With Henrik Lundqvist gone after a 15-year Hall of Fame-worthy career, Igor Shesterkin is going to have some big skates to fill and he’s going to have to live up to the hype. He was great in a small sample (13 games) last year and a key reason for the team’s second-half surge. Shesterkin is garnerning some hype to win the Calder Trophy -- NHL’s Rookie of the Year -- and the Rangers will need him to be that level of good if they’re going to have success.
After signing with the Rangers as a free agent in 2019, Artemi Panarin put together a season for the ages and finished as a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. But it was Mika Zibanejad, whose insanely hot second half – 23 goals in the final 22 games to finish with a team best (and career-high) 41 – that was the biggest part in the Rangers’ surge. The Rangers are going to need both of these guys to do it again, or come really close. Zibanejad, especially, will bear watching, as he had COVID-19 just before training camp. Will his performance be affected by that?
How unbelievable was it that the Rangers, of all teams, won the NHL draft lottery to get the No. 1 pick and take Alexis Lafreniere, considered a generational player compared with the likes of Sidney Crosby? From all accounts, he’s a legit, can’t-miss prospect, so it will be exciting to see him develop right before our eyes. But don’t forget Kaapo Kakko, who, like Lafreniere, is 19, and has actually played in the NHL before. Kakko is poised to take a step up in his development, and if these two teens live up to expectations, it will mean big things for the Rangers for this season and beyond.
The Rangers were ninth worst in the league in goals allowed per game in 2019-20, at 3.14. A full season with Shesterkin in net will probably help, but the defense corps (and the overall penalty killing, which also was ninth worst) is the biggest concern. The Adam Fox-Ryan Lindgren pair is solid, but how will rookie K’Andre Miller fare, hanging in the top four, partnered with Jacob Trouba? And will newcomer Jack Johnson allow his partner, Tony DeAngelo, the freedom to do what he does best – join/lead the rush?
The regular season is set to end May 8, and the trade deadline is April 12. The Rangers have a few prospects playing in European leagues, the two biggest names being a couple of 2018 first-round picks in forward Vitali Kravtsov and defenseman Nils Lundkvist. Kravtsov is playing in the KHL, whose regular season ends Feb. 27. Lundkvist is playing in the SHL, whose season ends March 11. Lundkvist isn’t signed, but the Rangers could sign him if they need him and bring him over. Getting these guys would be equivalent to bringing in help at the deadline to assist with a playoff push.