New York Rangers in full rebuilding mode for new season; more changes may come

Henrik Lundqvist is entering his 14th season as the Rangers' netminder.
Henrik Lundqvist is entering his 14th season as the Rangers’ netminder. Photo Credit: YouTube Red

There’s a certain three-letter word fans won’t be hearing at Madison Square Garden this season.

“Cup,” as in Stanley Cup.

Heading into the 2018-19 season, the New York Rangers are not considered contenders for hockey’s Holy Grail. That’s uncharted territory for goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who has been the bedrock of the Original Six team’s fortunes for more than a decade.

Ever since management sent a letter to season ticket holders in February outlining plans for a full rebuild, the Rangers have been focused on the task of unloading veteran stars while acquiring young assets and draft picks. So what should the Blueshirts’ faithful be watching for this season as the team returns to the Garden ice Thursday against the Nashville Predators?

Who stays, who goes?

Last season’s trade deadline saw a number of team stalwarts depart, including captain Ryan McDonagh, promising but enigmatic J.T. Miller and fading star Rick Nash. Coach Alain Vigneault followed them out the door at season’s end.

There’s not a lot left in the Rangers’ cupboard, but fan favorite Mats Zuccarello could be next. Lundqvist has indicated he wants to stay, but that could change if the season turns out to be as long as it’s shaping up to be.

What’s left in Hank’s tank?

Speaking of Lundqvist, while he remains the face of the franchise and its highest-paid player, he’s coming off three straight up-and-down seasons. First-time NHL head coach David Quinn has preached defense-first since taking the job, and if that improves the Rangers’ discipline in their own end that will only help “King Henrik.”

Still, if Lundqvist plays more than 50 games in 2018-19, it will be a surprise. That means second-year pro Alexandar Georgiev may get a longer look in net than expected, especially if Lundqvist waives his no-trade clause.

What about the kids?

Last year’s seventh overall draft pick Lias Andersson is starting the season in Hartford. However, the team’s other 2017 first-round pick, Filip Chytil (21st overall), has earned a spot in the lineup. The same goes for Brett Howden, acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning in the McDonagh/Miller deal.

If these centers and other prospects pan out, the Rangers’ rebuild may be relatively quick and painless. If not, more changes may be in the offing.

Chris Kreider's three-year streak of 20-plus goal seasons was snapped last season.
Chris Kreider’s three-year streak of 20-plus goal seasons was snapped last season. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Key Player: Chris Kreider

Ever since he was selected with the 19th overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft, every year has supposedly been the year speedy winger Chris Kreider will become a breakout star.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way.

Though he scored 20-plus goals in each of the seasons before 2017-18 (he had 16 last year after missing 24 games with blood clots), the Boston College alum hasn’t quite translated his unique combination of speed, size and skill into stardom. The 2018-19 season may be his best — perhaps his last — chance to break through. He will be on the top line with injury-prone center Mika Zibanejad and promising young Russian Pavel Buchnevich, and he’ll anchor the power play from the front of the net.

With all that valuable ice time, coach David Quinn and the Rangers will need Kreider to eclipse 30 goals for the first time if they hope to exceed the modest expectations most have for them. And, while Kreider’s work ethic never has been questioned, his consistency has. He must be a visible presence every night for the Rangers, in all three areas of the ice, for the team to do well. That includes playing a more physical game.