Rangers preview: Accelerated rebuild has playoff upside this season

Left wing Artemi Panarin signed a seven-year contract with the Rangers during the offseason. Photo Credit: Steven Ryan

A productive offseason, which included signing Artemi Panarin and drafting highly-touted Kaapo Kakko, should make Rangers better in 2019-20.

Left wing Artemi Panarin signed a seven-year contract with the Rangers during the offseason.
Left wing Artemi Panarin signed a seven-year contract with the Rangers during the offseason. Photo Credit: Kambri Crews

Rebuild? What rebuild?

The New York Rangers seem to have accelerated the process with the acquisitions of dynamic forward Artemi Panarin and puck-moving defenseman Jacob Trouba this summer. But, make no mistake, there’s still plenty of work for newly installed president John Davidson as well as general manager Jeff Gorton and head coach David Quinn. The Blueshirts will be more competitive this season, and they may even make the playoffs, but they remain a work in progress.

“We’re going to pick the 23 best guys who give us the best chance to win,” Quinn said recently.

Read on for three questions ahead of the 2019-20 season on Broadway, which begins Thursday at Madison Square Garden against the visiting Winnipeg Jets.

Will youth be served?

Even with the additions of Panarin, signed to a seven-year, $81.5-million contract via free agency, and Trouba, who they also inked to a seven-year deal following a trade with Winnipeg, the Rangers are still young throughout the lineup.

Former first-round draft picks Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson and Vitali Kravtsov still need to prove they belong in the NHL (Chytil and Kravtsov were sent to Hartford on Monday), and Quinn will start the season with kids Libor Hajek and Adam Fox on the back end. 

Plus there’s 2019 first rounder Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s NHL Draft. The Rangers hope he can replicate his performance in last spring’s World Championships over the course of the much longer NHL season.

Will Buchnevich mature?

Quinn is giving enigmatic Russian forward Pavel Buchnevich another chance to shine on the first line, hoping the addition of fellow countryman Panarin will help. If it doesn’t work (again), expect the 24-year-old to be trade bait come March.

Who is the captain of this ship?

The Rangers went all of last season without a captain.

Chris Kreider was once the odds-on favorite to wear the “C,” but he’s in his walk year. Panarin and Trouba are on long-term deals, but neither have a reputation for leadership.

Swedish center Mika Zibanejad, coming off a breakout season, may get the job, but only if he shows signs of repeating and/or improving upon his 2018-19 numbers.

Key player: Henrik Lundqvist

Even with all the new faces on Broadway this season, it will be an old hand that attracts the most attention — and concern.

Goalie Henrik Lundqvist is already a virtual lock for the Hockey Hall of Fame, but he has seemingly entered the twilight of his career. Rangers brass have to be wondering if he still has enough in the tank to manage the grind of the regular season, much less serve as the backbone of a playoff team.

“I feel very good technically and physically right now,” the suave Swede said recently.

That’s all well and good, but he has started each of the past two seasons well only to fade in the second half, perhaps due to fatigue from playing behind a patchwork defense. If he falters again this season, will he willingly give up the primary job to youngsters Alexandar Georgiev or Igor Shestyorkin?

“I feel comfortable with our goaltending going into the season,” Quinn said recently.

Lundqvist doesn’t have a history of being a bad teammate — just the opposite, in fact. But how he plays and how he handles demotion, if it happens, will determine just how far the Rangers progress in the coming season.

Brian P. Dunleavy