After three-and-a-half years, the Rangers’ rebuild is over, and the time has come to cut the ribbon on their newly remodeled franchise and introduce their ready-for-prime-time team to the NHL. The window is officially open for their next Stanley Cup contending era.
Actually winning the Cup next summer, in Year One of the new era, would be a lot to ask. But looking at the pieces the Rangers have assembled over the past few seasons, being a legitimate Cup contender over the next five or so years doesn’t seem terribly far-fetched.
President and general manager Chris Drury completed the final touches on the rebuild over the summer when he hired coach Gerard Gallant and added the necessary grit that had been missing from the lineup in the form of two-time Stanley Cup winner Barclay Goodrow from Tampa Bay, net-crashing fourth-liner Sammy Blais (acquired in the Pavel Buchnevich trade) and veteran enforcer Ryan Reaves from the Vegas Golden Knights.
They join a skilled core that features 2020 Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin, Swedish Olympian Mika Zibanejad, 2021 Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox and goalie Igor Shesterkin, the heir to the throne of the now-retired Henrik Lundqvist. And there is plenty of young talent on the team, in the form of forwards Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere, and defensemen K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist, and loads and loads of prospects in the system.
So now the time has come to take the next step. They must make the playoffs this season, for the first time since 2017. That, though, would only be a first step, according to defenseman Jacob Trouba.
"Obviously we want to make the playoffs, that's the goal,’’ Trouba said early in training camp. "But there's 31 other teams in here saying they want to make the playoffs. To me, this is about building something more than making the playoffs one year. We want to build a culture, and I guess, a commitment to not just making the playoffs, but trying to build a contender. We're not coming here to try to build a team to make the playoffs. We're building a team to try to win a Stanley Cup.’’
All the elements would appear to be in place now, except for experience. The top two lines are loaded with talent, led by Panarin and Zibanejad, whose 41-goal season (in 57 games) in 2019-20 had him poised to join the super-elite of the NHL before a bout with COVID-19 at the start of last season destroyed the first half of his 2021 season. He still managed to finish with respectable numbers, playing in 56 games and scoring 24 goals and 50 points.
For the start of the season, at least, Gallant has chosen to do what former coach David Quinn did in keeping Zibanejad and Panarin on separate lines. That means the Rangers, effectively, have two first lines.
Zibanejad will center for his longtime linemate, Chris Kreider, and Lafreniere, the second-year star who was the No. 1 pick overall in 2020. Panarin will continue to play on the left wing with center Ryan Strome, and this year, those two will be joined by Kakko on their right wing.
Fox, the Jericho native, will lead the defense corps, partnering with his roommate, Ryan Lindgren, on the top pair, while Trouba partners with Miller. Lundkvist, the third of three first round picks in 2018 (Miller and forward Vitali Kravtsov were the others) will break into the NHL on the third defense pair, partnering with veteran newcomer Patrik Nemeth, a fellow Swede.
The additions of Goodrow, Blais and Reaves (whose status for the opening game Oct. 13 in Washington is in question after he suffered a knee injury in Wednesday’s preseason game against the Devils) will provide some much needed grit and toughness, and allow the Rangers to match up a little better with the likes of the brawny Islanders and Washington Capitals, who, along with the Carolina Hurricanes, represent the cream of the NHL’s Metropolitan Division.