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Rangers season preview: With retooled roster, brighter days are ahead at MSG

Artemi Panarin #10 of the Rangers looks on

Artemi Panarin #10 of the Rangers looks on against the Islanders at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, September 24, 2019. Photo Credit: Steven Ryan

A year ago, as the Rangers prepared to open the 2018-19 season, their outlook was bleak. The team was eight months into a rebuilding project that had led to many of the organization’s best and most well-respected players shipped out of town in exchange for draft picks and young prospects, and the locker room in training camp had a sort of shell-shocked feeling to it.

What a difference a year makes.

Now 20 months into their rebuild – or, as new team president John Davidson called it at his introductory news conference, their “build” – there is a pep in the Rangers’ step and an air of excitement in the locker room with the start of the 2019-20 season just a few days away. After a summer in which the Rangers were able to trade for a legitimate No. 1 defenseman, select a transcendent star with the No. 2 pick in the draft, and sign the top free agent on the market, fans and players are dreaming about what the possibilities are for this team, and marveling at how quickly it seemed to have turned things around.

“We've been excited this whole camp really,’’ defenseman Brady Skjei said. “To be able to put together a team on the ice that has this kind of skill, and this kind of, you know, work ethic, it's very exciting, and we're looking forward to … starting the year.’’

No one knew just how long the rebuilding process would take when the Rangers announced in February of 2018 that their Stanley Cup window had closed. But after shedding players and collecting draft picks at consecutive trading deadlines, the Blueshirts got a break when they moved up from the No. 6 spot to No. 2 in the draft lottery, which guaranteed they would be able to take one of the two special players available in the draft, American Jack Hughes or Kaapo Kakko, the much-hyped Finnish prospect. The Rangers ended up with Kakko, after the Devils took Hughes with the No. 1 pick, and Kakko has shown in the preseason that he is everything he was advertised to be – a supremely skilled player with a polished game, way more mature than his 18 years.

Three weeks after the lottery, the Rangers traded for Harvard defenseman (and Jericho native) Adam Fox from Carolina, who left school to sign with the team, and has impressed in training camp. Just before the draft, they traded for stud defenseman Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg. And on July 1, they landed dazzling winger Artemi Panarin, who left money on the table from the Islanders and other teams, to sign with the Rangers.

Panarin scored three goals in two games in the preseason and combined with center Mika Zibanejad and winger Pavel Buchnevich to show off what looks like it will be a potent No. 1 line. A rejuvenated Henrik Lundqvist stopped 66 of 70 shots (.943 save percentage) in his three appearances, including 55 of the last 56 he faced. He looks ready to start the season – physically, technically and mentally.

The 37-year-old Lundqvist has been noticeably happy – even bubbly – in camp. He’s feeling good about his own game, and feeling really good about the team. He’s not willing to predict whether or not they’ll be a playoff team next spring, but he knows for sure that their chances are better this year than last.

“There's years where, you know, the ultimate goal is, is pretty clear, because you know what type of team you are,’’ he said. “We had years like that we knew what the goal was going into the start of the season. This year, I think we just have to be extremely short term and just build as we go, and figure it out as we go.

“But the most important thing is, I believe that we can win, that we can be a good team,’’ he said. “I think it comes down to some development you know? Where we're taking the next couple of steps and then all of us are playing at the top of our games. Why not? Why not get in? And make noise?’’

There are decisions still to be made and questions that will have to be answered. Will 2018 first round pick Vitali Kravtsov, 19, make the team? Can the Rangers carry all three of their young centers – Filip Chytil, 20, Brett Howden, 21, and Lias Andersson, 21? Can they really send two 21-year-old rookies in Fox and Libor Hajek out as their third pair on defense? And will winger Chris Kreider, who is in the last year of his contract and looking at unrestricted free agency next summer, be able to play at a high level without worrying whether he’ll be traded away at the deadline next February?

All of that is still to be determined, but Rangers fans appear to be in for a fun ride this season.

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