Rangers’ Youth Must Overcome Pressure for Team Success

The NHL offseason is still in full swing, but the New York Rangers roster is starting to look solidified ahead of the 2022-23 season. General manager Chris Drury did not have a lot of cap space to work with, signifying the departure of key pieces from last season’s run to the Eastern Conference Final. Filling those vacancies will be newly signed Vincent Trocheck and young players like Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko.

We are officially in the Rangers’ Stanley Cup window, but their success solely depends on their ‘kids’ taking that next step. Whether you believe it justified or not, there will be an astonishing amount of pressure on the young Blueshirts to produce next year. This group can only end a nearly 30-year Cup drought if the likes of Kakko, Lafreniere, Filip Chytil, K’Andre Miller, and others pan out.

Alexis Lafreniere New York Rangers
Alexis Lafreniere, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Despite their age and lack of opportunity given to them with star-level talent in front of them, the brunt of this burden falls on the shoulders of Kakko and Lafreniere. The former second-overall selection in 2019 and the first pick in the 2020 NHL Draft will have to thrive under pressure this upcoming season.

There may be more room to maneuver for the other young studs on the Rangers, but Chytil, Miller, Schneider, and Vitali Kravtsov will also have to thrive. The departures of Andrew Copp, Frank Vatrano, and Ryan Strome have left a vast amount of production on the table for these players to replenish.

Can Kakko Break Out?

The biggest question heading into the 2022-23 season is what will the year hold for Kakko? The Finnish forward has yet to be the NHL player the Rangers had hoped for, but he has shown glimpses of offensive talent and has been trending upward, analytically, the past two seasons. The metrics pin him as one of the better possession players at five-on-five for the Blueshirts, but the production has yet to meet the projection.

Last year was injury plagued for Kakko, who finished the campaign with 18 points in 43 games. He projects to slide into the top-six and could very well be on a line with Trocheck and Artemi Panarin to start the year. It’s no secret for the Rangers to succeed; they will need the former second-overall pick to improve upon the career 0.37 point-per-game mark he has averaged throughout the first 157 games of his career.

Consistent minutes and an enhanced role should open the door for Kakko to break out. And playing alongside a point machine like Panarin should allow him to find higher leverage chances more frequently. For this team to become a perennial contender, coach Gerard Gallant has to commit to the youth, especially Kakko. Yet, if that commitment is made and the 21-year-old fails to produce, the Rangers will have a predicament on their hands.

There is no doubt the talent is there. The issue has been extrapolating that talent at a level wear talent alone cannot be relied upon to have success. Kakko showed flashes alongside Panarin early in 2021-22, and with newly acquired Trocheck driving play and forechecking tenaciously, the Finnish winger will be put in a terrific position to break out.

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Drury’s moves this offseason have indicated they are committed to the youth. Once the two sides agree to a contract, the pressure shifts to Gallant to ensure that Kakko is in a proper position to succeed. And if placed on that second line, Kakko needs to overcome the pressure and produce consistently.

Lafreniere, Chytil, and Miller Need to Continue Rise

The story of the postseason for the Rangers was the emergence of Chytil and ‘The Kids Line.’ After inconsistency plagued the early portion of his career, the Czech center put together a great playoff run, scoring seven times in 20 games. Chytil has been a Ranger’s staple for the past four seasons, but at just 22 years old, he is still a young player yet to fulfill his potential.

Similarly, both Lafreniere and Miller took steps during the 2021-22 season and postseason. Lafreniere finished the season with 19 goals, finding his game more consistently in his sophomore season. In the playoffs, he used his 6-foot-2 frame to his advantage, thriving in the physicality of the playoffs, displaying his ability to be a talented pest, a la Brad Marchand.

Related: Unproven Rangers Who Can Fill Holes in 2022-23 Lineup

On defense, the 22-year-old Miller was solid, utilizing his reach and size to break up rush after rush. He started to use his size and speed offensively as well, scoring a goal against the Florida Panthers that had us all salivating. All three of these youngsters are entering contract seasons. There is uncertainty whether the Rangers could afford to keep all three, but if they continue to progress, Drury will have to try his best to keep the young core intact.

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There cannot be a downward slope on any of their trajectories next season for the Rangers to finish in a similar position. Each has to continue their rise toward fulfilling their potential, thriving under the spotlight of increased roles on a team that will not sneak up on anyone during the 2022-23 season.

Next Wave of Rangers Need to Cement Themselves

The youth movement does not stop with the more tenured youth. Kravtsov is entering the fold after a tumultuous four years since he was the seventh overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. The Russian winger signed a one-way deal that will give him a chance to play on the Rangers this season if he is not traded beforehand.

With lofty expectations and many high on his ceiling, Kravtsov could be the right-wing piece the Rangers have sought after the past few seasons. He slots in perfectly on the third line and could find chemistry with Chytil, who is also 22. If he can come to Broadway and display his talents, the Blueshirts’ offensive depth only thickens.

Vitali Kravtsov, New York Rangers
Vitali Kravtsov, New York Rangers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Braden Schneider came up midway through the last campaign and showed why the Rangers moved up in the draft to select him. He was physical, intelligent, and always in a good position, and despite some growing pains, he was a mainstay on the back end throughout their playoff run.

Let’s suppose he can play that style alongside another young defenseman like Zac Jones or Nils Lundkvist. In that case, the Rangers will have officially closed the revolving door of underperforming, veteran defensemen who they’ve signed the last two seasons. Schneider’s spot is all but solidified, but the sixth spot will be a battle between highly regarded prospects, including the aforementioned Jones and Lundkvist, both of who saw time with the big club last year.

Pressure Mounts for These Young Rangers

As you read through this piece, the picture of the Rangers roster gets painted. Yes, they are a team with lofty expectations and star power. Yes, they made the Eastern Conference Final last year. And yes, they look primed to make another run. Yet, how the kids develop will determine the ceiling of this group and the potential longevity of a competitive window.

Can Kakko, Lafreniere, Chytil, and Kravtsov replace the production given to the Rangers by Copp, Vatrano, and Strome? Are Jones or Lundkvist ready to be full-time NHL defensemen, and can a pairing of either with Schneider survive defensively?

Throughout their rebuild, the Rangers built through the draft and acquired a significant amount of young talent. In the 2022-23 season, that young talent must prove they could jump alongside Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, and Chris Kreider and produce like the top-tier forwarded management needs them to be.

It is an immense amount of pressure to put on a bunch of 20-year-olds, but that is the situation this young group must overcome next season.

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