The NHL season appears to be on, but it’s going to be a mad sprint from the minute training camp opens until the Stanley Cup is handed out in early July.
The Rangers, who will return mostly the same squad as last season — minus Henrik Lundqvist but plus Alexis Lafreniere — should be in position to start quickly when the puck is dropped next month.
But with a truncated training camp and likely no preseason games to help figure things out, the organization is going to have to make some decisions before camp opens.
There was a report about a month ago that the Rangers would not recall forward Vitali Kravtsov, who is having a superb season on loan to his old KHL club, Traktor Chelyabinsk. Given how rocky his first season in North America was last year, leaving Kravtsov where he is — playing big minutes, getting power-play time and scoring goals for a team that is doing well — makes perfect sense.
The KHL regular season will end in late February, and Kravtsov could be a nice late-season addition to the Rangers’ roster after Traktor’s playoff run is over in March or April.
With a closed Canadian-American border forcing the league to put together an all-Canadian division, the 24 U.S.-based clubs will realign, and the Rangers will play in a brutal division in the new-look, just-for-2021 NHL.
Going up against the Sabres, Bruins, Islanders, Devils, Flyers, Penguins and Capitals in a 56- or 52-game intra-divisional schedule, with only four teams making the playoffs, has the feel of a steel-cage wrestling match. There won’t be a lot of time to grow into the season and figure things out along the way.
Kravtsov, who will turn 21 on Dec. 23, might help. He is in midseason form right now, with nine goals and 13 points in 29 games for Traktor entering Friday’s action. And if the Rangers believe he can step into their lineup and score some big goals right away, don’t they have to bring him in?
Eleven of the top 13 forwards at the end of last season will return for the Rangers, with only Jesper Fast (gone to Carolina as a free agent) and Greg McKegg (signed with Boston) having departed. Fast’s departure creates an opening on the second line, with Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome, and Kaapo Kakko might be a good fit in that spot. But so might Kravtsov.
Presuming the top line will be Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, imagine Kravtsov playing with Panarin and Strome. Picture Kakko, 19, on a kid line with center Filip Chytil, 21, and left wing Lafreniere, 19.
Now pick three from among Brendan Lemieux, Brett Howden, Phil DiGiuseppe, Julien Gauthier, free-agent pickup Kevin Rooney and Cornell product Morgan Barron for the fourth line.
With Igor Shesterkin in goal and five of the six defensemen from last season returning, it’s not a bad-looking opening night lineup.
What will happen to players who don’t make the roster is unknown because it is not known if the AHL will be able to play in 2020-21 (its current plan is to start up Feb. 5, but that seems unlikely).
Presumably, NHL teams will have expanded rosters or some sort of practice squad, but the Rangers won’t bring Kravtsov, their first of three first-round picks in 2018, over from Russia to be on their taxi squad.
Looking at their roster, though, it looks better with Kravtsov in it.