When Rangers coach Gerard Gallant addressed his team for the first time Wednesday night on the eve of the players’ first day training camp, he had no plans to lay out any expectations for the team for this season.
The way he looks at it, he didn’t need to.
"We think we're a real good hockey team,’’ Gallant told reporters gathered for their first in-person interview session with him since he was hired this summer. "We're like any other team: we expect to make the playoffs. That's what our goal is. But you just don't say it. Talk's cheap. You’ve got to get ready to work hard, play hard, and get ready for every day.’’
After three-and-a-half years of rebuilding, the Rangers have their sights set on returning to the NHL’s playoffs next spring for the first time since 2017. (Officially, they made the postseason in 2020, when they were among the 24 teams invited to the COVID-19 bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton that summer. Technically, though, they didn’t advance to the 16-team playoffs.)
Gallant touched on a number of topics Wednesday, including whether the team will name a captain this season; whether the team’s two best offensive players, Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad, will play on the same line together, and whether second-year left wing Alexis Lafreniere might shift to right wing.
Panarin, Lafreniere and Chris Kreider, the longest-tenured Ranger, all currently play left wing, so unless one of them moves to right wing, one of the three would be forced to play on the third line. Presumably, Panarin, the Rangers leading scorer in each of the last two seasons, won’t be the one moving, so if all three players are to be among the top six forwards, either Lafreniere or Kreider will have to change wings.
Asked if Lafreniere, the No. 1 pick overall in the 2020 NHL draft, and a lefthanded shooter, might get a look on the right side, Gallant said he will.
"As long as he likes it over there,’’ the coach said. "He'll get an opportunity to play over there maybe, yeah.’’
Gallant said he will experiment with funky combinations in the first few preseason games (the Rangers will play six preseason games, beginning Sunday at Madison Square Garden against the Islanders), and try to settle on combinations he likes, and use those in the last two preseason games.
He said he will want to get a look at Panarin playing on the same line with Zibanejad, as well as seeing how the two players look playing on separate lines. Under former coach David Quinn, the two players mostly played on different lines, with Panarin developing great chemistry with second-line center Ryan Strome, while Zibanejad, the No. 1 center, played mostly between longtime linemates Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich.
With Buchnevich now gone -- traded to the St. Louis Blues for grinding, bottom-six forward Sammy Blais -- Gallant could try Panarin on the left of Zibanejad, with either Kreider, Lafreniere or Kakko on the right. Or perhaps he could keep Kreider on Zibanejad’s left, keep Panarin on Strome’s left, and have Kakko and Lafreniere be the top two right wings.
As for the captain question, GM Chris Drury has said he’d like the Rangers to have a captain this season, for the first time since Ryan McDonagh was traded in February 2018. But while Gallant said Wednesday that, "if I was a betting man, I think we're going to have a captain,’’ the coach didn’t seem to view naming a captain as a top priority. He didn’t have a captain in 2017-18, when he coached the Vegas Golden Knights in their inaugural season.
"Captains are important to your team, but 23 guys (on the roster) are more important for me,’’ he said. "Whoever gets the ‘C’ on our hockey team isn't going to be alone. We need everybody to be a leader. We're going to have veteran players, but for my type of team, it's 23 guys being ready, whether you're 18 years old or you're 40 years old.’’
Gallant was asked if he expects rookie defenseman Nils Lundkvist to make the team. He said: "He had a good camp in the rookie camp and he's a highly touted young player coming over… Let's come out and have a good training camp, let's go and play good exhibition games, and see where it goes.’’