2023-2024 NHL Season Preview: New York Rangers
The New York Rangers would very much like to win a Stanley Cup sooner rather than later. However, are they good enough and deep enough to make it through an entire NHL postseason?
Let’s set the scene here. This is a team that got demoralized in Game 7 against one of their worst rivals in the first round last year. They have one of the best goalies in the game, as well as one of the best defensemen around. A 47-22-13 record is honestly very good. 107 points in the Metro is no small feat, especially when you consider it’s 14 more than the fourth-placed Islanders. However, they still were behind both the Devils and Hurricanes in the final standings.
Yes, the big names are there. But has Chris Drury and company made enough of the right decisions to construct a legitimate Cup contender? That answer is not as clear as you think. You’ll see why this season’s preview is a rollercoaster.
Line Combinations (via DailyFaceoff.com)
Goaltending comes in the form of 2022 Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin and former Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick. The former Kings and Golden Knights netminder represents something of a trend for the Rangers. Amid a cap crunch this Summer, Drury had to do some serious shopping in the dollar store. He signed Quick, Blake Wheeler, Erik Gustafsson, Nick Bonino and Jimmy Vesey to respective one-year contracts worth under $1,000,000. If it hasn’t happened to you already, looking at that bottom six is a bit of an eyesore.
Two forwards in particular need a few words. You should read what our very own Jarrod Prosser had to say about both Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere because it couldn’t be more true. The pair, despite their clear talent levels, combined for a measly 79 points last season. Both were top-2 draft selections and had very bad luck due to COVID-19.
While some have used the pandemic as an excuse for the duo’s poor development, I think many are starting to conclude that said excuse is becoming less valid. If only one of them developed into a legit top-six forward, then that would change this team’s fortunes considerably.
Let’s start behind the bench, shall we?
Peter Laviolette took over for Gerard Gallant as New York Rangers head coach. You can critique his coaching ability all you want, but this guy brings results. He won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006 as well as making two more finals with the Flyers in 2010 and Predators in 2017. Yes, his time in Washington was not great. However, if you want to talk about setting a culture and discipline the veteran bench boss knows that incredibly well.
Some free agents were mentioned earlier. Along with those four, Tyler Pitlick was another acquisition who should feature in the bottom six frequently. While scanning the bargain bin is not always fun, you cannot deny the Rangers got some value. Especially in the form of Wheeler, the Jets’ ex-captain.
He put up 55 points in a year that certainly showed some decline. However, an $800,000 cap hit, according to Spotrac, for even 40-45 points is very good value for money. While many fans will still be nervous watching any goalie not named Igor, Quick is an experienced and fiery veteran who should at the very least be a good locker-room presence at $825,000.
Three Players To Watch
The first Ranger to watch has to be the main star of the show, Igor Shesterkin. The Russian has already ascended near the top of a loaded goalie room in New York City that includes both Henrik Lundqvist and Mike Richter. Last season saw some regression following his borderline unbelievable play the year prior. I don’t even consider it a slight, because his level of play in 2021-2022 should be in some conversations for the greatest goaltending of the 21st century.
On top of that, he cares more about winning than anyone else in the locker room and will sacrifice himself to make it happen.
Statistically, 37 wins, three shutouts, a .916 save percentage and a 2.48 goals-against average are still very good. With two years left on his bridge deal, Igor must continue playing elite hockey and staying healthy to secure what would be one of the most lucrative contracts any goalie has seen.
Unsurprisingly, Alexis Lafreniere is another pivotal Ranger to watch in 2023-2024. The former No. 1 pick is running out of time before many start calling him one of the worst busts in recent memory (I have already opened that can of worms). It’s simply a case of putting it all together for the winger who should actually line up on the right side this season following the departures of both Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko.
As I mentioned earlier, any excuses you could bring up become more null and void with each passing day. He’s incredibly talented, and many along with the Blueshirts thought he was a can’t-miss star in 2020. Stardom probably won’t happen for the Saint-Eustache, Canada native, but there is a real risk that a fruitful NHL career is also off the table if this season doesn’t go to plan.
Last but not least, the most important Ranger not between the pipes is named Artemi Panarin. Since signing a seven-year deal with the Blueshirts back in 2019, very few players in the game have been better than the Breadman. His 341 total points in 268 games as a Ranger blows out the points-per-game ratio from any other team he’s played on.
In 2022-2023, he was as good as ever with 29 goals and 92 points in a full 82 games. If he’s able to break the 80-game and 90-point mark for the fourth time in five years, this team will be well on their way to the playoffs. Panarin simply does so much for this team and thrives in so many scenarios. At 31, and turning 32 at the end of the month, his window is closing. The Rangers have wasted the primes of far too many great players. Could he be next?
Riser And Faller
It’s not hyperbole to say that Filip Chytil is the most underrated player on the New York Rangers. The Czech center put up a career-high 45 points in 74 games played. Once heralded as part of the young farm that would bring success, he has since graduated into an everyday NHL player. It’s also hard to believe that he is only 24 years old at the time of writing. Already an above-average two-way player, if he keeps his development on track he could very well start to get hot on Zibanejad’s heels as the No. 1 center. The main way to do that is to get more ice time. 14:41 per game is not bad, but closer to 20 minutes a game will confirm he has made it as a top-six forward.
From a purely points perspective, Chris Kreider is a faller. He regressed from his unreal 50-goal season in 2021-2022. But is anyone even surprised? His 52 goals and 77 points look more and more like a career anomaly. The 36 goals and 54 points from 2022-2023 are a much more accurate representation of what to expect from the career Ranger.
At 32-years-old, the Boxford, Mass., native is going to be a very important piece to the scoring puzzle at MSG. He’s scored 45 powerplay goals in the last three seasons. Production in both 5V5 and 5V4 situations is required at this point. Regardless of which center he’s playing next to, Kreider must find a way to remain productive.
The Biggest Question Is…
Can they keep up with the powerhouses of the East? It’s hard to say. We all know playoff Shesterkin is a different beast. If last season is anything to go off of, they’ll probably be busy around the trade deadline. However, Carolina, Jersey and Florida are all hungry. They also have built somewhat of a talent gap between themselves and the rest of the conference. The Blueshirts have the star power to have a chance. It now comes down to whether they have the depth and defense to bend but not break when it matters.
The New York Rangers fell to Tampa in 2022 because they could not handle a shift in momentum during the series. They fell to New Jersey last year because of coming up short in a Game Seven. The mental strength of this group is equally as important as their playing ability.
In my humble (Islanders fan) opinion, I think this group is just too old. If there is an emergence from within then maybe things change. If not, asking the same core of aging stars to improve on what they’ve been doing simply will not happen. We also know, however, that Chris Drury likes making trades and the Rangers own all of their first-round picks.
He will probably find a way to upgrade this team one way or another. While some say they will regress, I wouldn’t go that far. They have enough to at least finish third or fourth in the Metro. A first or second-round exit is not what anyone signed up for, but I think the East is just too good and too crowded to believe otherwise.
The New York Rangers are giving it all they got. Young players, salary, draft picks, you name it. The results of that labor, however, have given mixed results; 2023-2024 will likely be more of the same unless some players really take us by surprise.