When the Rangers took the ice for the first time in their 2021 training camp Thursday, first-year coach Gerard Gallant opted to split up his top two forwards, Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin, as the team opened camp with a first-thing-in-the-morning, intrasquad scrimmage.
"It’s Day 1,’’ Gallant said. "We’ll see where things go with that. The first exhibition game (Sunday against the Islanders), I don’t know what we’re going to do with that. It’s just, sort of, one day at a time, and… those people are familiar with each other.’’
Gallant on Wednesday had said he will want to see what the team looks like with Panarin and Zibanejad playing together, and what it looks like with them playing on separate lines. On Thursday he put Zibanejad between longtime linemate Chris Kreider and 2020 No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere, who switched from left to right wing. Panarin skated with Ryan Strome, his center for most of his two seasons, and a rotating cast of right wingers, including Kaapo Kakko.
Zibanejad, who had a goal in the scrimmage, is hoping for a faster start to this season than last, when he missed all of training camp with COVID-19 and opened the season with two goals and six assists in his first 22 games, before finishing with a team-high 24 goals, plus 26 assists in 56 games.
Healthy and looking good this year, the 28-year-old Swede is entering the final season of his contract, but on Thursday, he wouldn’t say much about how negotiations are going between himself and the team on an extension.
"I'm actually just playing, and focusing on what I do on the ice,’’ he said. "I have an agent (Monir Kalgoum) for a reason as well, to deal with this, so it doesn't have to take my focus and time away from what I have to do on the ice to prepare for this season. So, right now they're taking care of business and so I'm taking care of mine.’’
Zibanejad, who has scored 136 goals and 283 points in 323 games with the Rangers since coming over from Ottawa in a summer 2016 trade for Derek Stepan, has not played in the playoffs since 2017 (technically, they made it to the 24-team postseason bubble in the COVID-19 season 2019-20 season, but didn’t advance to the 16-team playoffs). But he is banking on doing so this season.
"We have to make the playoffs,’’ he said. "I feel like we have the team to do it, and I think that's something we're all aiming at. That's our goal. I don't see anything else. I don't know why you would play 82 games, not to make the playoffs. Or, to be satisfied by being close.’’
Notes & quotes: Adam Fox, who won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman last season, had the name "NORRIS’’ on his practice jersey… The Rangers will honor the late Rod Gilbert at their home opener on Oct. 14 vs. Dallas and will wear Gilbert’s No. 7 on a patch on their jerseys this season. The team also is establishing the Rod Gilbert "Mr. Ranger’’ award this season, which will go annually to the player "who best honors Rod’s legacy by exemplifying leadership qualities both on and off the ice, and making a significant humanitarian contribution to his community."