Boredom in April has not been commonplace for the New York Rangers, having enjoyed the splendours of playoffs for 11 of the past 12 seasons. However, the Blueshirts are getting an extended break after the 2017-18 season thanks to their unprecedented implosion. During this break, the Rangers rebuild will continue with a plethora of draft picks on the horizon and a new class of Rangers veterans taking over the limelight.
Five Players Set to Shape the Rebuild – New York Rangers Role Models
Last off-season saw the departure of Derek Stepan and Dan Girardi, two players who were integral to the organization and the Rangers Stanley Cup Playoff campaigns in 2013-14 and 2014-15. The hole Stepan left at center was apparent on the ice and off. Girardi, who went undrafted had dedicated his entire career to the Rangers before being picked up by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Adding to the age-centric dump, the Rangers also said goodbye to Captain Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, Rick Nash and Michael Grabner. Nick Holden got the boot too, but few are upset about that one.
With all of these departures, the Rangers were left with a skeleton crew of “veterans” and a slew of new blood on Broadway. Fortunately, the players that remain are undoubtedly up to the challenge of indoctrinating the new generation of New York Rangers. Here are the top five vets we expect to raise the bar in the rebuild.
Zuccarello, passionately known to Rangerstown faithful as “Zuuuuuc” is the favorite to take over the captaincy next season. The short-statured forward is as feisty as he is skilled, never allowing his size to put him at a disadvantage. He exemplifies the spirit of a Ranger, making an incredible rebound from a traumatic brain injury in 2014-15 to bring forth his best seasons yet. Three-time winner of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award, Zuccarello has the strength a team needs in their captain and determination to push through the peaks and valleys of an 82-game schedule. Zuccarello led the team this season with 16 goals and 37 assists for a total of 53 points in 80 games.
Zuccarello is also quite the philanthropist. He is a “Right to Play” ambassador, as well as the founder of “The Zuccarello Foundation.” The organization promotes growth and teambuilding for Norwegian children through the game of hockey. Zuccarello and the face of the Rangers franchise, Henrik Lundqvist, will also host a charity tournament, the “Henke & Zucca Summer Classic” this summer in Oslo, Norway.
Chris Kreider, another rumoured contender for the Rangers ‘C’, has demonstrated a deep care for the Rangers organization and his teammates since becoming a regular on the roster. He spoke with Pavel Buchnevich in his native Russian when he first arrived in New York to make him feel more comfortable, going the extra mile for his teammate. Kreider’s respect for his teammates and leadership in the locker room left a void at Madison Square Garden when he was sidelined with a debilitating injury.
Kreider’s blood clot this season forced him to undergo a rib resection surgery. He spoke out about his fear of never playing in the NHL again upon his diagnosis but rebounded to rejoin the Rangers on February 23rd against the Minnesota Wild. Despite the team’s 4-1 loss, Kreider’s speed and hockey sense were as present as ever, adding a much-needed pep to a team who expected to lose every game at that point. Only playing 58 games this season, Kreider earned 37 points, making him the 5th most productive Blueshirts offensive player. Those preceding him played at least 10 more games throughout the season.
Mika Zibanejad is quickly becoming synonymous with success in the Rangers family. He started his second season with the Rangers blazing hot. He had five points in the first four games, all goals. Zibanejad’s chemistry with Kreider and Buchnevich created the KZB line, one of the most successful lines in recent Blueshirts history. Zibanejad overcame a huge injury, a broken fibula, in his first year as a Rangers and came back determined to make a difference. Zibanejad was one of the most productive goal scorers throughout the year with 27. He was second on the team, six points behind Zuccarello. Zibanejad will only become more consistent with time, still only 25-years-old. There’s no doubt this young forward is chomping at the bit to bring a cup to New York.
Skjei had one hell of a sophomore slump in 2017-18, despite his roaring rookie season. He only tallied 25 points next to his previous 39. Additionally, he was a whopping -27 on the year. Skjei went down with the ship and he knew it. The young D-man was admittedly disappointed when McDonagh, his summer training buddy, and mentor, was shipped to Tampa Bay at the trade deadline.
However, McDonagh’s departure opened a door for Skjei. He can now take the reins of the Rangers blue line and set an example. He must begin by executing more consistent play. Skjei knew that was his undoing on the year as stated in this post-season interview. There’s no better time than the present for Skjei to step into his new role. With the exception of Marc Staal, Brady Skjei is now the oldest Rangers on the defensive squad.
Jesper Fast is an essential and underrated player on the Rangers. Last year he produced more goals with 13, his best. However, he has always been there for the assist and eager to create the play. Fast is an extremely intelligent hockey player who rarely gets the credit he deserves. His speed allows him to hop up and make a quick pass to his teammates. Additionally, he’s not afraid to backcheck and protect his fellow countryman between the pipes.
Fast first joined the Rangers for 11 games in 2013-14. Now the Nassjo, Sweden native continues to improve year-after-year. He earned 33 points in 2017-18, making it his most successful year with the Blueshirts to date. Fans expect Fast to excel as his career continues.
In addition to these players, the Rangers decision to fire Alain Vigneault will do wonders for the team’s rebuild. Vigneault’s inability to develop young talent continued to be his undoing with teams. The Vancouver Canucks cut him for the same reason, noting he was unable to “develop draft picks into reliable NHL players.” As the league quickens and players get younger, Vigneault’s reliance on veterans and the “paying your dues” process, fell flat. There’s no question that J.T. Miller and Vigneault continuously butted heads. However, since his departure from the Rangers and arrival in Tampa, Miller earned his first career hat trick. In Tampa, Miller netted 10 more goals and tallied 18 additional assists. 2017-18 is his most successful regular season yet with more success to come as Tampa enters round two of the playoffs. The Rangers will replace him with an adaptable coach, willing to let the kids play.
NEW YORK, NY – FEBRUARY 15: Mats Zuccarello #36, Brady Skjei #76 and Mika Zibanejad #93 of the New York Rangers have a conversation in the first period against the New York Islanders during their game at Barclays Center on February 15, 2018 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)