Ready or not, here come the New York Rangers.
No, that’s not a warning for opposing teams in the NHL or their fans, but more of a mindset for those supporting the Blueshirts as the puck drops on their 2021-22 season Wednesday night in Washington against the Capitals.
An offseason of sweeping changes has left new president and general manager Chris Drury with the same front-line skill and finesse supported by the team’s new philosophy of physicality — something that team owner James Dolan was looking for after his team was rag-dolled by the very same Capitals last season. Not to mention the crosstown-rival Islanders.
First-year head coach Gerard Gallant has been brought in to apply that no-nonsense philosophy in Madison Square Garden — a Western Conference winner with the then-expansion Vegas Golden Knights four seasons ago.
Drury has given him the necessary muscle to ensure the Rangers aren’t as much of a pushover as they once were. Two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Barclay Goodrow was acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning’s relentless third line to run blocker for the likes of Filip Chytil.
On the fourth line, Ryan Reaves’ enforcing provides the hope that the Rangers’ bottom trio can be as effective as the Islanders’ “best fourth line in hockey” in Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck.
It’s their presence that will keep teams honest rather than making runs at the Rangers’ bevy of offensive talent.
Gallant looks as though he will keep Mika Zibanejad — who has scored a combined 65 goals in his last 113 games — as the first-line center while 2020 Hart finalist Artemi Panarin will be healthy, free of controversy, and anchoring the second line from the left-wing spot.
The ever-reliable Chris Kreider and the second-year star-in-the-making in Alexis Lafreniere will flank the first line, with the hopes that the latter takes a sizable step forward in becoming the offensive menace many forecasted him to be as the No. 1 overall pick in 2020.
Meanwhile, on the second line, Panarin will continue to maximize the playmaking abilities of Ryan Strome — once a cast-off of the Islanders and Edmonton Oilers — alongside 2019 No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko.
Rangers Projected Forwards Lines, 2021-22
Chris Kreider – Mika Zibanejad – Alexis Lafreniere
Artemi Panarin – Ryan Strome – Kaapo Kakko
Sammy Blais – Filip Chytil – Barclay Goodrow
Dryden Hunt – Kevin Rooney – Ryan Reaves
On the blue line, a Rangers defense that was once a liability is continuing to trend in the right direction with its majority under the age of 24.
Reigning Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox will remain with Ryan Lindgren in the first pairing. Both are just 23 years old.
K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist, both 21 years old, will be paired with the elder statesmen of the Rangers’ defense.
Miller, who showed promise last season, is on the second pair with 28-year-old Jacob Trouba while the rookie Lundkvist will be making his NHL debut alongside 29-year-old Patrik Nemeth.
While Fox has already proven himself as one of the best defensemen in the game, the development of Lindgren, Miller, and Lundkvist will be imperative for a Rangers’ defense that was a middle-of-the-pack unit in the Eastern Conference last season.
Rangers Projected Defensive Pairs, 2021-22
Ryan Lindgren – Adam Fox
K’Andre Miller – Jacob Trouba
Patrik Nemeth – Nils Lundkvist
In goal, Igor Shesterkin will continue building upon his reputation as the second coming of Henrik Lundqvist. He has certainly lived up to the billing over his first two seasons in the NHL, going 26-16-3 with a .921 save percentage and a 2.59 goals-against average.
This should be his first season experiencing a full workload as a bona fide No. 1 option, however. The most games he’s played in one season at the NHL level is just 35 last year. Expect that number to go up with the capable Alexandar Georgiev providing backup.
What should we expect from the Rangers?
This is a team with enough skill amongst its top two lines to be an overwhelming threat in the Metropolitan Division. But will they have the poise to keep up with some of the more battle-tested teams like the Islanders, Capitals, and Pittsburgh Penguins?
This is a team that should be flirting with a wild card spot this season, but the division is too deep with the teams mentioned above along with a Carolina Hurricanes team that could be right near the top of the standings:
Projected Metropolitan Division Standings
- New York Islanders*
- Washington Capitals*
- Carolina Hurricanes*
- Pittsburgh Penguins**
- New York Rangers
- Philadelphia Flyers
- New Jersey Devils
- Columbus Blue Jackets
* Denotes playoff team
** Denotes wild-card team