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Rangers' rebuild in full swing as Isles are built to win now

Alexis Lafreniere #13 of the New York Rangers

Alexis Lafreniere #13 of the New York Rangers carries the puck against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on April 9, 2021. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

In case it was not evident before Tuesday night, the Islanders reminded everyone that they are the best hockey team in New York State, routing the Rangers, 6-1, at Nassau Coliseum.

Up next, three games against the Capitals, with whom they are tied for first place in the East Division. Fun? Sure. But even in a 56-game sprint, this regular-season story is starting to get a little stale.

Just wake us in mid-May, will ya, guys?

In the meantime, let us say a few words before it is too late about another interesting New York hockey team, one built for the near future more than the present.

 

Will the Rangers catch the Bruins for a playoff spot? That is increasingly unlikely. Tuesday’s loss, combined with surging Boston’s 2-0 victory over the Sabres, left the Rangers six points out with 10 games to play, two fewer than the Bruins have left.

It was a cold, hard slap in the face after four consecutive victories over the Devils’ JV squad.

Humbling? "Yeah, sure," Brendan Smith said. "They’re a good squad. They’re playoff-ready, and we got a little taste of that, for sure."

Said coach David Quinn, "When you lose 6-1 in the fashion we did, it certainly is humbling, that’s for sure."

The good, big-picture news for the Rangers is that making the playoffs is of secondary concern. Competing for them is the point, as the young Blueshirts try to deliver on the organization’s famed "we’re rebuilding" letter of Feb. 8, 2018.

The Rangers continue to make progress using a roster with an array of talent ages 25 and under, from goaltender Igor Shesterkin to emerging star defenseman Adam Fox, who is from Jericho.

The ages on the "Kid Line" seem like a misprint. Alexis Lafreniere is 19. Kaapo Kakko is 20. Filip Chytil is 21. Also: K’Andre Miller and Vitaly Kravtsov are 21. You get the idea.

Smith, 32, one of the older players charged with helping the youngsters along, said, "Obviously, there’s a learning curve, but I think they’ve handled it really well, and I like where their games are going.

"There will be lulls with any younger player, but I think they’ve done a good job of being in the moment and playing at a high level."

The fact that the team has been in must-win mode for weeks, and even after Tuesday’s debacle is 8-2-2 in its past 12 games, will provide valuable experience and useful player assessments for management.

Would making the playoffs, ensuring at least one more postseason game than last year’s desultory, qualifying-round sweep by the Hurricanes, be even better? Of course. But trust the process, for now.

In an interview on Newsday’s’ "Island Ice" podcast, NBC analyst Pierre McGuire raved about the state of the rebuild, and of the next wave of Rangers soon headed to an NHL rink near you.

"I’ll tell you one team that I wouldn’t want to play long term would be the New York Rangers," McGuire said. "This team is just scratching the surface. If you think they’re good now, wait for two years from now."

Coming close will not cut it next season, when the bill for that 2018 letter comes due and the Rangers must make their first non-COVID-expanded postseason field since 2017.

Fans have been patient, as New York fans go, but there are limits. And come next spring, that limit will be at hand.

The good news for the Rangers is that they seem equipped for the task, Tuesday’s loss notwithstanding.

These next 10 games might represent a futile playoff quest, but it will be interesting to watch as they continue to prepare for more important Aprils to come.

New York Sports