New York Rangers 2021 Season Preview

The youth movement continues for the New York Rangers as they embark on their 2021 NHL season. The Rangers are now officially the youngest team in the league, their average age is around 25 years old, and after barely making a peep in the NHL bubble during the summer, this team is chomping at the bit to get back at it. They have top end elite talent throughout their lineup but they also have a lot of question marks. Will the Rangers make the playoffs? Will their top guys be able to have amazing seasons again? How will Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox play in year two? How will Alexis Lafreniere perform on Broadway? Will Igor Shesterkin be a rock in net? There’s a lot of questions and intrigue surrounding the New York Rangers this season. Let’s dive in.

The Top Six Forward Group

The New York Rangers have one of the best top six forward groups in the entire league and not a single player is over the age of 30. Mika Zibanejad is the Rangers number one center and after a bit of a COVID-19 scare, is back with the team and ready to resume his normal role. Zibanejad had 41 goals in 57 games during the 2019-20 season. He was the top goal-per-game scorer in the league and many argue if the season wasn’t postponed he would have been a lock for 50. 41 goals in less than 60 games is truly something to behold and Zibanejad has the fantastic shot needed to achieve numbers like that. His slapshot is one of the most deadly weapons he possesses and the Rangers love running their power-play through him so he can get that shot off.

Let’s not forget about his elite vision on the ice as well. He meshes extremely well with linemates Pavel Buchnevich on his right and Chris Kreider on his left. Those three always seem to know where the other two are and The Rangers will keep that top line together when the season begins and hope they can re-capture the magic they had last season. One of the main ingredients every Stanley Cup contender needs is an elite first-line center and the 2011 first rounder from Huddinge, Sweden is most certainly that. Expect another big season out of Zibanejad as he continues his ascension to being one of the top players in the entire league. For a player with this pedigree you wouldn’t expect there to be any questions surrounding him but there is. With Zibanejad, it’s all about “Can he do it again?” It’s the question on every Rangers fan’s mind. Zibanejad seems to have finally realized his massive potential and the hope is this is who he is as a player and that he doesn’t take a step back. Signs point to him having a fantastic season yet again after two straight 70+ point years. 

Speaking of Kreider and Buchnevich, both players had fantastic years last year and Kreider is someone who keeps being mentioned as someone to fill the Rangers vacant captaincy. Kreider, who was rewarded by the Rangers with a seven-year deal last season, is a beloved player on Broadway and he will be looked to keep guiding this young team as they find their footing in the NHL upper echelon of teams. Kreider may not be the most skilled player on his team. He isn’t the type of player that say Artemi Panarin or Zibanejad are but that’s ok. He’s  a speed demon who uses his speed to create havoc in the offensive zone and his shot ain’t too shabby either. Kreider might not have the elite hands some of his teammates do but knows how to put the puck in the net and has consistently been a 20 goal scorer throughout his career. Kreider is a heat-seeking missile out there on the ice and if he sees daylight, good luck catching up to him. Kreider’s top-six role is anything but safe now as the number one pick from the 2020 entry draft will be breathing down his neck (more on him later) but as of now, he’s still the top line left winger on this team and expect him to have another great season next to Zibanejad. 

Buchnevich has really come into his own for the Rangers and last year he had a career high 46 points in 68 games. A former third-round pick, Buchnvich has proved invaluable to a team where he was once considered their highest rated prospect. His natural chemistry with Zibanejad and Kreider will be looked to this season as he looks to build upon a budding NHL career. He’s still only 25 years old. Buchnevich differs from his linemate Kreider. Whereas the aforementioned Kreider is much more of a straight line player, Buchnevich has silkier hands and plays a more finesse game. He’s not beating anyone in a race but he uses his skills to get around defenders and find the open space to get his shot off. With almost 50 points last year, look for Buchnevich to continue getting better as his young career keeps going. The Rangers top line, affectionately known to fans as the “K-Z-B” line, will be counted on to have another good season as the Rangers rebuild moves along. Now onto the second line where a Russian superstar and a budding finnish star await. 

Artemi Panarin is the motor that drives the New York Rangers offense. With 95 points in 69 games last season, he was the key cog in the machine. He went from star status to superstar status last season and showed the league just how elite he truly is. He is the complete package and everything you want in a star player. He drives offense, his vision is second to none and possibly the best in the entire league. He seems to know where everyone is at every time on the ice. His shot is deadly and his hands are among the most silky in the entire league. There are no holes in Panarin’s game and he is everything the Rangers envisioned he would be and more when he signed a seven-year deal worth 81.5 million dollars last summer. The Rangers rely on Panarin at even strength (he had the most even strength points in the league last season) and on the powerplay where he uses his creativity and quick shot to punish opponents. The only question surrounding Panarin is if he can do it again and 90+ points probably won’t happen in this shortened year but all signs point to him having another elite season with every possibility of getting 60-70 points. Panarin’s center and his opposite winger have much more questions surrounding them. 

Ryan Strome had the best season of his career playing with Panarin last season. He had 59 points in 70 games and was New York’s second line center behind Mika Zibanejad. Strome and Panarin found chemistry early on in the year and the two were glued together at even strength and, along with the departed Jesper Fast, formed a really nice second line for the Rangers. As a coach, it’s your job to get the best out of your players and Rangers Head Coach David Quinn certainly found the right combo with Strome and Panarin. It allowed him to spread the star power out between his top-two lines. For all the good he did last season though, questions surround Strome this season on Broadway. 

The two main ones though are “was last season a fluke?” and “Will he still be here past the deadline?” Strome had the best season of his life last year and after years of not hitting even 40 points, he only had 50 once in his career before, he hit almost sixty. Were those 59 points just a product of playing with Panarin? Will Strome regress this year? Strome has a lot of nay-sayers to prove wrong and has to show the Rangers he deserves the two-year 9 million dollar deal they rewarded him with this past offseason. Is he the long-term answer at the 2C spot? The Rangers need to figure that out as there is a young czech who may push Strome this year (more on him later) and Strome will need to show he isn’t just a one hit wonder.  The other big question is if Strome will stick around past the deadline or if he will be another veteran jettisoned for futures. Personally, I believe Strome stays and the Rangers keep him around since his chemistry with Panarin is deadly but if the right offer comes along who knows.. Strome and Panarin know each other very well but with Jesper Fast gone to Carolina, their new linemate is ready to prove he can hang in the NHL. 

That linemate is Kaapo Kakko, the second overall pick of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. Kakko, heralded as one of the greatest prospects to ever come out of Finland, had a very rough rookie season. Yes, he scored 10 goals and had 13 assists for 23 points in 66 games which is honestly not bad for a teenager who just stepped foot into the NHL but his underlying numbers were among the worst in the league. Kakko was a defensive nightmare last year and he looked lost at certain points out there on the ice. To that fact though, Kakko didn’t play with the best quality of linemates last season, often playing with Brett Howden and other bottom six players who obviously weren’t the most skilled which did aid in his development at all. Kakko was also thoroughly exhausted last year as he basically had played non-stop hockey for two years after going straight from Finland to the NHL. For any player, especially one as young as Kakko, fatigue can really be a huge factor in why you don’t perform well. There are some encouraging signs though. When the Rangers played the Hurricanes in their Stanley Cup Qualifiers series, they were badly beaten but Kakko was a bright spot. Kakko was on pucks, he was shooting, he was aggressive and was involved in the play as much as he could be. He showed great promise and flashes of what he could be. Kakko has also been consistently praised by David Quinn this training camp as being one of the most impressive players. The questions surround Kakko for sure but it seems like he’s trending in the right direction. There is no better winger to learn from than Panarin and Kakko is about to head to school this season as he plays alongside him. 

The Third Line

“Wait, an entire section for a third line?” “Is this guy nuts?” No, I’m not and you’ll see why. The third line of the New York Rangers this season is the most intriguing and the four players (yes, that’s right four) who will have an effect on this line all have intriguing questions surrounding them. Let’s start with the man in the middle, a young czech centerman by the name of Filip Chytil. Chytil, drafted 21st overall by the Rangers in 2017, will kick off this season as the third line center for the Rangers. Over the course of the offseason, Chytil got stronger and added some weight as he looks to build upon an up and down start to his young NHL career. A lot of pressure is on Chytil’s shoulders as he looks to prove he can be a strong center at the NHL level and show not just flashes of high end ability but turn those flashes into consistency. After back to back 23 point seasons, the 6’2”, 205 pound center will be leaned on on this young team to produce just a bit more. The season is only 56 games but I would personally love to see somewhere around 30 points for Chytil this year. With Lias Andersson traded to the LA Kings, Chytil is the Rangers lone first rounder remaining from the 2017 draft and he needs to show the Rangers their risk in picking him was worth the reward. Chytil has the size, speed and hands to succeed as a center in the NHL and now its about starting to put all that talent together. If he does, he could be looked at to move up the lineup sooner rather than later and prove he deserves more responsibility. But now, he is tasked with centering two talented wingers, one of whom was the first overall pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft.

Alexis Lafreniere, the 19-year-old left winger from Saint-Eustache, Quebec, was named the CHL player of the year for the second year in a row during the 2019-20 season; a feat only accomplished by a little known player named Sidney Crosby. Lafreniere enters the league with a colossal amount of hype, some say he’s the best prospect since Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, and he will be starting on the third line on the left side of Filip Chytil. Lafreniere has the complete package you could hope for in a franchise player. He has size, speed, a wicked set of hands, an unmatched hockey IQ and a shot that seems to elude even the best goalies. His leadership qualities are nothing to laugh at either. He was captain of the Rimouski Oceanic during his last season in the QMJHL.

 Now, he won’t be thrown into the top six just yet, Head Coach David Quinn wants him to earn his spot there and force his way into a top six role, but his role on the third line will be just as important this season. Lafreniere will have the luxury of not being the focal point of his team’s offense right away as Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and others will be more heavily defended. He will be allowed to develop next to a budding young center in Chytil and not face the teams top defensive pairs right away. With all the accolades Lafreniere accomplished in junior hockey, the jump to the NHL is never easy and you can be sure questions will surround him from the moment he steps onto the ice Thursday night. “How many points will be score?” “Will he really be that good?” “Can he be a top-six guy in year one?” He will have to keep a cool head and a calm mind as the season goes on and just focus on his game. He is the future face of the New York Rangers franchise and the franchise will do everything possible to make sure he hits the high ceiling he possesses. Expect Lafreniere to have a great rookie season and challenge for the Calder trophy as the year grinds on.

The third winger on that line is currently former Hurricanes’ first rounder Julien Gauthier. Gauthier was brought over last season in a trade and the Rangers took a chance on the young kid to fill out their bottom six and give them more size and speed down there. Gauthier was a great player in juniors and he has excelled at the AHL level but he has yet to put it together at the NHL level. He’s still quite young at only 23 years old so he still has time to put it together and playing with guys like Chytil and Lafreniere will only help his development along. Gauthier has that right wing spot on the third line held down… for now. Remember,  I said there were four players who would have an effect on this line as the season rolls on. Gauthier needs to show what he’s got because very soon, there will be a russian star in the making breathing down his neck once the KHL season ends.

Vitali Kravtsov is the fourth player that will have an impact on the third line this season. Currently he’s over in Russia playing for the KHL’s Traktor Chelyabinsk. Rangers General Manager Jeff Gorton has said that when the KHL’s season ends, Kravtsov will be heading over to the US. Kravtsov, who had an extremely weird season last year bouncing between New York, Hartford and Russia decided to stay in Russia this year with the Rangers blessing and really work on his game. Well, it paid off because he currently has 13 goals and is averaging about half a point per game. He’s only 21 years old. Kravtsov will be looking to take a top-nine spot when he comes over and he will be ready and raring to go. The Rangers took a gamble on the youngster when they picked him at 9th overall in 2018 and he’s beginning to show that gamble was with it by having one of the best U21 KHL seasons ever. Gauthier better hope he has a good season because Kravtsov is coming. 

The fourth line of the Rangers will consist of any combination of Kevin Rooney, Brenden Lemieux, Brett Howden, Phil Di Giuseppe, and possibly rookie Morgan Barron. Not much offense is expected of that line but as long as they play sound defensively, can agitate the opponent a little bit and don’t make stupid mistakes, that’s all you can ask. We now move to the defensive side of the puck and the defense corps for the New York Rangers. 

The Defense

The defense of the New York Rangers are where even more questions lie. The biggest story regarding the defense, and where we are going to start is, “Will K’Andre Miller make the Rangers roster?” Yesterday, we got a resounding answer and that answer is yes. Miller was the 22nd overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. He was considered one of the prospects with the highest ceilings in the entire draft due to his raw ability and athletic talent. He stands 6’5” and weighs around 210 pounds. He is a big body who can skate and move the puck with ease. Oh yeah, he’s only 20-years-old. Miller impressed the coaches and management so much during training camp that he will be making his NHL debut on the top defensive pair alongside Jacob Trouba, the Rangers number one, eight million dollar, right shot defenseman. Miller is being thrown directly into the fire and has all the confidence in the world. Miller is going to make mistakes and struggle there’s no doubt, but the coaching staff trusts him enough to work through those struggles at the NHL level and grow into his role as a first pair left shot defenseman. Miller partner, Trouba, also has questions surrounding him. 

Jacob Trouba was acquired by the Rangers last summer to be their number one defenseman going forward. He had an up and down first season in New York and saw his points fall from 50 to 27 and didn’t have a stable partner like he did in Winnipeg. The Rangers didn’t have a Josh Morrissey type player and Trouba had to change partners around quite a bit shuffling between Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith, Tony DeAngelo and even Libot Hajek at some points. Trouba came alive during the play in round where he looked every bit like the defenseman his team needs him to be where he was effectively using his body to kill plays. Trouba needs to prove to the Rangers this year that he deserves the money he got from them and that he can lead this defense into the future. He’s still only 26 years old and from the looks of it, will now grow alongside K’Andre Miller. The first pair in New York is going to be put under a lot of pressure this season and both Miller and Trouba have to begin to prove to the coaching staff and management that they can be a stabilizing force on the blueline for years to come. 

Moving onto the second pair we find two friends and the Rangers de-facto number one pair from last season: Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox. Fox was one of the Rangers big acquisitions last summer and from the moment he set foot in the Garden he was nothing but exceptional. Fox has 42 points in 70 games and looked every bit like the dynamic puck moving defenseman the Rangers thought they were getting. Fox’s underlying defensive numbers were actually better than Quinn Hughes’ of the Vancouver Canucks and Cale Makar’s of the Colorado Avalanche. He was a beast all around for a team that needed defenseman to step up. Oh yeah, he’s only 22 years old. Fox was the Rangers best defenseman through and through last year and look to him to keep growing and showing how important he is to the future of the blueline. Fox should receive more powerplay time this year and it’ll be fun to see him work with the Rangers skill guys like Panarin, Zibanejad, Kakko and Lafreniere. 

Ryan Lindgren is the second part of the second pair and where as Fox will dazzle with his offensive touch, Lindgren is a throwback to the hard hitting stay at home defenseman. He punishes his opponents and while he doesnt get the huge point totals, he’s extremely solid in his own end and due to his staunch defensive play, allos Adam Fox to free wheel and work to his strengths. They are a match made in heaven and coach David Quinn has left that pair alone during camp and they are a lock to start the season together and continue their ascension in the NHL. 

The third pair is where the defense begins to falter a bit. Tony DeAngelo is a solid defenseman and put up fantastic numbers last season (53 points) but his defensive play leaves much to be desired and he needs to show he can be as good in his own end as he is in the offensive zone. The Rangers awarded Tony with a contract extension this offseason so he needs to show them they made the right choice. Tony also has to keep his play up because, like Gauthier on the 3rd line, he has a european prospect breathing down his neck. Nils Lundkvist, the 28th overall pick from the 2018 NHL Entry Draft is due to come over from Sweden very soon. He’s put absolutely insane numbers up with some saying he could be an Erik Karlsson-lite type player. Oh yeah, he’s only 20 years old. Lundkvist will be challenging for a roster spot sooner rather than later and the Rangers know how important he is for their future. DeAngelo has a lot to prove to the coaches and management this year. 

The other member on the third pair will be a revolving door of Jack Johnson, who was by all accounts the worst defenseman in the league last year and had some of the worst analytical numbers of any player and Brenden Smith, a veteran defenseman who lost his way in New York and even became a fourth line forward at certain points last season. The third pair is going to struggle a bit this year as more young reinforcements are still a year or so away to help the Rangers. 

The Goaltending

The Henrik Lundqvist era has ended in New York and while it will always sting that he wasn’t able to capture that elusive Stanley Cup here, he is an absolute legend and his #30 will be up in the rafters soon enough. Igor Shesterkin, the Russian phenom, is now the New York Rangers number one goaltender. In 12 games last season, he went 10-2 with a .932 save percentage and a 2.52 goals against average. Just insane numbers for a rookie goaltender. Shesterkin may split some more time this short season with Alexandar Georgiev, but it’s his crease and the Rangers are in great hands in the post Lundqvist era. Look for Shesterkin to be in the Calder Trophy race all season and if the Rangers sneak into the playoffs he could right out win the award. I need to mention Georgiev again because he is quite the talented goalie in his own right. He owns a .913 save percentage and 3.00 goals against average in his young NHL career and will be an invaluable goaltending partner to Shesterkin as the season progresses. The Rangers have an embarrassment of riches with their young goalies, they’re only 25 and 24 respectively, and in the post Lundqvist era, they will be relied upon to backstop the Rangers into the future. 

Will the New York Rangers make the Playoffs? 

At this point, even with all their talent I’d still say it’s slim. The East division this year is insanely tough with some calling it the group of death. The Rangers have to be better than four of the Islanders, Devils, Sabres, Bruins, Capitals, Penguins and Flyers and it’s a tall task to expect that from them. If everything falls right, meaning the defense holds up, Shesterkin is a rock in net and the offense can score at a good clip then it’s certainly possible but the Rangers are still likely one more year and a piece or two away from being legit playoff contenders. The Rangers have an exciting future ahead and it’s going to be fun to watch their team grow this season.

You can follow Russell and his friends over at Skyscraper Sports on Twitter at @SkySportsNYPod.

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