Hockey

NY RANGERS SEASON PREVIEW: A NEW DAY DAWNING, by Matt Blittner, The New York Extra/ TheNYExtra.com

A new era in Rangers history is here and it’s here to stay.

For 15-years Henrik Lundqvist manned the pipes on Broadway as the face of the Blueshirts’ franchise. But after months of speculation, that officially came to an end on Wednesday September 30, 2020, courtesy of having the final year of his contract bought out by the team. And while Lundqvist almost immediately landed on his skates in Washington D.C. with the Capitals before the jarring news about his heart condition and subsequent open-heart surgery ended his season — and most likely his career — his former team has reason to believe that another 15-year run of net prosperity is in the offing. 

05/12/12 Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semi finals game #7 Washington Capitals vs New York Rangers at msg New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist #30 raises his stick to the crowd after the Rangers defeated the Capitals 2-1. Neil Miller The New York extra/TheNYExtra.com copyright 2021

Essentially ever since being drafted by the Rangers in the fourth-round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, Igor Shesterkin has been labeled as Lundqvist’s successor and if his brief call-up last season, during which he went 10-2-0 with a .932 SV% in 12 regular season games, is any indication, the Seventh Avenue Skaters have something special on their hands. 

In his three full seasons (2016-17 to 2018-19) as the undisputed starting netminder for St. Petersburg SKA in Russia’s KHL, Shesterkin compiled a win-loss record of 71-12-10; a run of excellence that had NY fans giddy at the thought of what he would and could do once he came stateside. 

Shesterkin started the 2019-20 season — his first in North America — with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolfpack and continued his winning ways by going 15-4-3 with a 1.93 GAA and .932 SV% in 23 games before getting called up to Broadway on Monday January 6, 2020. And while he was sent down to play in a pair of games during the Blueshirts’ All-Star break/bye-week at the end of January, he was swiftly recalled when the Rangers returned to action at the end of the month and has been with the team ever since.

And let’s not forget about the Robin to Shesterkin’s Batman, Alexander Georgiev, who has been one of the better back-ups (and in brief stretches, starters) in the NHL since being called up during the 2017-18 season. In fact, Head Coach, David Quinn has made it a point during camp to emphasize how important both Shesterkin and Georgiev will be to the Blueshirts during this highly condensed season. 

On my internet radio show, Outside The Studio, (Fridays from 4pm-5pm Eastern Time on 365sportscast.com), seasoned Newsday beat writer, Colin Stephenson speculated the two young goalies will have what equates to between a 55-45 (percent) and a 60-40 (percent) split in net this season, with Shesterkin likely starting in the neighborhood of 33-35 games out of 56. 

Overall, this new era at Madison Square Garden is off to a solid start in net; it’s the other areas of the ice where questions exist. 

Now let’s address some of them.

1) YOUTH UPFRONT

With the No. 1 overall pick in the draft back in October, the Rangers scooped up generational talent, Alexis Lafrenière, a 19-year-old left-wing out of St-Eustache, QC, CAN. During the 2019-20 season with Rimouski in the QMJHL, the young stud put up 112 points (35g, 77a) while drawing comparisons to Penguins’ superstar, Sidney Crosby for his superior play.

Lafrenière joins a young cast of kids featuring Kaapo Kakko (the 2019 No. 2 overall draft pick), Filip Chytil, Brett Howden, Julien Gauthier, Justin Richards and Morgan Barron in the quest to provide New York with a formidable offense. 

We saw Kakko struggle to adjust to the North American game at times last season, but when the team reconveened for the return to play tournament over the summer, he seemed a lot more at ease and a lot more dangerous with the puck, which has so far carried over into this season’s truncated training camp as he is currently in line to get the first crack at replacing the departed Jesper Fast on the second-line with teammates Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome.

Of course, Strome’s standing as the second-line pivot is related to how much progress Chytil makes in his development, as he enters his third season in the NHL (he did play a handful of games during the 2017-18 season, but not enough to burn the first-year of his entry-level contract). Should Chytil take that next step — and with Lafrenière presumably starting on his left-wing he’s well positioned to — there’s every reason to believe Strome could become trade bait. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. 

Another young forward to watch for is Barron, who has received rave reviews while filling in for Mika Zibanejad at the start of camp. While it is likely he at least starts the season on the taxi squad, or even in the lineup depending on if he continues to outperform Howden, it’s possible the Rangers’ brass decides to get Barron more minutes by sending him to Hartford once the AHL season begins. However, that’s looking further into the future than my crystal ball allows. 

2) GREEN BLUE LINE

Much like the offense, New York’s defense has a lot of young guns vying for a shot at the varsity squad. 

Ryan Lindgren and Adam Fox are fairly well entrenched as the second D-pair, but Libor Hajek, K’Andre Miller, Tarmo Reunanen and Matthew Robertson are also attempting to carve out roles for themselves. 

Miller would seem to have the highest ceiling and based strictly on his performances during the summer return to play camp and the past few days of training camp, he would be the best bet to stick in the big leagues when the season opens Thursday against the Islanders at MSG. However, like with Barron and probably even more so for Miller given he’s a young defenseman who has only played the position for a handful of years, the team would likely prefer he gets some seasoning in Hartford before sticking in the NHL full-time. 

On the other hand, quotes like the following one from David Quinn on Friday January 8th — as reported by The NY Post’s Greg Joyce — seem to indicate it could be K’Andre Time all the time, very soon; maybe even Thursday night. 

“I thought K’Andre Miller was really good tonight. He just moves so well, he takes up so much space, he’s got such a long reach, he closes on people quickly. His puck decisions, to me, have really been the surprise to all of us. We knew he made some good decisions, but to adapt as quickly as he has so far — and again, let’s keep it in check, it’s bubble practices and now it’s training camp — but he’s certainly shown a lot of things you look for in a defenseman.”

3) NOTES ON REST OF ROSTER

Pavel Buchnevich has had a strong showing in camp, drawing praise from Quinn and his staff for his continued growth…Mika Zibanejad missed the first few days of camp for an undisclosed reason, but got on the ice early on Sunday and should be up to speed by Thursday’s season-opener against the Islanders…Artemi Panrin is looking to build off his career-year and there’s no reason to believe he won’t…Chris Kreider, for all the pre-camp speculation about him possibly moving from left-wing to right-wing, has so far only played on the left, pretty much ending the speculation for the time being…Speaking of moves, Tony DeAngelo has seen time on the left and right sides during camp and seems to be in a rather fluid situation depending on who’s on the active game roster at any given time. If Sunday night was any indication, DeAngelo could be paired with off-season import, Jack Johnson when the team hosts the Islanders Thursday night. 

Chris Kreider Neil Miller The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com copyright 2021

Here’s my prediction for Thursday night’s Opening Night lineup against The Islanders at MSG.

Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich

Panarin-Strome-Kakko

Lafrenière-Chytil-Gauthier

Lemieux-Howden-Barron

Miller-Trouba

Lindgren-Fox

Johnson-DeAngelo

Shesterkin

Georgiev

Taxi Squad: Tim Gettinger, Phillip Di Giuseppe, Brendan Smith, Anthony Bitetto, Libor Hajek and Keith Kinkaid

The future is present and it begins Thursday night.

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