Rebuilding Rangers made huge strides this season and were in playoff picture
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman remains hopeful that the 2019-20 season, which was “paused’’ on Thursday because of the coronavirus pandemic, will resume at some point. Even if tweaks or modifications have to be made by the league, Bettman told several media outlets on Friday that he hopes to be able to crown a Stanley Cup champion this summer.
No one knows whether the NHL will drop the puck again this season, though. If the league does restart, no one can predict whether teams will be able to play a full 82-game regular season followed by playoffs; play a shortened regular season, followed by playoffs; proceed directly to the playoffs, or do something no one has even thought of yet.
There could be a different playoff format — perhaps with an expanded number of playoff teams, perhaps with a reduced number of teams.
Right now, though, no one can say if the Rangers’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday was their final game of the season.
If it was, then the season was a smashing success.
When play was halted Thursday, the Rangers (37-28-5) had 79 points, which left them two points out of a playoff spot. And if that’s where it ends, then they have made tremendous progress in the 25 months since they announced they were going into rebuild mode.
If Wednesday was their last game, they went out fighting and scrapping to earn one final point, thanks to Pavel Buchnevich’s tying goal with 13 seconds left in regulation.
After being major sellers at the trade deadline in each of the previous two seasons, they finished 20 points out of the playoffs each time. For a team with three rookies — and four players 22 years old or younger — to have played as well as they did the last two months, and to have pulled this close to a playoff spot, was an invaluable experience for the core of the roster.
“We want them to go through the experience of a chase down the stretch for the playoffs,’’ team president John Davidson said Feb. 24 after the Rangers traded defenseman Brady Skjei but kept everyone else at the trade deadline.
“That’s very important for young people in particular — and the veteran players, too. If we get there, fantastic. If we don’t, it will be a good experience, and we just keep moving along as we’re trying to build this into something.’’
Davidson, who took over as president last summer (after the retirement of Glen Sather), and general manager Jeff Gorton are working to build the Rangers into a solid, legitimate, long-term Stanley Cup contender. So far, everything — from getting back the right prospects in trades, to picking the right coach in David Quinn, to now getting within a whisker of a playoff spot with one of the youngest teams in the league — has fallen into place perfectly.
The teardown part of the Rangers’ rebuild ended at last season’s trade deadline when they dealt popular veterans Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes as well as defenseman Adam McQuaid.
The build part began when Gorton traded draft picks to the Carolina Hurricanes to get defenseman Adam Fox, a Jericho native, and accelerated when the Rangers won the No. 2 pick in the draft lottery and selected Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko.
It accelerated even more with the signing of dynamic free agent Artemi Panarin and the trade for defenseman Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg.
Panarin has proved to be worth every penny of the seven-year, $81.5 million contract he signed, putting up career highs in goals (32), assists (63) and points (95) and elevating his teammates’ play all season. The 28-year-old Russian ought to be at least a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP.
Mika Zibanejad has taken huge strides in developing into one of the league’s truly elite players over the past three seasons, and especially this one. He has scored a career-high 41 goals, including a team record-tying five in the 6-5 overtime win over Washington on March 5. The 26-year-old Swede has scored goals in each of the last six games and in 12 of the last 13. He has 23 goals in the last 22 games, and his 75 points (in 57 games) is a career high.
Defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 38 assists) and Ryan Strome (18 goals, 41 assists) have had career years, and the kids have been great, too.
Fox (eight goals, 34 assists) has forced his name into the discussion for the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year), and he and fellow rookie Ryan Lindgren — both are 22 — have become the Rangers’ best defensive pairing.
And, of course, there is rookie goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who is 10-2 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. He has left no doubt that he is the Blueshirts’ new No. 1 goalie.
It’s been a wonderful season for the Rangers, and one that seems perfectly scripted as part of the rebuilding plan. If they don’t get to play again this spring, they can enter the offseason knowing that what they did this season will lead to some good times next season and for the next few years after that.