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SportsColumnistsColin Stephenson

Rangers' 2021 season was full of trials and tribulations

Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers takes a water

Igor Shesterkin of the Rangers takes a water break prior to the game against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Sunday. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

It’s been a weird year, 2020-21.

Weird for the Rangers, too.

New Rangers president and general manager Chris Drury, appointed Wednesday, following the shocking dismissals of John Davidson and Jeff Gorton, promised on Thursday that he wasn’t about to abandon the organization’s rebuild, which seems clearly to be in its end stages.

"I don't think it's anything too drastic,’’ Drury said, when asked about the state of the Rangers’ rebuild now that the architect and general contractor of the plan, Gorton, is gone. "I really believe in what we have accomplished since the letter.’’

That would be the letter to the fans, in February 2018, that announced the club’s intention to tear down and start from scratch, in order to build a long-lasting contender for the near future. Things appeared to have gone perfectly according to plan, with the accumulation of high draft picks and top prospects, and the development of some of those prospects in this coronavirus-shortened, 56-game season.

The next step in the plan had always been to make the playoffs in 2022, but the decision by Madison Square Garden CEO James Dolan, who owns the Rangers and Knicks, to fire Davidson and Gorton indicated the owner had grown tired of waiting for a return to the postseason.

"Honestly, we have enough talent now to compete for a Stanley Cup,’’ Dolan told the New York Post in an interview Thursday.

So the pressure will be on Drury next year to press the right buttons to get the Rangers into the playoffs and maybe even do more than that.

If they do, 2021 will have done much to lay the groundwork.

THINGS THAT WENT RIGHT

Actually, a lot of things went right, beginning with getting swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in last summer’s NHL restart, which led to the Rangers being put into the lottery for the first overall pick, which led to them winning and getting Alexis Lafreniere.

That was unexpected good fortune, and Lafreniere is going to end up being a star in this league soon enough. The 19-year-old had a good season (he scored his 12th goal in Saturday's season finale, and also has nine assists), especially considering he had no real training camp, no preseason games, and a 56-game regular season where his parents couldn’t come down from Quebec to visit him even once.

Most of the other young players developed, too. Beyond his Norris Trophy candidacy, Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren were a solid first defense pair, and 21-year-old rookie defenseman K’Andre Miller – also without benefit of a camp or a preseason – was an instant success and a legitimate top four defenseman, even if he did wear down toward the end of the season.

Igor Shesterkin picked up the mantle as the No. 1 goaltender, as the Rangers moved on from franchise icon Henrik Lundqvist. After a slow start, Shesterkin was magnificent for most of the season, including overcoming a three-week absence because of a groin injury and starting 18 of the final 25 games. He did fade a little at the end, but still finished the season 16-14-3 with a .916 save percentage and 2.62 goals-against average.

THINGS THAT DIDN’T GO QUITE RIGHT

The whole Tony DeAngelo thing didn’t end well. The Rangers understood, when they acquired the defenseman in a draft day trade in 2017, that they were taking a risk in taking on a volatile player with quite a rap sheet, dating back to junior hockey.

DeAngelo seemed to mature with the Rangers, though, and his 15-goal, 53-point season in 2019-20 earned him a two-year, $9.6 million deal last offseason. But things went off the rails this season.

It started with what the team perceived as DeAngelo’s questionable behavior on social media, which prompted management to speak to him. Gorton warned DeAngelo that the next transgression would be the end of him with the Rangers. So when DeAngelo wouldn’t stop chirping at Alexandar Georgiev for allowing the overtime goal to Sidney Crosby in a loss to the Penguins Jan. 30, and Georgiev had enough and punched DeAngelo, that was it.

The Rangers put the South Jersey native on waivers the next day, and, assuming he’s not taken by the Seattle Kraken in the expansion draft next month, he’ll be bought out of the final year of his contract this summer.

Mika Zibanejad had COVID during training camp, and struggled the first half of the season, which hurt. And Artemi Panarin sat out nine games following the publication of an article in Russia in which he was accused by a former coach of hitting a woman in Latvia in 2011. That hurt, too.

The entire bench coaching staff came down with COVID in March, and Hartford coach Kris Knoblauch and associate Gord Murphy had to come up and coach the team, which was just weird. The last three games against the Islanders… ugh. Especially the last two, when, with a playoff spot on the line, they were shut out in both.

 

The Tom Wilson episode, that was ugly. The firings of Davidson and Gorton – unbelievable.

THINGS THAT NEED TO BE DONE

Before anything else, Drury needs to make the call on whether to bring back coach David Quinn, whose record in three years was 95-87-25 entering Saturday’s season finale in Boston. Drury had a big say in the hiring of Quinn, a close friend of Drury’s older brother, back in 2018. And the former Boston University coach seems to have done the job he was hired to do, which was to develop the young prospects. Now, Drury must decide if Quinn deserves a crack at leading the ready-or-not Rangers in the next phase, the playoff contender era.

Player personnel-wise, even before the Tom Wilson thing, the Rangers knew they needed to add a big, physical player to their top nine forwards. That would have been priority No. 1 for Gorton, had he stayed. Prospect Morgan Barron, who is a 6-4, 220 pounds, maybe could do some of that, but ideally, Drury will need to bring in a guy who can skate, score, check and fight, more than occasionally – a guy that sounds a lot like Tom Wilson, actually.

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