GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Chris Kreider will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, if the Rangers don’t sign him to a contract extension, which they haven’t done yet. But if you think Kreider is going to publicly lobby for a new deal with the Rangers, he won’t.
“I really don’t think there’s any (tension) to deal with,’’ Kreider said Saturday after the Rangers completed their first practices of training camp. “I’ve been in the last year of my deal three times now – I signed three different deals (over the course of a career). It’s not something that I’m concerned about. Camp’s starting. I’m worried about finishing off today; I’ve got to go get in the (hot and cold) tubs and recover. And then I’m worried about tomorrow and worried about winning hockey games.’’
Kreider saw what happened to Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes, who were in his position a year ago. The rebuilding Rangers didn’t sign either one of them to a contract extension, and eventually shipped out both players at the trade deadline in February, sending Hayes to Winnipeg and Zuccarello to Dallas. The same fate could very well await the 28-year-old Kreider next February.
But, publicly, at least, Kreider refuses to worry about that. Instead, he is focused on the possibilities that lie ahead for a Rangers team that was very active over the summer, trading for defensemen Adam Fox and Jacob Trouba, drafting Kaapo Kakko No. 2 overall, and signing free agent winger Artemi Panarin. Team president John Davidson said on Thursday, the day players reported to camp, that the playoffs will be a goal for the Rangers in 2019-20. And to a man, the players are focused on that goal.
“There’s a pretty good buzz, pretty good energy,’’ Kreider said of the Rangers’ locker room. “I think we got better, obviously. Definitely deeper. We have a ton of talent, but talent doesn’t really win hockey games if the will is not there, so we’ve got to continue to work on the stuff that we worked on and did a good job of last year.’’
The arrival of Panarin, who signed a seven-year, $81.5 million contract on July 1, means Kreider, a fixture on the first line the past two seasons, will drop down in the lineup to the second line. At practice Saturday, he was skating on the left of center Filip Chytil, who turned 20 on Sept. 5, and Kakko, who is all of 18. So, in addition to providing speed and net front presence on his line, Kreider will naturally serve as a mentor to his young linemates.
Coach David Quinn is particularly looking forward to seeing how Kreider, who had 28 goals and 52 points in 79 games last season, meshes with Chytil (11 goals and 23 points in 75 games with the Rangers last season), who the coach says seems a lot more confident in himself this year.
“I think Fil can play at (Kreider’s) pace,’’ Quinn said. “I also think ‘Kreids’ will benefit from Fil’s hockey sense and creativity. And Fil’s not a small guy (6-2, 208). I know he’s only 20, but one of the things that one of the guys was saying, halfway through that practice, was, ‘God, Fil’s gotten stronger.’ I just think Fil’s in a different place, mentally. I think there’s a comfort level that’s going to help him, day in and day out. I’m anxious to see how (Kreider and Chytil) work together.’’
Kreider recalled that he played with Chytil early on last season, with Hayes at center and Chytil playing right wing. He marveled at how much better Chytil looks this season.
“He’s stronger on the ice,’’ Kreider said of Chytil. “I saw him sitting on pucks today, protecting the puck. He doesn’t want to give it up.’’
Notes & quotes: The Rangers broke the players into three groups, which each had its own practice session. They’ll do the same thing Sunday before re-organizing into two groups for Monday and having a practice that day and then a scrimmage. Quinn said he liked what he saw on the first day. “I just liked our intensity,’’ he said. “I liked our purpose. The first day, there were a lot of things to like.’’
. . . Play was most physical in the middle session, with Chytil getting banged around, particularly by Trouba and Brady Skjei. “I think it’s good,’’ Quinn said of the hitting. “I thought Fil competed hard. I thought Fil, right from the get-go in practice, he was setting a tone. He wasn’t shying away from contact.’’ . . . Mika Zibanejad speaks several languages well, but Russian is not one of them. So, playing between Panarin and Pavel Buchnevich on the top line will be a challenge. “I think I have to brush up on my Russian,’’ Zibanejad said. “It’s a little hard to understand them on the ice. But it’s good. It’s fun to get a chance to play with them.’’ Buchnevich joked he can be the translator for Panarin and Zibanejad. Speaking through translator Elizaveta Nemchinov (yes, she’s Sergei’s daughter) Panarin said he does communicate with Zibanejad in English, but also in “body language.’’ . . . Other interesting lines: Vlad Namestnikov-Lias Andersson-Ryan Strome; Micheal Haley-Brett Howden-Vitali Kravtsov; Brendan Lemieux-Greg McKegg-Jesper Fast. Top D pair looks to be Skjei-Trouba . . . Quinn said Brendan Smith may play both D and LW.