2017-18 team-by-team NHL season outlook: Previewing the New York Rangers
Playoffs in sight for Rangers with younger, better defense, but questions at center lower their ceiling
As October creeps closer, another NHL season creeps with it.
In the 23rd of a series of team-by-team summer reviews and season previews, here's a glimpse at the ...
New York Rangers
It was yet another playoff season for the Rangers in 2016-17, when a score-by-committee approach led the team to the fifth best goal differential (plus-36) in the league and an underrated postseason berth out of a Metropolitan Division that also included the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals and defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. A couple of so-so stretches, like a 6-5-4 run in January and 0-3-2 mark at Madison Square Garden that same month, didn't overshadow a high-flying offense and some late life from ageless goalie Henrik Lundqvist. New York (48-28-6) also boasted some of the hottest months of the year -- it went 10-4-1 in November and 9-3-1 in February -- before ousting the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs.
Outdone by the underdog Ottawa Senators in the subsequent series, the Rangers entered the summer in a peculiar but not uncommon situation, attempting both to prepare for the future, a post-Lundqvist contender, and ready their already-talented roster for an immediate return to the postseason. Under general manager Jeff Gorton, they stirred as many questions as they answered.
Lots of notable names were shown the door this summer. For the better: Girardi, who somehow got $6 million from Tampa Bay despite obvious signs of decline as an aging blue-liner in New York. For the worse: Lindberg, who might've been one of the most sturdy, valuable players available in the expansion draft outside of the Pens' Marc-Andre Fleury. For the unknown: Stepan, who did get the Rangers brass a nice haul and a first-round draft pick but still gave the team proven No. 1 center experience.
Whether or not you agree he deserved the hype he got as a top free agent defenseman, Shattenkirk's addition came at a very reasonable price for the Rangers. There's the fact that heto come "home" to the Rangers, and then there's the fact that New York needed blue-line help (see: key losses) and managed to land the market's consensus No. 1 D-man. DeAngelo is a good get for his potential, too, although there can't be many fans who are overly willing for Pavelec and his Winnipeg resume to see the ice in relief of "The King."
Whether it's because of history or merely name recognition, it's hard not to equate "New York Rangers" with "Stanley Cup Playoffs." Alain Vigneault hasn't been with this team for a non-postseason campaign since he came aboard and took the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013-14, and the 35-year-old Lundqvist, believe it or not, has been playing in Big Apple playoff games since the 2005-06 season. There are plenty of reasons to believe the trend of playoff contention will continue, too, now that Shattenkirk is in the fold on defense as both an ideal partner for captain Ryan McDonagh and a clear upgrade over the aging Girardi and Klein.
Even though the Rangers haven't relied exclusively on one standout to drive their scary offense, however, there is reason for concern there. Mika Zibanejad may be the guy to replace Stepan, but even New York doesn't know that, even if the five-year extension the team gave him this offseason suggests it does. Kevin Hayes will also be in the mix, but the gist is this: The Rangers need someone to step up, whether it's one of those two young centers, a J.T. Smith or a youthful DeAngelo from the blue line. And even then, questions remain regarding Lundqvist, whose wasn't too concerning but could be under pressure if age keeps catching up to him.
Bottom line: The Rangers are playoff material. But are they Stanley Cup Final material? Probably not. Of course, most teams don't appear to be, but this group is balancing between a rebuild and a serious run, and in a division that could very well tout four 100-point clubs for a second straight year, the unknowns are a little daunting.
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