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Rangers' rebuild is coming along nicely

Alexis Lafreniere of Team White skates during the

Alexis Lafreniere of Team White skates during the 2020 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game against Team Red at FirstOntario Centre on Jan. 16 in Hamilton, Canada. Credit: Getty Images/Vaughn Ridley

When last we saw the Rangers, the top of their roster featured Artemi Panarin, a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player in 2019-20, and Mika Zibanejad, whose hot second half served notice that he is one of the truly elite players in the league.

Goaltender Igor Shesterkin had burst on to the scene as well, eclipsing Henrik Lundqvist as the team’s No. 1 netminder. And since the season ended, the Rangers added the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft, forward Alexis Lafreniere.

So whenever the NHL is able to begin its 2020-21 season (at this point, we don’t know when that will be, though the league is considering a Jan. 15-ish start), the Rangers appear on track to continue their build toward Stanley Cup contention.

They’re not there yet, but coach David Quinn’s group seemed to turn the corner on the organization’s rebuild in the second half of the coronavirus-shortened 2019-20 season. And having Lafreniere fall into their lap will help speed things up.

The Rangers made it to the NHL’s 24-team restart in August before being swept out of the preliminary round by Carolina. General manager Jeff Gorton re-signed all of the team’s restricted free agents in the offseason, most notably defenseman Tony DeAngelo and center Ryan Strome.

The biggest subtraction from last season’s roster is Lundqvist, the face of the franchise for the better part of the last 15 years. But he clearly had fallen behind Shesterkin in the Rangers’ goaltending hierarchy, and he was behind Alexandar Georgiev, too. Lundqvist, 38, was bought out of the final year of his contract and signed as a free agent with Washington.

Buying out Lundqvist was part of the work Gorton had to do to create room under the salary cap to re-sign all of the team’s RFAs. He traded longtime defenseman Marc Staal to Detroit and let forward Jesper Fast leave as a free agent. Fast signed with Carolina.

Gorton then got DeAngelo, Georgiev, Strome and Brendan Lemieux to sign team-friendly two-year deals, preserving space under the cap to cover potential performance bonuses that players such as Shesterkin, Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 overall pick in 2019, can earn.

So after famously announcing a full rebuild in February 2018 and bottoming out a year later, the Rangers are bringing back a young roster in 2020-21, one very similar to the group that seemed to be improving rapidly once the calendar flipped to 2020.

Figuring out where Lafreniere will fit in the lineup is one of the first tasks Quinn and the coaching staff will have whenever training camp opens. Third-line left wing would seem the easiest option, at least at the start. But if Quinn shifts Chris Kreider from left wing to right, maybe Lafreniere could play on the left of Zibanejad and Kreider.

Strome is back to reunite with Panarin on the second line. With Fast gone, there is an opening on that line that Kakko might fit into nicely.

Where would that leave Pavel Buchnevich, though? He is the incumbent first line right wing and is entering the final year of his contract. And will Quinn be able to find a place in the lineup for 2018 first-round pick Vitali Kravtsov, who is having a fine season with his KHL team?

What about Morgan Barron, the 6-4, 220-pound forward who was a Hobey Baker Award finalist and first-team All-American at Cornell in 2020?

On defense, free-agent signee Jack Johnson replaces Staal as the veteran stay-at-home lefty, but there still are questions to be answered.

Will Brendan Smith remain on defense? Will Libor Hajek or perhaps K’Andre Miller make the team? Is there a spot for Long Islander Anthony Bitetto?

Stay tuned.

Three fresh faces

Alexis Lafrenière, F

Anthony Bitetto, D

Colin Blackwell, C

Three for the road

Henrik Lundqvist, G

Marc Staal, D

Jesper Fast F

New York Sports