Following a disappointing first-round exit to the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins last season, the 2016-17 New York Rangers will look to use their revamped roster to advance further in the postseason. The journey starts with the preseason, when players make their real first impressions, whether positive or negative.
The Metropolitan Division is expected to be a free-for-all this year, so the Rangers will need to use the pre-season as a real opportunity to prepare themselves for a challenging regular season. Let’s take a look at five storylines surrounding the New York Rangers.
Fountain of Youth
While the Rangers have been known for carrying rosters filled with veterans in recent years, the 2016-17 club will feature a variety of young talents. The Rangers system may not be especially deep, but the majority of the top prospects will be in the NHL this season, including prized prospects Pavel Buchnevich and Brady Skjei.
Buchnevich will make his first appearance in the NHL, as he has an out clause that states he can leave for the KHL should the Rangers try to demote him. Skjei impressed playing key minutes in the postseason for the Rangers, while already holding the weight of the top prospect burden on his shoulders.
Elsewhere on the Rangers roster, New York swapped out Derick Brassard for a younger replacement, Mika Zibanejad. Zibanejad has been placed on a line with Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich for the start of training camp, a line with eye-opening speedand an average age of 23.
Buchnevich is the top forward prospect, a status that could only be challenged by the Rangers prized free-agent signing, Jimmy Vesey. Vesey, like Kevin Hayes two years earlier, was signed as a college free agent and is expected to contribute right away. Vesey can play top nine minutes, joining Hayes, J.T. Miller, and the aforementioned youngsters in an important role.
Rick Nash may not have disappointed as much as pundits think he did, but by no means did he have a terrific season. Nash tallied only 36 points a year after topping 40 goals, a clear sign that he didn’t provide as much value as his $7.8 million contract demands. Nash was recently quoted as saying he believes he must prove his value to the Rangers.
“For me, as I get to the tail end of my career, especially after the year I had last year, I have to show I belong on this team,”
The quote is one Rangers fans should enjoy hearing, but seeing Nash back it up with a comeback season is more important.
Two other players in desperate need of bounceback seasons are Dan Girardi and Marc Staal. A pair of rapidly declining defenders, Girardi and Staal are going to be counted on to continue to play major minutes given the Rangers losses on defense, so there is only room for improvement for the long-time Rangers.
More Moves On the Way?
Girardi, Nash, and Staal would all love to prove themselves in Rangers blue and white, but there is no guarantee they will have the opportunity to do so. The Rangers defense lost Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle, creating gaping holes in the ranks.
New York signed a swarm of forwards this offseason, meaning the team could trade Rick Nash for an available defenseman such as Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues. If the Rangers acquire a defenseman, one must likely go, creating a scenario in which multiple moves are still certainly possible before the season begins.
A Glaring Weakness
The Rangers shoring up their forward corps was a sign the organization is moving in the right direction, but the failures to replace Boyle or Yandle, or to buy-out at least one of Girardi or Staal create confusion.
The Rangers defense currently includes Adam Clendening, Dan Girardi, Nick Holden, Kevin Klein, Ryan McDonagh, Dylan McIlrath, Brady Skjei, and Marc Staal for six spots. That group consists of one top pair defenseman in Ryan McDonagh, one proven fringe-second pair defenseman in Kevin Klein, two prospects attempting to solidify their games in Dylan McIlrath and Brady Skjei, two declining veterans attempting to recapture their games in Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, a seventh defenseman in Nick Holden, and a journeyman in Adam Clendening.
For a team that wants to compete for the Stanley Cup, having a weakness as obvious as the Rangers’ top four on defense is strange. The Rangers have the assets to make a move, but as of now, have stood pat. If the Rangers don’t make a trade, the preseason will showcase who can make it into the top four.
Perhaps the Rangers strategy this offseason was to give themselves so many options at forward that the defense became irrelevant. New York added: Pavel Buchnevich (from the KHL), Nathan Gerbe, Michael Grabner, Josh Jooris, Brandon Pirri, Jimmy Vesey, and Maxim Lapierre (PTO).
Simply put, the Rangers have an enormous amount of depth for 13-14 roster spots.
Let’s attempt to separate the players intro groups:
Definites (11): Pavel Buchnevich, Jepser Fast, Michael Grabner, Kevin Hayes, Chris Kreider, Oscar Lindberg (will start the season on the LTIR) J.T. Miller, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Jimmy Vesey, Mika Zibanejad, Mats Zuccarello.
Highly Probable (1): Brandon Pirri.
Highly Possible (3): Nathan Gerbe, Nicklas Jensen, Josh Jooris.
Possible (2): Tanner Glass, Marek Hrivik.
Don’t count on it, but not impossible (1): Maxim Lapierre.
Judging by the groups above, the Rangers will head into the pre-season with seven players ranging from nearly impossible to highly probable fighting for two or three spots on the opening roster. Assuming Brandon Pirri makes the roster, Alain Vigneault will be forced to select only one or two more players to make the NHL squad, leaving the rest on waivers or in the AHL.
Perhaps the most important question of all will be whether or not Vigneault can be trusted to make that decision. He has consistently chosen “his guys” in recent years such as Glass and Lapierre over more talented forwards such as Gerbe and Jooris.
Will Vigneault pick the right players? Will a player like Ahti Oskanen or Malte Stromwall come out of nowhere to steal a roster spot from the already crowded group? Could Tanner Glass possibly find his way onto another busy Rangers roster?
These are all questions that will be answered in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.