Looking Ahead To The 2016-2017 New York Rangers

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As the whirlwind that is the NHL off-season begins to calm and the calendars change to August, there is just a hint of excitement in the air. Fans across the NHL landscape know a fresh season is right around the corner. With the rookie camps ending, teams have begun to pencil in a roster that they hope can reach the goal of lifting Lord Stanley. This pre-season will be different from others with the Hockey World Cup beginning on September 17th and running through training camps and pre-season games until it concludes on October 1st.

The New York Rangers will have 5 players representing their respective countries during these games. Captain Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan are playing for team USA, Henrik Lundqvist will represent Sweden, Matts Zuccarello will look to lead team Europe (representing Norway), and the young winger JT Miller will team up with fellow 23 and under players from USA and Canada to form team North America. The players competing in the World Cup will be able to join the respective NHL teams once their team is eliminated or the World cup ends.

The Rangers will report to the MSG training center in Tarrytown, NY on September 11th for team physicals with the first practice following on September 12th. With just about 2 weeks worth of practice, the Blueshirts will see their first pre-season action on September 27th when they host the New York Islanders. With 5 more pre-season games to be played, the Rangers will open the regular season against those same Islanders on Thursday October 13th. With just about 2 months  between today and live action, heres a breakdown of how the roster may play out and some predictions for the 2016-2017 New York Rangers.

The Goalies-

Antti Raanta- 25 GP, 11 Wins, 6 Losses, 2 OT losses, 3 Shootout Losses, 43 GA, 530 SA, .919 SA%, 2.24 GAA

Henrik Lundqvist- 65 GP, 35 Wins, 21 Losses, 7 OT Losses, 4 Shootout Losses, 156 GA, 1944 SA, .920 SA%, 2.48 GAA

Coming off a season with near career highs for Antti Raanta, the New York Rangers re-signed the young backup to a 2 year $2,000,000 contract. The 27 year old Finnish netminder had what many would call a roller coaster type of season, giving up just 4 goals in his first 4 games (all of which were won) it looked as if the Front Office struck gold on a solid back-up. Then came a stretch of games that were just brutal, going winless in 6 straight starts while giving up 19 goals. Before winning his first start in over 3 months, many fans were calling for his demotion, the FO stuck with Raanta who rewarded them with an excellent close to the season, winning 7 of his next 9 starts while giving up 18 goals. For at least the next 2 seasons the backup spot seems to be locked up.

As always, Hank was Hank last year. Many believe without the “King” in net the Blueshirts would not have had the season they did. While there were some rough stretches for Hank (including the playoffs), he was consistent through out while also posting his 10th straight season with at least 30 wins (not including the shortened 2012-2013 lockout season). With the early first round exit by the Rangers, pundits and many fans alike believed the Rangers would entertain offers for the King, pointing to his high contract hit and age as a reason the team is being held back. The front office dismissed this notion rather quickly as did Henrik himself. The King will be a Ranger lifer, and no true fan would argue that.

The Defense-

Returning players: Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Dylan McIlrath, Kevin Klein, and Brady Skjei.

Departures: Keith Yandle (rights traded to Florida Panthers), Dan Boyle (not re-signed)

Additions: Adam Clendening (EDM), Michael Paliotta (CBJ), Nick Holden (via Trade with Col)

One of the major downfalls to the Rangers season came from the Defense. The trio of Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and Dan Boyle were the main culprits last season. While Boyle contributed 20 points, he finished at an even 0 in +/- while showing every second of his age (39). Girardi and Staal (who were both consistent through out their respective careers) showed signs of wear and tare during the season. The reliable Girardi would miss 8 games during the season due to lingering injuries. With the 2012-2013 aside, Girardi had played in at least 80 games every season of his career. When returning from his injury, Girardi seemed a shell of his former self, while he was never a real offensive threat he could always be relied on to play solid defense in front of the net.  This was not the case during most of the season last year, too many times Girardi would force a bad pass or turn the puck over in the defensive zone which usually led to a goal against. Marc Staal had much of the same season, while having one player having defensive mistakes could be controlled, having two is a nightmare, especially when it is two players that never had issues. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal are the 24th and 22nd highest paid defensemen in the league but certainly did not live up to their contracts. Their poor play and high cap hit resulted in fans begging for either or both to be bought out or traded. Neither player will be bought out (deadline has since passed) and there are not too many teams looking for over the hill players with high cap hits. Expect both Girardi and Staal to be on the team next season, possibly (and most fans would agree, hopefully) with shortened minutes.

Keith Yandle was the clear cut winner on defense last season, while not great defensively, Yandle makes up for it on the offensive end. Yandle ended the season with 5 goals and 47 assists but his biggest contribution may have been when he was finally inserted into the Power Play lineup. In the beginning of the season Yandle was regulated to the 2nd PP unit while the top unit did not live up to expectations.   Once inserted on the top unit the PP arguably got much better. Captain Ryan McDonagh missed 9 games due to a concussion and its lingering effects. When he returned to the line up it was clear he was not 100% for a few more weeks. Once health, McDonagh returned to his solid game play on both ends of the ice. Kevin Klein had a quiet season, which is a good thing. While not spectacular on the offensive end or blessed with speed, Klein is an intelligent defensive player.

With McDonagh and Girardi missing time, rookie Dylan McIlrath stepped in to the line up. Many fans believed McIlrath to be yet another wasted draft pick, while in Hartford it was clear the McIlrath did not have the speed to keep up with top players in the NHL. While still slow footed, McIlrath showed why he was the number 10 pick in the 2010 draft, with his excellent intelligence for the game and defensive prowess, especially along the boards. While playing in 34 games McIlrath posted 4 points and a +/- rating of +7 but it wasnt until the game against the Flyers on February 14th (dubbed the “Valentines Day Massacre”) that McIlrath made it in NY. With McDonagh out due to his concussion suffered by an ugly blow to the head by Wayne Simmonds, McIlrath stepped in and took matters into his own hands. During pre-game warmups McIlrath was seen jawing at Simmonds from the blue line, most fans knew McIlrath would be the one make Simmonds pay for the hit and right after the puck dropped, so did the gloves. McIlrath would go toe to toe with Simmonds, while the Blueshirt Faithfull roared their approval. With Jeff Beukeboom being promoted to Assistant Coach from the AHL, many believe McIlrath could become even better. The media believes that “Beauk” is the reason for McIlraths improvement, and that it could only help in his development.

 

With Dan Boyle retiring and Yandle being moved, look for rookie Brady Skjei to be inserted somewhere in the defense. While playing in just 7 regular season games, Skjei seemed to be the real deal. With Girardi missing time during the series against the Penguins, the young 22 year old was inserted into the line-up and was able to hold his own. Playing in 5 games, the rook posted 1 assist and a +- of +1 while playing excellent defense against the hot Penguins. With the acquistion of three other defense men, it will be interesting to see how it will unfold. Skjei may return to the minors to begin the season to refine his skill but that should not last long. Look for Skjei to join the Rangers somewhere mid-season.  It would also not be surprising for the Rangers to scratch either Girardi or Staal during the season which could lead to other call ups being made.

Projected Defensive Pairings-

McDonagh-Girardi

Klein-McIlrath

Skjei-Staal

The Offense-

Departures- Derrick Brassard (traded to OTT), Viktor Stalberg (Signed with CAR), Dominic Moore (FA), Eric Staal (MIN)

Additions- Mika Zibanejad (Acquired via trade from OTT), Michael Grabner (Signed from TOR), Josh Jooris (signed from CGY) Nathan Gerbe (Signed from CAR)

The New York Rangers offense for the year had 233 goals (7th in the league), 42 PPG (24th in the league), and 18.58 PP% (14th in the league). The offense was led by Mats Zuccarello who led the team in points with 61 (a career high 26g, 35A), Derrick Brassard with a team (and career) high of 27 goals and also leading with 8 PPG (27g, 31A, 58p) and Keith Yandle with a team leading 47A (5g, 47A, 52p).  Derek Stepan had another improved year with 53p (22G, 31A) while flip-flopping between the 1st and 2nd lines. Chris Kreider (21G, 22A, 33P) (who has re-signed with a 4 year 18.5 mil contract) had an up and down season that frustrated many. Kreider has elite speed and great offensive awareness but does not use them to his strengths all the time. Too many times last season Kreider seemed to vanish for a handful of games at a time. He has vowed to play better this season while utilizing all of his skills. Rick Nash (who to many is public enemy number 1 to many fans and the target of many rumors this offseason) missed 22 games with various injuries but still had a decent season (15G, 21A, 36P). Many believed Nash had turned the corner last year when he lead the team in goals with 42 and expected Nash to be a force this year. While that may not have happened due to his injuries, Nash was still a key part to the team (he tied for the team lead during the Playoffs with 4 but looked much more comfortable than during the regular season).

The best surprise for the offense came from the young winger, JT Miller (23 years old). Miller had a break out season with 22 goals and 21 assists for 43 points (all career highs). There were many games where Miller was the best player on the team and Head Coach Alain Vigneualt rewarded the rookie with increased ice time. His best game of the season came during game 2 of the playoffs when he had a hand in 3 of the 4 goals scored (3 assists) during the Rangers only win against the Pens (4-2). During the offseason Miller inked a new 2 year deal worth $5.5mil, which may come back to hurt the Rangers in 2 years. Many had hoped for Miller to be signed long term with a decent cap hit so that they do not have to break the bank when Miller becomes a FA again. Who knows how the next 2 years play out but if Miller continues to grow, he may price himself out of NY. Oscar Lindberg (13G, 15A, 28p) was also another pleasant surprise. Lindberg joined the team as a rookie after an excellent training camp and promptly scored his first career goal in his very first game against the Chicago Blackhawks.

It goes without saying that one of the most disappointing players (in terms of potential) was Kevin Hayes, who had a decent season points wise (14-22-36) but failed to match the expectations set for himself during last years breakout season. Hayes was a healthy scratch for 3 games and was often demoted during the season, far too often Hayes would make a terrible pass or not play defense which lead to scoring opportunities the other way. Hayes has the skill set to be a solid 2nd liner but he can not afford to have another season like this past one. At the trade deadline the Rangers dealt for Eric Staal (sending a 2nd round pick and prospect to CAR) to make a final push for the playoffs, needless to say, this did not work out in the Rangers favor. Staal was a ghost for most games while only registering 6 points (3-3-6) and did not seem comfortable under the bright lights of MSG.

As far as the bottom 6, defensive standout Jesper Fast led the way with 30 points (10-20-30) while playing spectacular defense. During the season Fast was inserted into the PK rotation with excellent results. While he may never be a top scorer, his gritty defense and timely offense improves the team tremendously. Viktor Stallberg was another standout, contributing 20 points (9-11-20) from the fourth line along with Dominc Moore, a trusted FO center with 15 points (6-9-15).

The incumbent Tanner Glass managed to play in 57 games while contributing only 7 points (4-3-7) as a fourth liner. Many fans believed Glass to be off the team during the offseason, but as of now he is still on the roster but that could easily change. The offseason saw the Rangers focus on strengthening the bottom 6 with the additions of Michael Grabner, Nathan Gerbe, and Josh Jooris, while also resigning Marek Hrivik. Another signing that can pay dividends now and in the future, is the Russian born Pavel Buchnevich who will be inserted on the 3rd line. With the new additions to the team, Tanner Glass may be the odd man out and may find himself either traded or demoted the AHL (where he began the season last year).

The biggest (and most shocking) move during the offseason was the swap of Derrick Brassard to OTT for Mika Zibanejad (with draft picks also being moved both ways). Zibenejad will bring more youth with a lower cap hit to Broadway along with offensive numbers comparable to Brassard (21g-30a-51p last season). Zibanejad will find himself inserted into the 2nd line with Stepan taking the 1st. Along with point production, Zibanejad also has good numbers at the FO circle winning %50.04 of his faceoffs last year.

The training camp battles will be interesting to watch unfold, but it is expected to be the same faces in most places:

Projected lines-

Nash-Stepan-Zuc

Kreider-Zibanejad-Miller

Buchnevich-Lindberg-Hayes

(Niklas Jenson from HAR may being season due to offseason surgery for Lindberg)

Gerbe-Jooris-Grabner

This is a team that has all the potential in the world to compete this year, by no means is the window shut. The only issue is its closing slowly by the day. There may be some surprises out of camp this year but it leads to some difficult decisions. Can the new and younger guys gel in time for the season? Or will this become another lost year for the Vets and eager fans.

-Dennis Moorehead

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