Rangers Preview: What to Make of Retooled Blueshirts

The Rangers appear to have a bright future thanks to the work of General Manager Jeff Gorton, who gave his roster a makeover, most of which came in a span of eight days this summer.

Whether that future is now, we’ll have to wait and see.

Gorton and Rangers coach Alain Vigneault (the first Rangers coach since Phil Watson, 1956-60, to start five straight seasons behind the bench) promised changes after last season and a disappointing, self-inflicted second-round playoff ouster by Ottawa.

That promise was delivered. Gorton called it “rebuilding on the fly” and Vigneault, during training camp, said he expects this new-look team can contend for a Stanley Cup.

Among other moves, Gorton bought out defenseman Dan Girardi, traded center Derek Stepan and goalie Antti Raanta, signed offensive defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, center David Desharnais and goalie Ondrej Pavelec.

He obtained defenseman Anthony DeAngelo, and drafted centers Lias Andersson, who did not make the team out of camp, and Filip Chytil, who did. Gorton and Vigneault also added long-time NHL head coach (and former Ranger) Lindy Ruff to the coaching staff, replacing Jeff Beukeboom.

[Coverage of the Rangers Season-Opener Starts Tonight at 6 PM on MSG and MSG GO]

The Rangers had a legitimate window to win a Cup in 2014 and 2015, got close, and didn’t get it done. The current group will be different in many phases of the game, and one dependent on how the multiple “ifs” turn out.

Here is a look at the upcoming Rangers season — the 91st in franchise history — and how it could shake out.

FORWARDS

The Rangers are still without superstar power up front, but they sure had no problems scoring goals (256, fourth-most in the NHL) with that type of attack-by-depth and speed. They will be at least as speedy, if not faster, than last year’s team. And, they should benefit from an upgrade in skilled and mobile defensemen getting the puck to them in flight.

Stepan’s play diminished, and his lack of speed became more obvious as the Rangers and the NHL game got faster. But make no mistake, the trade of Stepan and Raanta to Arizona for the seventh overall draft pick (Andersson) and DeAngelo, was mostly about Stepan’s contract and a no-trade clause that was about to kick in. It was a deal Gorton had to make.

Whether the Rangers replaced Stepan, the team’s No. 1 center and alternate captain, and whether they have the players who can fill in all the critical situations Stepan played, we’ll soon find out.

Stepan’s departure will automatically mean more minutes and more responsibility – offensively and defensively – for Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes, both of whom have shown great promise, but both of whom must now provide more. They are now No. 1 and No. 2 by default.

[Carpiniello: Rangers Counting on Zibanejad to Step Up in a Big Way]

On the wings, the Rangers have a similar cast, led by Mats Zuccarello, Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, J.T. Miller, Michael Grabner, Jesper Fast (who had off-season surgery and likely to miss the first month) and sophomores Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich. All of those players will have to meet or exceed expectations for the Rangers to improve up front.

Nash is especially worth watching, entering the final year of his contract, and much more is expected of Kreider, who had a career year statistically, if inconsistently.

Desharnais replaces fourth-line center Oscar Lindberg, who was lost in the expansion draft to Vegas, and speedy Paul Carey earned a contract with a strong preseason.

But the most interesting forward on the team, for now, but surely for the future, is Chytil, chosen with the Rangers’ own first-round pick.

Just 18-years-old, Chytil might have the best set of hand skills of any Rangers’ first-rounder since Alexei Kovalev. After an eye-popping training camp, (he won the Lars Erik Sjoberg Award as the best rookie in camp) he’s going to be on the opening night roster, and have a chance to stick around for a while, or permanently.

DEFENSEMEN

Shattenkirk was arguably the top available free agent on the market, and his team-friendly signing – he grew up a Rangers fan in New Rochelle – significantly alters the look of the Rangers’ defense.

Kevin Shattenkirk talks about his excitement to come home and play for the Rangers and shares his favorite childhood memories of his beloved Blueshirts.

Shattenkirk is a skilled puck-mover first and foremost, and the power-play point man they have lacked since, oh, Shattenkirk’s idol Brian Leetch. Whether he can defend around the net, and be effective without the puck, is the question.

Which brings us to the next question: If Shattenkirk pairs with Ryan McDonagh, will it alter the offensive side of McDonagh’s game? For years, McDonagh had been paired with Girardi, for better or worse, but he always knew Girardi would be his backup when McDonagh joined the play.

The Rangers’ second pair was their third pair last year – Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith – who were often passed over in critical stretches of games, especially in the playoffs. They should see more minutes and additional responsibilities this season.

Which brings us to the rest of the group. Marc Staal, coming off a difficult season of some ups, and more downs, will have to earn his minutes, or his spot in the lineup. His former partner, Nick Holden – who started so strongly last season – will probably have a tougher time getting into the top six this season.

That is largely due to the impressive preseason of DeAngelo, who showcased his own puck-moving abilities while playing with an edge. As a right-hander (like Shattenkirk) it appears a spot in the top six will be DeAngelo’s to lose. Steve Kampfer, who provided depth last season, could do the same again.

Gorton has also loaded the prospect pool on defense with free agents Neal Pionk and Alexei Bereglazov, both starting with Hartford (AHL) and draft pick Sean Day, who was returned to juniors.

GOALTENDERS

This could have been said at the top, but probably didn’t need to be. The Rangers’ hopes for a better result in 2017-18, and for the Cup window still being open, will rest on the experienced shoulders of 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist.

A thinner, fitter and motivated Lundqvist comes off a World Championship with Sweden, but that followed his worst and most challenging season (.910 save percentage, 2.74 goals-against average) and playoff performance. Vigneault will not put a number on Lundqvist’s starts this season, but he’s likely to face as heavy a workload as he can handle, based on his play.

Pavelec looks to rebound from a mediocre 2015-16, and a washed-out 2016-17, in which he played just eight NHL games with Winnipeg.

The Rangers have had a string of critical, dependable and strong backups for Lundqvist in Martin Biron, Cam Talbot and Raanta. Goalie coach Benoit Allaire might have to work more of his magic with Pavelec.

SPECIAL TEAMS

With Shattenkirk, and perhaps DeAngelo, the Rangers’ power play should improve, and Zibanejad’s lethal right-handed one-timer from the left circle ought to get plenty of looks. Additionally, Desharnais has a rep as a strong power-play forward.

Ruff takes over the penalty kill, which has been awful for two seasons and two coaches, and it will take on a different look minus Girardi and perhaps, at times, Staal. In Stepan and Lindberg, the Rangers lost two penalty-killing forwards, but Hayes and Zibanejad will get opportunities there, with Nash and the dynamic pair of Grabner and Miller.

PREDICTION

Third place in the Metropolitan Division, behind Pittsburgh and Washington.

[Coverage of the Rangers Season-Opener Starts Tonight at 6 PM on MSG and MSG GO]