Expectations, let’s just say, are not high for the Rangers in 2018-19. By its own admission, the organization is in rebuilding mode, and everything general manager Jeff Gorton has done since the team’s management sent that letter to the fans in February explaining its position has made it clear that the focus is on the future, and not the present.
That doesn’t mean Gorton, coach David Quinn and the players who will be in the lineup when the Rangers open the season Thursday against the Nashville Predators at Madison Square Garden think – as most of the rest of the hockey pundits think – that they’ll be non-competitive this season.
“We obviously think the opposite,’’ defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who is healthy now and feeling strong after missing the second half of last season with knee surgery. “There’s nobody in here who doesn’t believe in what we have in this locker room. I think the most exciting thing about Thursday is that everyone looks at Nashville as a Stanley Cup contender, if one of the few teams that could win it this year, and it’s going to be a great way to measure ourselves.’’
Yes, players are always going to believe they can find a way to win. That’s their job. But Gorton, who sold off big pieces of the team at last season’s trade deadline, and who selected 10 players at the NHL draft over the summer – eight of whom were not at training camp – and who passed on making any big trades or free agent signings over the summer, thinks this team, as currently constructed, will be competitive. It will compete for a playoff spot, he said.
“We’re going to get better every day, and these are all NHL players,’’ Gorton said Friday, after the Rangers cut down to their 23-man roster for Opening Night. “And I’m never going to stand in front of a group of players and tell them they’re not good enough or they should have expectations anything lower than that. That’s what we’re telling our players, that’s how our feeling is in our room, and our organization. We’re getting better every day and who knows. Who knows where we go from there.’’
So, no, the Rangers won’t be tanking this season in an effort to improve their chances at getting presumed 2019 No. 1 draft pick Jack Hughes. With 36-year-old Henrik Lundqvist in goal; with Quinn’s booming voice urging them on from behind the bench, and with an honest-to-goodness defensive structure in place, they’re going to fight and scrap and win some games this season while all those prospects they’re stockpiling are biding their time and developing in places such as Hartford, Connecticut and Madison, Wisconsin and Chelyabinsk, Russia.
“Obviously a lot has been made of the different direction we’re in right now, but we want to win every game,’’ said Quinn, who left Boston University this summer after five seasons to become the Rangers’ 35th head coach, replacing Alain Vigneault. “I don’t think about it any other way. I think about coming here every day, being the best team we can be, making every guy a better player; making us a better team, collectively, and playing the way we want to play. And the winning and losing will take care of itself. And we feel we have enough good NHL players here to give us a chance night in and night out.’’
Beginning with Lundqvist, and a defense that will be buoyed by the return of Shattenkirk and the addition of Adam McQuaid, acquired from Boston on the eve of training camp, the Rangers will be aiming to cut down on the 268 goals they allowed in 2017-18. That was fourth worst in the league. Offensively, the top line of Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich (or Jesper Fast) will be asked to play solid two-way hockey and score enough goals to win, while the likes of Kevin Hayes, Ryan Spooner and Mats Zuccarello (for as long as he’s around while in a contract year) contribute their share. Rookie Filip Chytil, 19, no doubt will have some electrifying moments as he starts to learn the NHL and tries to make Rangers fans fall in love with him.
“We’re going to take it a day at a time and we’re going to get better,’’ Gorton said. “I think that we’ve added a lot of good young players in the organization. A lot of them aren’t here yet, and a lot of them will come in soon, over the next couple of years, and we’ll be better for it.
“I don’t know how good we’ll be,’’ he continued. “All I know is we have some really good players here right now. And we’ve got a lot of players in that room that think we’re pretty good.’’