GREENBURGH, N.Y. – It’s finally time to drop the puck.
An active and exciting offseason is over at last for the Rangers, who kick off their 2019-20 season Thursday when they host the Winnipeg Jets at Madison Square Garden in Game 1 of their 82-game schedule. Henrik Lundqvist will start in goal, and several exciting new additions, headlined by forward Artemi Panarin, defenseman Jacob Trouba and teen sensation Kaapo Kakko will make their much-anticipated Ranger debuts.
Optimism is sky high among the returning players and fans, after the Rangers brought in the dynamic Panarin as a free agent, traded for Trouba, and drafted Kakko, 18, with the No. 2 pick overall. Around the team, there is a general feeling both inside the locker room and out that the worst part of the club’s rebuilding phase is over, and the team’s fortunes are on the rise.
“You want to get out there tomorrow and get going, and try to start winning games,’’ Lundqvist said Wednesday. “It's been a great camp, but I think in the room here, we’ve got good energy, guys are well prepared, (and we’ve) been training well, so, we just look forward to be back.’’
Lundqvist, beginning his 15th season with the club, appears rejuvenated – positively giddy, even – after the team went out and added Panarin, Trouba, Kakko, and Jericho native Adam Fox to greatly improve a lineup that finished 20 points out of a playoff spot last spring.
The beginning of the turnaround came when the Rangers won the NHL draft lottery and earned the No. 2 pick, which they used to select Kakko, the Finnish winger who starred in his country’s professional league last season. Kakko had 22 goals and 38 points in 45 games for TPS in Finland’s Liiga last season, setting a new record for goals by an NHL draft-eligible player. He had four goals in five playoff games. Internationally, he led Finland to the gold medal in the World Junior Championships and helped the senior team – which had few NHL players on it – win the World Championships.
Kakko’s play in the preseason didn’t disappoint the organization or his legions of fans. At 6-3, 199 pounds, and with his ability to calmly hold the puck and make pinpoint passes, he hardly looks like a nervous teenager.
“For a guy that's 18 years old, he looks like an NHLer in uniform, and he plays like one,’’ Rangers coach David Quinn said. “He's had the advantage of playing against pros (in Finland). And he's got more of a pro game than maybe most 18-year-olds. And just – the pace of his play; his strength; his IQ, shot – I mean, all those things add up.’’
Kakko will start the season on the second line, with center Ryan Strome and left wing Chris Kreider.
“Hopefully I can play good games, and I'm getting better all the time,’’ Kakko said. “(I hope to) make some points; score some goals. That's my game.’’
Panarin should make some points and score some goals, too, playing on the first line with center Mika Zibanejad and right wing Pavel Buchnevich. And Trouba will step in as a true No. 1 defenseman, with his good friend Brady Skjei partnering with him. That will allow the veteran Marc Staal and smooth-skating Tony DeAngelo to drop to a second pair, which seems a more appropriate spot for them.
Notes & quotes: The Rangers did not name a team captain. They haven’t had a captain since Ryan McDonagh was traded at the deadline in February 2018… With Kakko, Fox, Brett Howden, Lias Andersson and Libor Hajek, there are five players on the roster who are 21 or younger… With three games in the first 14 days, Quinn said he has “an idea’’ how he will rotate Lundqvist and Alexandar Georgiev in net, but he didn’t reveal it.