The New York Rangers missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2009-2010 season, and bought some time by announcing their intention to rebuild shortly before the trade deadline.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a Rangers team that could take the time to build through the draft – they have five picks in the first two rounds this year – but to do that they will have to resist temptation to do a quick rebuild.
That doesn’t mean a perpetual rebuilding effort needs to take place, but it also means that the Rangers might want to take a conservative approach when it comes to free agency. They get linked to Russian sniper Ilya Kovalchuk, and adding a forward in his mid-30s hardly seems like the move of a rebuilding franchise, but the Rangers have cap space and the term shouldn’t be unreasonably long, so adding Kovalchuk wouldn’t necessarily run counter to an effort to build from within.
Where this gets more challenging is when it comes to whether GM Jeff Gorton can hold the picks that he acquired when embarking on the rebuilding effort. If the Rangers stock their system this year, that really should pay off down the road. It just requires some patience, which isn’t a trait for which this franchise is famous.
While they’re being patient, the Rangers also need to hire a new coach. Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe and Boston University bench boss David Quinn have been mentioned as possibilities.
The uncertainty about whether they can hold firm to their stated approach makes forecasting the Rangers’ off-season plan more challenging. On one hand, they could stick with a rebuilding plan, on the other hand, they could see their cap space and get tempted by free agents; somewhere in the middle might be where this ends up.
Mika Zibanejad – Playing just under 18 minutes per game, the 25-year-old centre emerged as a scoring threat, generating a career-high 2.94 shots on goal per game and ending up with a career-high 27 goals in 72 games.
Michael Grabner – Before he was traded to New Jersey at the deadline, the speedy winger had 25 goals in 59 games, giving him 52 goals (50 at even strength) in 135 games with the Blueshirts.
Henrik Lundqvist – The 36-year-old netminder bounced back from a down season in 2016-2017. Even if he faded down the stretch for a team that was rolling out a defence corps full of guys auditioning for next season, Lundqvist was in vintage form through mid-February.
Brendan Smith – Acquired from Detroit at the 2017 trade deadline, Smith finished that season well and earned a new four-year contract from the Rangers. He promptly struggled and ultimately was demoted to the AHL late in the season.
Marc Staal – The veteran defenceman does get tasked with more difficult assignments, but his role has been steadily cut back – the 18:32 per game that he played last season was a career-low – and it tends to get ugly in the Rangers zone when he’s out there.
Kevin Shattenkirk – An ace power play quarterback, the 29-year-old was mediocre, at best, during 5-on-5 play before undergoing season-ending knee surgery.
FREE AGENT FORWARDS
There is a consistency to Mats Zuccarello, the undersized 30-year-old winger who has ranged between 49 and 61 points in each of the past five seasons while missing a total of 14 games. He’s a feisty playmaker, but is also entering the last year of his contract so, if the Rangers aren’t prepared to sign him long-term, it’s conceivable that they would consider moving Zuccarello.
Mika Zibanejad is starting to realize his potential as a frontline NHL player. He has a rare combination of size and skill, was excellent at driving play last season and was a force on the power play, scoring a career-high 14 goals with the man advantage. With more favourable on-ice percentages, his assist totals should be better next season.
The Rangers certainly aren’t rushing 23-year-old winger Pavel Buchnevich, and may well be too conservative in his deployment to this point, but he’s shown talent that suggests he’s capable of more. For a team that is intent on rebuilding, part of that process should be focused on helping a player like Buchnevich reach his potential.
A big winger who can fly, Chris Kreider can be an impact player when he’s on his game. He had a career-best season in 2016-2017 and was struggling in 2017-2018 when he suffered blood clots in his arm and missed nearly two months. He did finish strong, however, so it would be entirely reasonable to expect him to play a big role next season.
A depth winger with good speed, Jesper Fast took advantage of an increased role late in the season to score 12 points in his last 12 games on his way to a career-high 33 points. He’s a useful depth contributor at a reasonable price.
Picked up in a trade from Montreal, Peter Holland did get into 23 games with the Rangers, but didn’t do anything to suggest that he should be in a regular role moving forward.
Same goes for Matt Beleskey, who was brought in as part of the Rick Nash trade and, after he was scoreless in 15 NHL games and managed 12 points in 35 AHL games, seems like a prime buyout candidate.
After a breakout season that saw him score 44 points in 62 games with the Lightning, while playing frequently on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov arrived in New York as part of the Ryan McDonagh trade, and then stumbled to just four points in 19 games. He’s a skilled player, but fits more as a complementary piece to other skilled players rather than as one expected to drive results.
Kevin Hayes continued to improve his work in the face-off dot and scored a career-best 25 goals, and while his possession game was mediocre, that was a dramatic improvement over the previous year.
Brought in from Boston as part of the Rick Nash trade, playmaking winger Ryan Spooner had 16 points in 20 games with the Blueshirts and offers some potential as part of the supporting cast next season. He also got caved in (41.2 CF%, -5.4 CFRel%) as it pertains to shot differentials, but Spooner is a distributor who can aid the attack.
For all the fuss about Jimmy Vesey when he came out of Harvard, he’s scored 33 goals and 55 points through his first two NHL seasons. To his credit, 16 of his 17 goals last season were at even strength but, barring a sudden improvement, looks like a serviceable third-line winger.
Checking centre Boo Nieves got a chance to audition for the Rangers last season, playing 28 games. He played well enough to consider the 24-year-old for a spot next year, but he’s still trying to earn his place in the lineup.
There are a few avenues available to the Rangers if they are going to upgrade their forward group for next season. The first is that, with his pending return to the National Hockey League, it sure seems like Ilya Kovalchuk would prefer to play in Manhattan. He’s 35-years-old, but is an all-time great shooter and has scored 63 goals in 113 KHL games over the past two seasons. If he can be added on a reasonable short-term deal, Kovalchuk would surely upgrade the Rangers power play and give them a bona fide finisher.
At the other end of the age spectrum, last year’s first-round picks, Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson, are both ready for a chance to prove that they can play at the NHL level. Chytil started last season with the Rangers, before spending time in the AHL and in the Czech Republic. Andersson split the year between Sweden and the AHL before a late-season cup of coffee with the Rangers.
FREE AGENT DEFENCEMEN
Signed as a prize free agent last summer, Kevin Shattenkirk struggled while trying to play through a knee injury. It is also possible that Shattenkirk’s relatively protected usage in St. Louis has made his transition more difficult, first in Washington late in 2016-2017 and then last season with the Rangers. He’s a great power play quarterback, and can be an effective puck-mover, but needs adequate support.
Signed out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth last spring, Neal Pionk started last season in the American Hockey League and then was called up once the Rangers were starting to look ahead to next season. His point production was great yet his possession numbers were a bit troubling; he played for Team USA at the World Championships and should be in line for a spot on the right side next season.
22-year-old Anthony DeAngelo is a capable puck-moving defenceman, but his play without the puck remains a concern and even with positive relative possession stats, he’s been outscored 57-29 during 5-on-5 play in 71 career NHL games. With the Rangers taking a rebuilding approach, DeAngelo figures to get an opportunity to sink or swim in the NHL.
For years, Brendan Smith appeared to be under-utilized in Detroit, and he played well, averaging more than 20 minutes of ice time per game, when he finished the 2016-2017 season with the Rangers. He had a hard time last season, and quickly lost the trust of head coach Alain Vigneault, which resulted in a demotion to the AHL. Maybe a new coach will give Smith a shot to redeem himself next season or maybe the Rangers can find him a new home.
Marc Staal has been a fixture on the Rangers blueline for 11 seasons, and while he’s consistently on the wrong end of shot differentials at this stage of his career, Staal has done all right when it comes to goal differentials (189-175 at 5-on-5 over the past four seasons – thanks Hank!).
Journeyman Steven Kampfer has been a part-time player throughout a career that has seen previous stops in Boston, Minnesota and Florida. He’s going to get passed on the depth chart by younger Rangers prospects, but he’s still on a bargain contract next season.
A 6-foot-3 defenceman who is a brilliant skater, Brady Skjei has quickly ascended up the Rangers’ defensive depth chart. With Ryan McDonagh gone,Skjei would figure to be the No. 1, which may be a tad optimistic, but there’s no doubt that Skjei will play a big role on the Rangers blueline next season.
Another defenceman who got a late-season shot with the Rangers last season, John Gilmour is an impressive skater and that could be his ticket to a more regular role.
Acquired from Boston in exchange for Nick Holden, Rob O’Gara is a stay-at-home defenceman with good size, but he’s in a battle for a roster spot.
If the Rangers are intent on turning this around quickly, they do have the resources – including forward depth and three first-round picks – available to deal for a defensive upgrade. Jason Demers, T.J. Brodie, Connor Murphy, Oscar Klefbom, and Ben Hutton may be among the defencemen that could be available via trade. What about Erik Karlsson? If the Rangers want to reverse course, they could throw a slew of picks and some prospects at the Senators in the hopes of getting a deal done. They could also offer big money to free agent John Carlson, but maybe a patient approach is the way to go.
By taking the public stance that they are rebuilding, the Rangers should also have the luxury not to rush in their efforts to improve the defence. If they want to spend a year developing young defencemen to see which ones can handle the job, that’s okay.
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2018-19 CAP|
FREE AGENT GOALTENDER
|NAME||GP||W||L||T||SV%||EV SV%||2017-18 CAP||STATUS|
He’s 36-years-old, so he’s not the same as he was at his peak, but Henrik Lundqvist was an above-average starting goaltender who started in more than 60 games for the third time in the past six seasons. He seems comfortable with the Rangers and wants to play through the rebuild, and that’s fine. (On the other hand, if he’s willing to move, the Rangers should explore what they could get in return for a legend who has three years left on his contract.)
22-year-old Bulgarian Alexandar Georgiev saw his first NHL action last season and had some strong performances, recording 35 or more saves in five of his 10 appearances. He could probably use more time in the AHL, so the Rangers may look for a veteran backup once again. Ondrej Pavelec filled the role last year, and Cam Ward, Chad Johnson, and Anton Khudobin are among the free agent possibilities if the Rangers don’t simply bring back Pavelec.
|Lias Andersson||C||25||5||9||14||0||Hartford (AHL)|
|Filip Chytil||C||46||11||20||31||+1||Hartford (AHL)|
|Igor Shesterkin||G||28||.933||St. Petersburg SKA (KHL)|
|Libor Hajek||D||58||12||27||39||-5||Regina (WHL)|
|Brett Howden||C||49||24||51||75||+28||Moose Jaw (WHL)|
|Ryan Lindgren||D||35||2||7||9||-3||Minnesota (Big 10)|
|Sean Day||D||50||5||42||47||-10||Kingston (OHL)|
|Alexandar Georgiev||G||37||.909||Hartford (AHL)|
|Yegor Rykov||D||53||2||12||14||+11||St. Petersburg SKA (KHL)|
|Michael Lindqvist||LW||33||20||14||34||+3||Farjestad (SHL)|
|Ville Meskanen||RW||48||24||20||44||+3||Ilves (SML)|
|Adam Huska||G||27||.912||Connecticut (HE)|
|Brandon Halverson||G||24||.902||Greenville (ECHL)|
|Tim Gettinger||LW||66||33||36||69||+35||Sault Ste. Marie (OHL)|
|Vinni Lettieri||RW||55||23||13||36||0||Hartford (AHL)|
9th – Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Noah Dobson, Joel Farabee, Joe Veleno
26th – Bode Wild, Martin Kaut, Ryan McLeod
29th – Dominik Bokk, Jacob Olofsson, Rasmus Sandin
The Rangers have approximately $50.0M committed to the 2018-2019 salary cap for 13 players.
Two top-nine forwards, top-pair defenceman, backup goaltender
WHAT I SAID THE RANGERS NEEDED LAST YEAR
One top-pair defenceman, another defenceman
David Desharnais, Paul Carey, Kevin Shattenkirk
Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Kevin Hayes, Jimmy Vesey, Brendan Smith, Henrik Lundqvist
PROJECTED 2018-2019 DEPTH CHART
|LEFT WING||CENTRE||RIGHT WING|
|Ilya Kovalchuk*||Mika Zibanejad||Mats Zuccarello|
|Chris Kreider||Filip Chytil||Ryan Spooner|
|Lias Andersson||Kevin Hayes||Pavel Buchnevich|
|Jimmy Vesey||Vladislav Namestnikov||Jester Fast|
|Brett Howden||Peter Holland||Vinni Lettieri|
|Michael Lindqvist*||Boo Nieves||Ville Meskanen*|
|LEFT DEFENCE||RIGHT DEFENCE||GOALTENDER|
|Brady Skjei||Anthony DeAngelo||Henrik Lundqvist|
|Marc Staal||Kevin Shattenkirk||Cam Ward*|
|Brendan Smith||Neal Pionk||Alexandar Georgiev|
|John Gilmour||Steven Kampfer|
|Libor Hajek||Chris Bigras|
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com