Puck Drop Preview: 2017-18 New York Rangers

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Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2017-2018, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers are insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around till the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our 2017-2018 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on the Puck Drop Page. Today the series continues with the 2017-2018 New York Rangers.

Puck Drop Preview: 2017-18 New York Rangers

Last Season

The New York Rangers continued their trend as a playoff contender, overcoming their underdog status against the Montreal Canadiens come playoff time. The Blueshirts were one of nine teams to finish with over 100 points, with a total of 102. Youthful additions such as Jimmy Vesey and Brady Skjei helped propel Rangerstown into hopeful territory. Michael Grabner was also a sweet surprise, scoring 27 goals to lead the team with a budget-friendly cap hit. Unfortunately, the Rangers still fell short of their cup dreams against the Ottawa Senators despite owning the lead for half the series. Henrik Lundqvist was at his elite best throughout the playoffs but questionable defensive decisions from Alain Vigneault cost the Blueshirts in desperate final minutes.

Dissecting Defense

If there was one glaring flaw with the Rangers last season, it was their defense, or lack thereof. Although the Rangers boast marquee-name Ryan McDonagh as captain, the help he received was inconsistent and mostly subpar. With the exception of Brady Skjei and the late addition of Brendan Smith, McDonagh outplayed all other defenseman and couldn’t make up their mistakes.

Marc Staal, far past his prime, created what has come to be known as the “slip-n-slide” zone in front of the Rangers net. His lack of control, poor decisions and underwhelming physicality make him the weakest link on the Rangers defense. Dan Girardi, a work-horse through-and-through battled through injuries all year and his age on the ice resulted in costly mistakes.

As for the younger guns, Nick Holden, though young, was inconsistent and had trouble handling the puck in front of veteran power forwards from opposing teams. Adam Clendening would pop-in-and-out in Girardi’s absences but failed to create anything worthy of a full-time Rangers roster position.

Forward Depth

When the Rangers hit the ice last October, they blew the league away with their forward depth. The Rangers rolled four solid lines, winning ten of their first 13 games. In eight of those wins the Ranges netted five or more goals. The scoring glory was spread throughout the team with newbie Mika Zibanejad getting on the board right alongside veterans like Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello and Kevin Hayes. Michael Grabner was the breakout surprise for the Rangers, specializing in steal-and-score breakaways.

The Blueshirts hit a snag when Zibanejad broke his fibula in a shootout loss against the Florida Panthers. Michael Grabner’s breakaways started to fade in success and the Rangers settled back down into their modest scoring ways.

Goalie Controversy

Henrik Lundqvist (31-20-0) has been the number one goaltender in New York for the last 12 years and for the first time, the King’s throne was in jeopardy. Antti Raanta‘s (16-8-0) strong success last December had Lundqvist riding pine for four straight games. Lundqvist had never been a healthy scratch for four-straight games in his career.

The strain from Alain Vigneault‘s decision to play Raanta was clear in how Lundqvist looked to rebound from his absence and continued to motivate him throughout the season, though he did sit for an additional hip injury in March. By the time Henrik arrived at the playoffs, it was clear he was in his element. His first round statistics, 1.70 goals-against-average and .947 save percentage, were some of the best in his career. Unfortunately, the second round saw poor defense and the angular scoring prowess of Erik Karlsson to dethrone the King from another run at the Cup.

Shining Star of the Season: Brady Skjei

Despite the inconsistencies of the season and a early-than-desired exit, there was one element of last year’s Rangers that provided hope for the future: Brady Skjei. Skjei appeared with the Rangers for his first full season on the third pairing and impressed immediately. His success throughout the regular and post-season had many fans questioning why the Blueshirts’ coaching staff didn’t expand his role.

Skjei, a Minnesota-native, earned 39 points in his rookie year (34 assists and five goals). 16 of those assists were primary. He had the 5th most assists of any NHL rookie last year. Expanding on his impressive statistics, Skjei earned four goals in the post-season. Some important off-season moves likely spell the bigger role for Skjei that he and fans alike have been craving.

The Off-Season

The off-season for the Rangers was transformative to say the least. Jeff Gorton was hard at work overhauling the Rangers defense, expanding cap space and acquiring key piece for the Blueshirts future. While there is one glaring hole left at center ice for the Rangers, the Rangers extinguished some raging fires.

Dan Girardi was the first bombshell to hit the core of Rangerstown this summer as he was bought out of his contact. Girardi was a work horse for the Rangers his entire career and to see him unloaded sent a strong message that the Rangers were ready for a new era. The iron-man, veteran defenseman will now play for the Tampa Bay Lighting. Unfortunately, Marc Steal remains on the roster despite his lackadaisical play throughout the last few seasons.

Shattering headlines across the media at the NHL Draft was the Rangers decision to trade Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta in exchange for 7th overall pick (Lias Andersson) and defenceman Anthony DeAngelo. This blockbuster news came soon after Oscar Lindberg was acquired by the Vegas Golden Knights. Stepan had been the Rangers top centerman for seven season but was failing to produce at the accelerated rate of his younger counterparts. Mika Zibanejad signed a five-year deal with an annual cap hit of $5.35 million. That hefty price tag comes with a lot of pressure to step-in to Stepan’s skates but Zibanejad showed promise with 37 points, including 14 goals in 56 games.

Raanta, who seemed to be the future of Rangers goaltending, was too valuable to keep and was inching too close to Lundqvists’ throne. With Ondrej Pavelec taking the backseat to Lundqvist with a one-year deal, it’s clear the Rangers are not settling on their next number one goalie anytime soon.

To round out the Rangers transformational summer was the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk to the blue line. Shattenkirk is expected to play on the top pair with Ryan McDonagh, giving some much needed support to the Rangers captain. The New York-native couldn’t be happier to play for the team he idolized as a kid. The Rangers couldn’t be happier to welcome a top-tier defenseman who earned 27 power play minutes last season. Special teams was a big problem for the Rangers in 2016-17 and Shattenkirk’s prowess in that department will be welcomed warmly at the Garden. With a four year contract valued at $26.6 million, Shattenkirk’s deal was considered a hometown steal for the Rangers.

This off-season’s bold moves have shaped a brand new team though there is one thing they failed to address, a replacement center. Signing Canadian-born David Desharnais for one year merely puts a stop-gap in an emerging problem at center ice. If Mika Zibanejad can’t rise to the occasion, there will be trouble brewing at the Garden. As pre-season begins, the 31-year-old’s role with the team will unfold as will the potential of his younger counterparts including Filip Chytil, the 21st overall pick.

2017-18 Line Combinations

The Forwards

Chris Kreider – Mika Zibanejad – Mats Zuccarello

Jimmy Vesey – Kevin Hayes – Rick Nash

Jesper Fast – J.T. Miller– Michael Grabner

Matt Puempel – David Desharnais – Pavel Buchnevich

Mika Zibanejad’s elevated role with the Blueshirts will start right out of the gate as starting center as he starts his second year in New York. Additionally, with the loss of Oscar Lindberg and Derek Stepan, the Rangers’ forward depth has thinned considerably. Veterans such as Kevin Hayes and Chris Kreider will need to step up to the plate and start to accelerate production in their leadership role. J.T. Miller especially is going to have additional responsibility laid on him this year.

Miller has continuously shown promise on the Rangers squad but his performance last post-season was lackluster and left many fans with a bad taste in their mouth for the Ohio-native. As Miller takes the role of centerman through training camp, it is clear that the coaching staff is challenging him to raise his level of play.

Michael Grabner’s second year with the Rangers is laced with anticipation as he hopes to exceed his 27 goals from last year’s regular season. However, Grabner is one of the older forwards on the Rangers roster so it’s been questioned if his performance last year was merely a fluke or the work of balanced chemistry. Time will tell if Grabner’s training has aligned him for success.

As the players pushing for a roster spot there is one name that everyone has been whispering since the off-season began. Lias Andersson.

Andersson, selected 7th overall in this year’s NHL Draft was spotted playing with Henrik Lundqvist in their home country of Sweden over the summer. Additionally, his centerman positioning is something the Rangers will need to capitalize on as inevitable injuries creep through the group as the season trudges on. Andersson played with Team Sweden in the World Junior Summer Showcase where he netted four goals and an assist in five games. However, given that he is just 18-years-old, he will need to crack the line-up on a full-time basis, or be sent back to Sweden for more seasoning. Don’t expect the team to keep Andersson if he merely fills the role of depth piece this season.

The Defense

Ryan McDonagh – Kevin Shattenkirk

Brady Skjei – Brendan Smith

Nick Holden – Marc Staal

Anthony DeAngelo, Steven Kampfer

The blue line has been historically weak for the Rangers over the last several years but the tables are turning. Led by captain Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers have added some much needed strength to their defensive pairings to give their all-star goaltender a fighting chance.

Kevin Shattenkirk, the undisputable trophy of the Rangers off-season is expected to pair with McDonagh and dominate special team, another sore spot for the Rangers last year. Coming up next is Brady Skjei in his sophomore season and Brendan Smith. Smith, a mid-season pick up from the Red Wings last year, provides a grit the Rangers have been lacking on the blue line for some time. Skjei and Smith showed great chemistry on a pairing together last post-season and will provide a similar speed and strength when the puck drops this October. Unfortunately, the third pairing is where some uncertainly settles in.

Marc Staal, who boasts the ‘A’ on his jersey has hardly earned that honor over the last several seasons. His sloppiness with the puck and lack of physicality in the defensive zone will have him fighting for minutes against his more successful teammates.

“I don’t take anything for granted. I come into camp with that mindset every year. You’ve got to earn your minutes,” said Staal on the second day of training camp. Whether or not Staal will have what it takes to earn those minutes is clouded with doubt based on his recent performance.

As for depth on the blue line, the Rangers have Steven Kampfer who played 10 games for the Rangers last year and summer acquisition and Anthony DeAngelo from the Arizona Coyotes. DeAngelo’s arrival in New York has been shrouded with negativity based on his behavior in his personal life but it’s very possible that he could push Marc Staal out of his regular position. DeAngelo played 39 games last season with a total of 14 points, a -13 rating and 37 penalty minutes.

The Goalies

Henrik Lundqvist

Ondrej Pavelec

Henrik Lundqvist will mount his throne as starting goalie for his 13th straight season at The Garden. Lundqvist’s fierce competitiveness will keep him in this position for as long as he plays in the NHL, no doubt about that. The Swedish goaltender has had his ups and downs recently but there’s no disputing that he’s carried the Rangers franchise on his back for over a decade. Last regular season Lundqvist finished with a .910 save percentage and 2.74 goals-against-average. He had 31 wins and 20 losses in 57 games played. He finished the playoffs with a .927 save percentage and 2.25 goals-against-average in 12 games.

Ondrej Pavelec is the new back-up in town after Antti Raanta was captured by the Coyotes. He played a mere eight games last season, splitting wins and losses evenly. His one year contract doesn’t spell a lengthy future for him as a blue shirt but with Lundqvist’s health as a top-priority for this hockey club, he needs to be ready to step in when necessary without being dwarfed by the shadow of the King.

Players To Watch

J.T. Miller

It’s no secret that J.T. Miller loves to be a difference-maker for the Rangers. He’s got the potential to do so but has been historically inconsistent. Miller gets benched for periods of time when he’s not contributing what Alain Vigneault knows he is capable of. With his new responsibility at center ice, the heat is up on Miller. Miller finished with 22 goals and 34 assists last regular season. Sadly, he failed to show up on the scoreboard all playoffs, tallying only three assists.

Kevin Hayes

In his fourth year with the Rangers, Kevin Hayes is starting to take his role much more seriously. This became evident last year when he shed 20 pounds and upped his speed exponentially. For the first time this was a Kevin Hayes we could get on board with. However, he fell into a similar slump with Miller as his production slowed. He also had no goals in the post-season and only three assists. Hayes trained with friend and teammate, Jimmy Vesey over the summer in Massachusetts. Hopefully, this motivated him towards a higher level of athleticism.

Pavel Buchnevich

Buchnevich is arguably the biggest question mark on the Rangers roster. Where was he most of last season? Rumors swirled about his mysterious physical ailments that kept him sidelined. Back spasms in October turned into an extended physical absence and ultimately a trip back to the Hartford Wolf Pack, the Rangers AHL affiliate. Buchnevich finished his rookie season playing half the season, 41 games, earning 20 points. Buchnevich spent most of his summer partying around the world and visiting various sporting events. Whether his work ethic is NHL ready certainly looms in the balance.

Players On The Rise

Brady Skjei

This is self-explanatory. Skjei was the most consistent defenseman next to Ryan McDonagh last year and deserves to be given a surplus of minutes this season. As previously mentioned, he was able to keep pace with the best rookies in the league last year and is only set to progress. The coaching staff will be held solely responsible for making sure he sees the ice time he deserves.

Jimmy Vesey

24-year-old Vesey got a real taste of life beyond the NCAA last year, playing 80 games. His 27 points in the regular season were admirable but it was in the post-season really impressed. Vesey’s competitive nature and eagerness to succeed fervently emerged. He earned one goal and four assists in 12 post-season contests. With youth on his side and a knack for leadership, Vesey is just getting started.

Player On The Decline

Marc Staal

Staal is on his way out, that is if his play continues in its current trajectory. He had his lowest average time on ice last year since his rookie year of 19:11. Also, his frequent mistakes throughout the last several seasons are inexcusable in a league that keeps getting faster and stronger. Staal’s play in front of the net has been careless and flimsy. He continues to get steamrolled by younger and stronger defensemen of the NHL’s future. If Staal lasts past this year it would be wildly surprising.

Rick Nash

Nash emerged in front of the media this September looking trim, proclaiming his readiness to get back to the Garden. However, his performance due to age and injuries tells a different story. Nash was sidelined multiple times last season with a groin injury.  The forward didn’t give himself enough time to recuperate between his initial injury and return. Additionally, Nash recorded his two lowest point totals in his career in both 2015-16 and 2016-17. There’s no doubt that this once power-forward’s consistency is on the outs. There may be glimmers of excellence but they will be few and far between.

2017-18 New York Rangers Season Prediction

With a healthy squad, revamped defense and new faces, this Rangers team will enter the season similarly to last year. They’ll open their season with a strong record, especially at home through October. The Rangers will sit atop the Metropolitan standings thanks to the refocused defense and fresh legs of their famous forwards. Henrik Lundqvist will continue his excellence between the pipes and sit near the .940 save percentage range.

Special teams will see a vast improvement from last season, credit due to the newest defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk. Shattenkirk will prove his place on his hometown team.

Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider will continue their chemistry from last season, becoming the Rangers top scorers.  Mats Zuccarello’s great hands and eye for the puck will make him an ideal scoring partner, especially on breakaway chances.

Final Prediction:

The Rangers will finish third in the Metropolitan Division behind the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Their defensive improvements will result in them making the playoffs. Lundqvist will have the support he needs to keep his elite status alive. Their inconsistent offensive production due to injury and lack of depth will unfortunately catch up with them. Ultimately they will lose in the Eastern Conference final.

Main Photo:

Embed from Getty Images

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