Five questions for the Rangers as they open training camp:
1. Is it time to make the playoffs now?
Three-and-a-half years after management announced the organization would be beginning a long rebuild, the Rangers open training camp 2021 with visions of a playoff spot. No one is going to come out and say openly that it’s playoffs or bust, but the owner fired the team president and general manager at the end of last season, and the new President/GM, Chris Drury, fired coach David Quinn and replaced him with Gerard Gallant. Those are pretty clear signs the owner, at least, feels like it’s time for the rebuild to be over. Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox, asked on an nhl.com podcast if it’s playoffs or bust for the Rangers this season, said, "I think playoffs or bust may be an exaggerated way to put it, but definitely, the expectations are higher.’’ Sounds like a polite way of saying it’s playoffs or bust for the Rangers this season.
2. Will there be a captain, and if so, who?
The Rangers haven’t had a captain since Ryan McDonagh was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the start of the rebuild, but Drury has gone on record multiple times saying he’d like the team to have a captain this season. He has been careful to say it has to be the right guy, and he said he thinks Gallant will need to get to know the players before the organization picks its next captain. But it sounds like someone will be wearing the captain’s "C’’ for the Blueshirts this season. Who, though? Chris Kreider is the longest tenured Ranger, and Mika Zibanejad has been the team’s best overall player for most of the past four years. Defensemen Jacob Trouba stepped up as a leader last season, and don’t overlook Fox as a legit candidate, too.
3. Might Drury have overdone the grit and toughness thing?
That remains to be seen but he sure did add a lot of sandpaper to the lineup in the offseason. Drury traded for gritty guys Barclay Goodrow, Sammy Blais (giving up first-line right wing Pavel Buchnevich), and veteran enforcer Ryan Reaves, and signed free agent defenseman Jarred Tinordi, who fought the Rangers’ Public Enemy No. 1, Tom Wilson, back in May. That should make the Rangers more competitive with the likes of the Islanders and Wilson’s Washington Capitals this season, but will that get them over the hump?
4. Is this the year Kaapo Kakko becomes a star?
The No. 2 pick overall in the 2019 draft became a noticeably more responsible player in his own end of the ice last season, and seemed to grow up a ton from his rookie year in 2019-20. But he got COVID in 2020-21, and didn’t score as much as some might have hoped he would. Now, with Buchnevich gone, Kakko should get consistent ice time in the top two lines this season. Will he break out?
5. Is there room on the roster for 19-year-old forward Will Cuylle?
Entering camp, there doesn’t appear to be room for Cuylle, or any other young camp standout to make the opening night lineup barring unforeseen circumstances. The first 10 forward spots appear to be no-brainers, with 2018 first round pick Vitali Kravtsov looking like the first choice as forward No. 11. Penalty killing specialist/faceoff man Kevin Rooney figures to be battling prospect Morgan Barron for spot No. 12. Cuylle, 2019’s second round pick, made it clear early in rookie camp that he’s here to make the team, and he scored two goals in the first scrimmage of rookie camp and then scored two goals in the second rookie game against the Flyers on Sunday. Will he be able to keep it up? And if he does, could he make the team? The odds against Cuylle are long, but it’ll be fun to see how it plays out.