Prior to the February, 2018 trade deadline, the New York Rangers front office sent out a letter to their season ticket holders.
The contents of said letter more or less included “be patient, we’re entering a rebuild”. Well, I’d say the rebuilding part is officially over at this point.
The Rangers added the top forward on the free agent market just a year and change later in the form of 2020 Hart Trophy finalist Artemi Panarin. They acquired 25-year-old Jacob Trouba from the Winnipeg Jets and promptly signed the budding star to a seven-year contract. They acquired Adam Fox from the Carolina Hurricanes after he decided not to sign in Carolina. Add in a second overall pick in 2019 in the form of Kaapo Kakko, a first overall pick in 2020 in Alexis Lafreniere and the graduation of goaltender of the future Igor Shesterkin and the New York Rangers are cooking with serious gas.
That was on display late in the 2019-20 season when the Rangers were charging towards a potential Wild Card berth in the Eastern Conference before the league hit the pause button. They wound up bowing out to the Hurricanes in the qualifying round as the break most certainty slowed any momentum the team was carrying into the home stretch of the regular season.
That said, with one of the most exciting young rosters in the game, the Rangers are now officially a postseason contender and should be treated as such this season.
Now, let’s take a look at the 2020-21 New York Rangers, their season preview and odds before diving into some predictions on how this season could shake out on Broadway.
*Odds courtesy of MyBookie
**Salary cap figures courtesy of CapFriendly
***Advanced metrics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick
2020-21 New York Rangers Season Preview & Odds
- Last Season: 37-28-5 (7th in Metropolitan Division)
- Key Additions: LW Alexis Lafreniere, D Jack Johnson
- Projected Salary Cap Space: $4,829,367
- 2021 Stanley Cup Odds: +2000
- 2021 Eastern Conference Odds +1200
It’s the offense that carried the Rangers last season as they surprised most everyone with the fire power that they carried throughout the 2019-20 season.
The Rangers finished the season ranked fifth with 3.33 goals per game on offense while their 22.7% clip on the power play checked in at seventh. Only the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche scored more goals on a per-game basis than the Rangers did a season ago.
We knew the addition of Panarin would help, but he truly took his game to an MVP. Perhaps not surprisingly, that triggered a marvellous season from Mika Zibanejad, a career-year, in fact. The Swede had long been a qualify offensive producer, but Zibanejad joined the game’s elite with his 1.32 points per game (75 in 57) ranking seventh in the league, just behind David Pastrnak, Nathan MacKinnon and Evgeni Malkin but ahead of Patrick Kane, Brad Marchand and Nikita Kucherov. Some elite company in that group to be sure.
— Here’s Your Replay ⬇️ (@HeresYourReplay) March 6, 2020
Rather than trading him at the deadline given his pending unrestricted free agent status, Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton decided to re-sign his power forward to a seven-year, $45M contract to remain in the fold.
The Rangers also received a career-year from Ryan Strome who has previously struggled to find his footing with the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers while Brendan Lemieux was a nice combination of offensive ability and grit in a bottom-six role.
Kakko didn’t exactly light the league on fire after the Rangers took him second overall in the draft, notching 10 goals and 23 points in 66 games, but also posted an ugly -26 plus/minus on a team that ranked seventh in the Eastern Conference with a +12 goal differential on the season. A sophomore breakout could be in store given his elite skill level and goal-scoring ability.
And then there’s Lafreniere, perhaps the most highly-regarded amateur prospects the NHL has seen since the Penguins drafted Sidney Crosby with the top pick in the 2005 draft. In his final junior season that included being named tournament MVP and a gold medal at the World Junior Championship, Lafreniere simply tallied a whopping 112 points in just 55 games with the Quebec league’s Rimouski Oceanic. That squad may ring a bell as Crosby also came out of Rimouski. That said, Crosby’s 168 points in his draft year bested that of Lafreniere.
Nonetheless, the upside is clearly off the charts with Lafreniere – and Kakko – to compliment the veteran core of Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider, Strome and Pavel Buchnevich up front. Also, don’t forget about former first-rounders Filip Chytil and Julien Gauthier, both of whom could line up with Lafreniere on the team’s third line to begin the season.
Indeed, the Rangers are absolutely loaded with a young roster with monster offensive potential and may have just scratched the surface with their fifth-ranked offense from a season ago.
The Rangers’ defense worked out some of their kinks as the season went along, and that makes sense for a youthful group that has some players working on the defensive parts of their game at the NHL level.
Names such as Fox and Tony DeAngelo are pair of players who posted excellent offensive numbers from the back end last season, but their defense play was suspect at times. Even Trouba at just 26 despite already having played six seasons in the NHL prior to last season is continuing to work on his defensive game as well.
This Adam Fox kid is a player. The patience was on display when finding Kaapo Kakko for the OT winner against the Pens, the rookie’s second goal of the game. #PlayLikeANewYorker pic.twitter.com/mOWD0sJnfI
— ESNY (@EliteSportsNY) November 13, 2019
At the end of the day, the Rangers tied for 23rd alongside the Minnesota Wild while averaging 3.14 goals against per game a season ago. Their penalty kill didn’t do them many favors as they also ranked 23rd with a 77.4% mark in that department.
Clearly, the Rangers were able to capitalize on their offensive chances as per their seventh-ranked team shooting percentage and ninth-ranked high-danger shooting percentage. It’s a good thing too, because most of their advanced metrics did not look pretty.
In terms of the defensive side of things, the Rangers ranked 25th in terms of scoring chances against on the season. Furthermore, they ranked 29th in terms of high-danger scoring chances allowed. Clearly, this group of defenders, all of whom saw action last season with the team, were unable to keep the opposition from creating scoring opportunities and were among the worst teams in surrendering Grade-A chances.
As a result, the Rangers’ lost the scoring chance battle in a big way as they ranked 26th with a 47.50% Scoring Chances For% and a 48.08% High-Danger Scoring Chances%.
For good measure, only the Chicago Blackhawks allowed more shots per game than the Rangers’ 34.0 mark from a season ago.
The Rangers offense should certainly be potent again next year, but if they were to fall on the wrong end of the puck luck spectrum, the defense might not be good enough defensively to keep them in hockey games.
Another year of development from the names above including Ryan Lindgren should help. The team added veteran Jack Johnson after he was cut loose by the Pittsburgh Penguins, but Johnson’s game has declined substantially and a Rangers team in need of solid defensive additions in the absence of the traded Marc Staal didn’t seem like a logical landing spot for a declining veteran, but time will tell.
It’s a mostly youthful group still earning their defensive chops at the NHL level, so improvement could certainly be had in their second full season as a unit.
The excitement on this club doesn’t just lay within the forwards ranks and the exciting young blueliners, but also in the crease where the Rangers sport a pair of high-upside youngster set to share the load in 2020-21.
Unfortunately, the emergence of both Igor Shesterkin and Alexander Georgiev came at the expensive of Rangers legend Henrik Lundqvist who didn’t move far to Washington in free agency and will compete against his old club in the Metro this season.
After 15 seasons of excellent goaltending in the Rangers’ crease, Lundqvist had his contract bought out after the season, paving the way for new era of Rangers goaltending, an invigorating one at that.
The team had Georgiev in place as Lundqvist’s understudy for the past two seasons and part of a third, and the 24-year-old Bulgarian netminder has done fine work in posting a career .913 Sv% across 77 career NHL appearances.
While Georgiev is actually the slightly younger of the two, the goaltender of the future for New York has been Russian Igor Shesterkin who debuted late in the 2019-20 season, getting into 12 regular-season contests in which he posted a dynamite 2.52 GAA and .932 Sv%.
— Rangers on MSG (@RangersMSGN) February 12, 2020
This comes on the heels of an electric career in the KHL where he had worked to a save percentage between .933 and .937 in each of the last three seasons overseas and a goals-against average between 1.11 and 1.69 in that time. Brilliant. He also posted a 1.90 GAA and .934 Sv% across 25 AHL games in Hartford before the Rangers brought him up for a late-season audition, and it’s rather clear he’s earned the part.
Now, as most teams will do moving forward, the duo will split time in the crease. There’s no guarantee Shesterkin comes out of the gate hot and Georgiev has certainly had his ups and down so far in the show. Shesterkin is the 1A at this point, but schedule and performance will go a long way into how the timeshare ends up working out between the two impressive youngsters.
The Rangers received solid goaltending last season when they finished 11th with a .908 combined save percentage between the three goaltenders. At 5v5, they ranked 12th with a .920 mark and perhaps most importantly, they were there to bail out the team’s suspect defense at times, posting a seventh-ranked .842 Sv% on high-danger scoring chances where the team ranked 29th in yielding such opportunities.
Nonetheless, the future looks wildly bright in the Rangers’ crease as the icing on the cake on what should be a galvanizing era of Rangers hockey for years to come.
2020-21 New York Rangers Predictions
Immediately after the Rangers declared their rebuild to the world, the front office has made good on just about every aspect of doing so in the right way. They traded veterans Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash and J.T. Miller, soon followed by Mats Zuccarello the following season.
Certainly, they indeed received some serious luck from the hockey gods in having the lottery balls fall their way in back-to-back drafts, especially this past season when they landed the top pick on a 12.5% chance of doing so, obtaining a gold mine in Lafreniere in the process.
Nonetheless, the trades for defenseman Trouba, Fox and DeAngelo in recent years have paid big dividends, as did their scouting in drafting Shesterkin in the fourth round of the 2014 draft and signing Georgiev as an undrafted free agent out of the Finnish league.
As the saying goes, you gotta be good to get lucky and the Rangers front office has been both in recent years.
Now, the important question is, what does all this mean for the 2020-21 season? Sure, the future is so bright it requires prescription shades, but for the purpose of this piece we’re talking about the here and now.
We’ve been over plenty of positives, but what about the obstacles? The young goaltending tandem is not a lock to succeed. I mean, when was the last you saw a team comfortably go into a season with a pair of 25-ish year olds as their goaltending duo? This league is harsh on young goaltenders and it’s entirely within the realm of possibility these netminders hit some speed bumps this season.
The forward group, by all accounts, should be just fine. The Rangers scored with the best of em’ last season and with the skill level involved, I don’t exactly foresee a drastic dip in production on that front.
The defensive corps is another question mark, however, after their suspect performance last season both on the surface and underneath the hood. With a young group, some hiccups are to be expected, but if the Rangers plan to contend in the Metro next season, improvement needs to be rather substantial, especially if the goaltending doesn’t come in as advertised.
The Metro, in fact, is the single-biggest obstacle. I’ve covered the Hurricanes, Islanders, Blue Jackets and Devils so far leading up to the season, and in all of those pieces I’ve mentioned just how difficult this division sets up to be this season. Save for the Devils, there are seven teams gunning for the top-three spots in the division, and add in the Atlantic I’ve calculated 13 Eastern Conference teams going for eight postseason spots.
Are the Rangers better than the likes of the Capitals, Flyers, Penguins, Islanders, Hurricanes and Blue Jackets in the Metro? I’d give them the edge over the latter two, but it’s nothing substantial while I’d say they remain behind the other clubs at this point.
I love the team and the upside is tremendous. However, I think they might just be one year away from contention at this point. I mean, is Panarin sure to repeat as a Hart Trophy candidate alongside Zibanejad who enjoyed a career-year, by far, a season ago? Can Kakko bounce bounce and can Lafreniere light things up in his first year? Can the defense continue to allow plenty of Grade-A chances and get away with it?
I think one more year of seasoning is required. It will be close and they’ll compete, but I have the Rangers on the outside of the postseason looking in this time around.