 80-point breakout with them in 2021-22.
Eligible to play in the AHL this season, Cuylle is probably ticketed for Connecticut’s capital – but like Othmann, will be given the opportunity to make the Rangers roster out of camp. With Gallant in charge, Cuylle might prove to have the inside track to Broadway over Kravtsov and Othmann this season, given his style of play.
The door is wide open for the 2019 third-round pick to seize the spot on defense created by the trade of Nemeth and free-agent departure of Braun. Zac Jones flashed at times during 22 games with the Rangers over the past two seasons, notching six assists and exhibiting the raw speed, exceptional lateral movement and ability to run a power play that caused the front office to bring him to Broadway for his first NHL cameo right after leading UMass-Amherst to the national championship in April 2021.
Questions linger about Jones’ defense, along with his 5-10, 175-pound frame and ability to handle the physicality that’s sure to come his way from opponents. Can he match up with big NHL forwards in front of the net well enough to earn a regular spot? Making matters more difficult for Jones is the fact that Gallant prefers bigger defenseman who can keep the crease clear. Still, his skill set is so tantalizing that Jones is sure to be given a big chance to make the team. He could find himself in a Blueshirt opening night Oct. 11 against the Tampa Bay Lightning at MSG – if he isn’t traded beforehand.
The Western Hockey League’s Central Division Defenseman of the Year for 2020-21 recorded 22 points in 22 games and led WHL defenders with a plus-26 rating that season. Matthew Robertson graduated to the AHL for 2021-22 and recorded a goal, 10 assists and a minus-7 mark in 65 games with the Wolf Pack.
Is the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2019 ready to contribute at the NHL level? At 6-4 and 201 pounds, he possesses the size Gallant covets, and his skating and developed offensive game evoke some comparisons with rising star and possible future teammate K’Andre Miller.
Robertson joining second-year player Braden Schneider would make for a high-ceilinged third defense pair. The 21-year-old, though, lacks extensive AHL experience and might be too raw at this point. He’ll still get the chance at camp to earn the right to line up next to Schneider on opening night.
Rangers’ Rebuilding Years of Stockpiling Young Talent Proving Crucial For This Moment
There are other candidates on defense, such as Libor Hajek and perhaps Nils Lundkvist, who might have to move to his off-side to make the roster. They’ll be vying to be a part of a Rangers team whose unexpected run to the conference finals last season officially stamped their rebuilding project as well ahead of schedule.
That exciting postseason, however, was due as much to the club’s veteran stars as to the youth obtained during four years of prospect acquisition. Now, with a tight salary-cap situation and holes in the lineup to fill, the front office is hoping that more of that youth can step up and begin to fulfill the promise the organization saw in it. With relatively few dollars to spend as they try to improve and take the next step, the Rangers have little choice but to count on that happening.
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I’m a resident of the Chicago area by way of White Plains, NY. I worked for the Associated Press sports department in New York City for 10 years before moving to the Midwest in 2005, when the AP’s then-internet division entered into a joint venture with STATS LLC. I worked for STATS for 11 years, until 2016. I’m very excited to be a part of The Hockey Writers.