Now five months distanced from a first-round playoff exit at the hands of the Penguins, the Rangers will have a decidedly younger flavor when training camp opens Thursday.
For the front office and coach Alain Vigneault the main decisions will be up front, where a truckload of forwards are vying for a few spots.
The goaltenders are set. On defense, their highest scorer on the blue line is gone, but a standout rookie is ready to contribute.
But to change the mix up front, the Rangers traded Derick Brassard to Ottawa for 23-year-old Mika Zibanejad, added free agents Jimmy Vesey, Michael Grabner, Josh Jooris, Nathan Gerbe and Brandon Pirri, and hope that Russian prospect Pavel Buchnevich can make the cut. Oscar Lindberg is skating after May hip surgery, although his return is targeted for November.
If Vesey, the Hobey Baker Award winner from Harvard, and Buchnevich crack the top nine and Grabner, the former Islanders wing, and Jesper Fast, one of the team’s dependable two-way forwards, anchor a fourth line, there’s only two or three spots available. That depends on whether general manager Jeff Gorton and Vigneault decide to start the franchise’s 90th season with seven or eight defensemen.
Veteran Tanner Glass, who spent part of last season in Hartford, will be on the bubble, as well as Marek Hrivik, who spent virtually all season in the AHL.
At center, the Rangers have Derek Stepan, who will be back from Toronto after Team USA failed to qualify for the World Cup semifinals, Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, Jooris and Lindberg, who can also play the wing. Chris Kreider, Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello are three of the wings on the top two lines and J.T. Miller is knocking on the door. Like Grabner, Gerbe was signed for his speed and penalty-killing prowess.
On defense, Keith Yandle signed with Florida, but Brady Skjei, 21, who can play either the right or left side, is a lock to join captain Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Klein, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. Nick Holden, a 6-4 backliner, was acquired from Colorado for a fourth-round pick and carries a $1.6-million salary, and rugged Dylan McIlrath, who played 34 games last season, have value. Barring injuries or a trade, those seem like the seven who will be around when the Rangers open the season against the Islanders on Oct. 13.
Between the pipes, there’s no challenge to the main pair. Henrik Lundqvist dropped a few pounds this summer and is still backstopping Sweden in the World Cup. Antti Raanta, who signed a two-year contract in May, likely will play in several of the six preseason games, along with Magnus Hellberg and Mackenzie Skapski.