This could’ve been the defining image for just one night in Rangers history. Instead, it could shape the next several years of Rangers hockey, potentially for worse. (Getty Images)

Rangers Quest To Solve One Problem Has Created Many More: 2021 NHL Previews

There are certain moments in sports that completely change the direction of a franchise. Patrick Roy demanding a trade after giving up nine goals in a period in 1995. The Islanders hiring Barry Trotz and Lou Lamoriello in the 2018 offseason. Vancouver drafting the Sedin twins #2 and #3 overall in 1999. Lars Eller’s fluky double OT goal against Columbus to prevent Washington from falling into an 0-3 hole in the first round in 2018. The list goes on and on.

What happened to the New York Rangers on May 4, 2021, appears to be one of those moments. Everybody remembers Tom Wilson attacking Artemi Panarin and Pavel Buchnevich in a post-whistle scrum, prematurely ending the former’s season. The Rangers probably should’ve been more concerned that a Capitals team without Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov smoked them 6-3 that night. But the scrum, the suspension fine equivalent to $44.36 for the average U.S. working adult, and the line brawl two nights later is all anyone will remember from that night.

In the grand scheme of the Rangers’ lengthy history, that moment isn’t significant. What resulted from it is. Two days later, the Rangers abruptly fired team president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton. A few weeks later, head coach David Quinn was also dismissed. And over the course of the offseason, new GM Chris Drury, with the voice of team owner James Dolan likely shouting in his ear, the Rangers completely changed their identity.

Over the last four seasons, it was no secret that the Rangers have been in rebuilding mode. Granted, that movement accelerated with the blockbuster signing of Artemi Panarin. But other than being unceremoniously swept as the #11 seed in the Stanley Cup Qualifier thirteen months ago, the Rangers haven’t tasted playoff hockey since 2017. That was ok, though. Those Rangers teams weren’t focused on winning; they were busy accumulating a bevy of top-notch prospects that would lead them to greatness years down the line.

The Rangers were well on their way to doing just that. The Athletic’s Corey Pronman has ranked their system the league’s best each of the last two years. Two draft lottery wins, moving up to second in 2019 (7.8% chance) and first in 2020 (3.0625% chance; 24.5% chance the #1 pick would go to a team that lost in the qualifier round, 1/8 chance that team would be the Rangers), certainly helped in this regard.

While most of those prospects are still here (plus eight more selected in the 2021 NHL Draft), the team they might be jumping onto this year is… interesting. Basically every single transaction the Rangers made this offseason seemed to circle back to the Wilson incident. Instead of focusing on continuing to build the best hockey team possible, the Rangers went all-in on players known for two things: grit and toughness. Valuable traits? Absolutely. The ones you want to build a hockey team around in the 2021-22 NHL? Not as much.

While there are still stars and exciting youth that could bring success back to Madison Square Garden this year, anything this team does achieve seems likely to be because of what they did in the 2018-2020 offseasons and in spite of whatever happened this summer. This year’s Rangers team is much better prepared to win one specific battle that management deemed last year’s effort in insufficient. Unfortunately, that may be at the cost of winning the 82-game war they’ll go through over the next six months, potentially leaving one of the game’s biggest markets once again on the outside of the playoff party.

Forwards (New Players in Bold)

Artemi PanarinMika ZibanejadKappo Kakko
Chris KreiderRyan StromeVitali Kravtsov
Alexis LafrenièreFilip ChytilSamuel Blais
Barclay GoodrowKevin RooneyRyan Reaves

Let’s start with the good. If you look solely at left wing and center in the top six, the Rangers are pretty darn stacked. Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad usually don’t play together (the Rangers usually spread the wealth by putting Zibanejad with Kreider and Strome with Panarin, but I’m just using CapFriendly’s depth chart tool for these obviously not final line combinations). Yes, Zibanejad had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad first 27 games of 2021. But that was driven largely by a terribly unlucky 4% shooting that was bound for correction.

Sure enough, Zibanejad recorded three goals and six points in the second period of game 28 and never looked back, finishing with 21 goals and 41 points over the Rangers last 37 games. That too was driven by an unsustainable shooting percentage, but at the other end with a 19.3% clip. He finished the year with 24 goals in 56 games; not quite the same level as his 41 in 59 in 2019-20, which — you guessed it — was driven by an unsustainable 19.3% shooting. His shooting percentage over the entire 2021 season was 14%, much more in-line with his career 13% mark.

Granted, his underlying numbers were actually kind of terrible, with a 45% Corsi and second straight season at 45% Expected Goals. He’s a flawed player, but certainly not one who sucks. There’s a ton of value in a center who’s scored at a 30-goal pace or better three straight seasons. The Rangers have a big decision coming up with him as a UFA next summer.

The same goes for fellow center Ryan Strome. Many will write off his production as merely a product of playing about 2/3 of his 5v5 minutes with Artemi Panarin. Yet in 270 minutes away from Panarin, Strome put up a 53% Expected Goals Percentage. And in the 13 games Panarin missed in 2021, Strome scored 12 points. He’s a legitimately good top-six center with better underlying numbers than Zibanejad with or without one of the league’s brightest stars by his side. Another tough decision for Chris Drury and company in nine months, though considering his LaCk Of GrIt, maybe they don’t agree.

That whole “played just as well if not better without Panarin” narrative naturally didn’t apply to the rest of the team. The Rangers went 6-7-1 in those 13 Panarin-less games. That’s 21-16-5 with Panarin, a 94-point pace over 82 games. That wouldn’t have cracked the East Division playoff part; but it would have made it in any other division last season. Panarin has lived up to the massive hype and contract that brought him to the Big Apple in 2019; only Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have a higher point-per-game pace than Panarin over the last two years (min. 85 games played). The latter record is another feather in the 2021 Rangers cap.

But it’s also another reason they shouldn’t have blown up the plan this summer. As mentioned above, grit is an important trait to have for a hockey player or/and team. But it must to be attached to A) a player who can provide value in other areas and B) be able to be acquired for a reasonable cost, both in terms of contract or/and assets spent. Each of the Rangers three “additions” up front don’t meet that criteria.

In the biggest loss, team traded Pavel Buchnevich, a perennial 25-goal, 50-point threat, for a decent bottom-sixer in Samuel Blais. Yes, the Rangers got a decent cushion in a 2nd round pick in that trade as well, but it’s one that makes them worse in the short and probably long term. The odds of that pick and Blais, who barely eclipsed a 30-point pace in a 2021 season that saw his underlying numbers dip from passable to awful, with a Corsi For and xG% in the low-mid 40% range. One of New York’s promising youngsters could take Buchnevich’s offensive reigns, but the goal for the Rangers this offseason was clearly to make the team better. They didn’t do that here.

Then the Rangers threw a 7th round pick to the Lightning for Barclay Goodrow, then splurged on a 6-year, $21.85 million contract with a limited no-trade clause for its duration. Most people can agree Goodrow was the third wheel on Tampa Bay’s vaunted shutdown line. His offensive upside is roughly the same as Blais, who’s at least young and cheap. He’ll be 34 when this deal ends. Giving term to physical players is generally a bad idea. So is giving it to depth players. You can guess how smart it is to sign a 28-year old bottom-sixer for six years. Goodrow’s not a bad player, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll be worth his current contract.

He’s at least a useful hockey player, which 34-year old Ryan Reaves might not be anymore. He was dead last and second to last among Vegas forwards in 5v5 Corsi and xG last year, respectively. The only arrow in his quiver is that he’s willing to drop the gloves. That shouldn’t be enough to make him a lineup regular; let alone cost a 3rd pick; let alone be extended for $1.75 million before he even touches the ice as a Ranger. The extension is probably the most baffling part; there’s just no reason for it. Even the best case scenario for Reaves’ first year as a Blueshirt doesn’t result in his value exceeding about $2 million. Why you need to jump the line in a potentially non-existent market with no discount whatsoever is beyond me. Then again, I’m not under a grit hypnosis.

With Buchnevich gone and most of the team’s cap space either spent of the aforementioned physicality (plus $4.4 million in buyout penalties), the load will be firmly placed on the team’s young talent (plus Chris Kreider, another money in the bank 25-goal, 50-point player AND is willing to go to the dirty areas). They have a lot of potential, but translating that to NHL success has been a real trip. For starters, they’ve already wasted one top-ten pick in Lias Andersson, who they drafted 7th overall in 2017 only to trade to LA for the 61st pick in the 2020 Draft. That being said, let’s be clear here; Kappo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniére are FAR from busts right now, and I don’t think either player’s legacy will be in that label.

Kakko actually took a big step forward in his second NHL season, even if his point totals didn’t reflect it. It was painfully obvious Kakko wasn’t NHL ready in his rookie season, as he was torched for a 44% Corsi and 39% xG, translating into a 28% on-ice goals for percentage. Last season, those numbers skyrocketed to 54% and 56%, respectively, some of the team’s best. His raw point totals were largely the same; but his points per 60 at 5v5 did jump from 0.7 to 1.28. The latter figure still isn’t good; but it is a significant improvement, which is what you look for from a young player. If he takes a similar step in 2021-22, it could mean a 45-55 point season (maybe even more), getting back on the path associated with a former #2 pick. Remember, he’s only 20; there’s still plenty of room for growth.

Lafreniére’s rookie year, while not as good as expected, was certainly better than Kakko’s inaugural NHL campaign. He produced 1.76 points per 60 and had decent underlying numbers. Plus, he scored 8 points in 15 games over the season’s final month. Again, that’s not amazing, but for an 18-year old, we’re just looking for progress, and that’s some right there.

The raw skill on both players is obvious, and it’s frustrating for the Rangers to put them in a position where they have to be top-six ready to play with quality players that can maximize their skillsets. The same goes for another top prospect in Vitali Kravtsov who struggled to produce in a 20-game trial last year. It’d be nice if they were in a position to shelter them on the third line with capable offensive players. But instead, it’s one or the other; though that could change if 21-year old Filip Chytil builds off a near half-point-per-game-pace 2021 campaign that also saw the best underlying numbers of his young but also nearly 200-game old career. I don’t think his upside is significantly higher than really good 3C. But I could certainly be wrong, and even if I’m right, that’s still a nice piece to have.

Defensemen

Ryan LindgrenAdam Fox
K’Andre MillerJacob Trouba
Patrick NemethNils Lundkvist (R)

While the Rangers forward core is a mish-mash of two vastly different plans, their backend is a much more cohesive unit that has promise. That’s thanks to its two youngest returning members, Adam Fox and K’Andre Miller. I was pleasantly surprised to see the former take home the Norris Trophy last year, an award that’s usually gate-kept behind an arbitrary experience barrier. Yet the sophomore Fox took home the trophy, scoring five more points in fifteen fewer games than his rookie season, the second most of any blueliner. Unlike the player ahead of him (Tyson Barrie), Fox is also a complete player, sporting 54% expected goals and 58% on-ice goals for marks against a steady dose of quality competition. The only bad think for the Rangers is that Fox is going to break the bank next summer. But the cost, while steep, will almost certainly be worth it.

K’Andre Miller may never be as good as Fox, but delivered a solid rookie season at just 21 years old. He’s a well-rounded blue-liner that can play the “new NHL” game well and should be a fixture on New York’s backend for years to come. He should have a nice year alongside Jacob Trouba, whose massive $8 million cap hit could become a real problem next summer, given the amount of quality free agents the Rangers have. Trouba’s a decent top-four option; and maybe Fox’s emergence allows him to play a more sheltered role this year. But he simply hasn’t been worth the eye-popping price tag.

Ryan Lindgren isn’t amazing by any means, but he’s a quality top-four blue-liner that should pair just fine with Fox. While New York’s right side should be one of the league’s priciest top fours in 2022-23, their left side is extremely cost controlled; Miller’s ELC has two years left at $925K, and Lindgren is signed for three more years at an easily manageable $3 million. At least one more youngster will crack the Rangers’ backend this year. Zac Jones had a near point-per-game season at NCAA’s UMass-Amherst last year, but struggled in a brief 10-game NHL audition.

23-year old Tarmo Reunanen was similarly overmatched in a cup of coffee last season, but scored at a similar rate as Jones for the AHL’s Hartford Wolfpack. The current pick for that last spot is Nils Lundkvist, a 21-year old who was tied for sixth in scoring playing against men in Sweden’s SHL. The Rangers should be able to find at least a solid #5 defender in this group this season.

That plethora of youngsters (plus 2020 1st rounder Braden Schneider and 23-year old Libor Hájek, an RFA with 77 NHL games under his belt) makes New York’s three-year commitment to Patrick Nemeth that much more confounding. Don’t get me wrong; it would’ve been very risky for the Rangers to go all-youth on their third pair. And I’m all for bringing in quality veterans to make young players earn a roster spot.

And Nemeth’s not even a bad player; his underlying numbers are solid (especially defensively), making him probably the team’s best grit addition of the summer. I just don’t think it was wise to give a physical player like Nemeth three years given the riches of young talent the Rangers have waiting in the wings. But at least for year one, he’s a solid defensive defenseman and PKer that can show the ropes to whichever youngster nabs that last spot. Jarred Tinordi and Anthony Bitetto are depth players competing for the 7th D spot.

Goaltenders

Igor Shesterkin
Alexandar Georgiev

For at least one section of this preview, the words “grit,” “toughness,” and “physicality” can be left at the door. Igor Shesterkin has been as good as the Rangers could’ve hoped; his .921 save percentage is tied for second in the NHL since 2019-20 (min. 40 games played). Alexandar Georgiev is a young solid netminder behind them; though it’s somewhat concerning his save percentage has dropped each of the last three seasons, from a .918 as a rookie in 2017-18 to a .905 last year. There’s little concern here, even if they may not be as established as some duos. The Rangers should receive at least above-average netminding in 2021-22. And the potential for the recently extended Shesterkin to breakout further will always be lurking.

The Verdict

Even with their offseason identity crisis, the Rangers certainly have a solid team taking shape in 2021-22. Most of their top forwards are coming back, a youth movement is gradually overtaking the blueline, and their goalie duo is one of the league’s best. Those players won’t be to blame if the Rangers miss the playoffs once again this year; that will be because of management’s flawed idea of what the team needed and a difficult Metropolitan Division. Maybe this is the year the Penguins or/and Capitals fade like the Kings, Red Wings, and Blackhawks before them. Perhaps Dougie Hamilton’s loss sends the Hurricanes spiraling. The Flyers might bounce back this year; they also might not. Despite their busy summer, the Devils might need some more time before they’re ready to return to the playoffs. And the Blue Jackets seem like a clear pick for eighth place.

If the Rangers played their cards right this summer, the team could’ve been in position to challenge for first in the division and creep into that second tier of Cup contenders. Imagine a world where the Rangers keep Buchnevich, bring in some quality veterans (someone like, say, Nick Bonino) to sure up the forward group, and send roughly a couple of 2nds to Calgary to nab Mark Giordano rather than allowing the Flames to lose him for nothing to Seattle. You now have a team that isn’t nearly as dependent on their (so far) disappointing young forwards, have two of the last three Norris winners, and better depth in addition to their existing starpower. The Rangers could’ve done all that and still added someone like Blais or Reaves to the mix to combat Wilson; they still have $8 million in cap space as I’m typing this.

All that is much easier said and done, of course. And the Rangers brass will probably feel like geniuses when Reaves or Goodrow drop the gloves with Wilson in front of a packed house at MSG on opening night. The crowd will be roaring, the players will be loving it, and social media will go crazy. But what happens after the next puck drop is far more important; a note it seems like James Dolan, Chris Drury, and company kind of forgot about. In fixing one minor issue, they’ve prevented the team from reaching its ceiling this year (and perhaps in the future if Nemeth, Reaves, or/and especially Goodrow’s contracts age poorly).

That might not stop the Rangers gobs of talent from pushing the team to a great season. But this Rangers season seems destined to contain untapped potential, one its management group either didn’t realize; or worse, simply didn’t prioritize above all else.

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All Advanced Stats are 5-on-5 unless otherwise stated and via Natural Stat Trick; Non-NHL Stats via EliteProspects