Rangers’ Foes Are In For a Big Surprise

There’s a surprising tendency to undervalue and underestimate the Rangers’ opportunities for the 2016-17 season.

In this the 90th Blueshirts birthday, it says here that there’ll be Blue Skies all the way into spring for Alain Vigneault‘s sextet. And the best reason of all — you don’t need analytics for this one — is that the talent is all there; practically overflowing in spots.

Naturally, there are naysayers in the crowd — there always will be — but position-by-position, and line-by-line — not to mention goaltender-to-goaltender — the positives cannot be ignored. Sure, there’s a caveat — perhaps playing more of Dylan McIlrath being one of them — but we’ll get to the small potato issue later.

The big stuff is all about balance up-and-down the line; fueled by youth, savvy, and just the proper infusion of new faces in new places.

Here’s why there should be a smile on the face of every Rangers fan.

OFFENSE:

In a league where goal-scoring is at a premium, the Blueshirts were the NHL’s seventh-best lamp lighters last season with 233 goals. The number will be significantly better with the additions of Mika Zibanejad, Jimmy Vesey and Michael (The Baron of Breakaways) Grabner.

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Five of the current Rangers — Zibanejad, Derek Stepan, Mats (All Smiles) Zuccarello, J.T. Miller and Chris Kreider — delivered 20-plus goals in 2015-16. None of the aforementioned are senior citizens. We’re talking about whiz kids who will only be more productive as they reach their apex.

Then there’s Rick Nash. Remember, he missed 22 games last season. A healthy, robust Rick has to be good for — absolute minimum — 20 and maybe even more. At age 32, The Big Fella still is enjoying his prime years and I predict a major comeback season for Large N.

Better still is the treasure trove of possibilities that begin with large Kevin (Hip-Hip-Hoo) Hayes. You can’t tell me that he won’t be better than his 15-goal mark last season; especially working with his buddy, Harvard’s own Vesey. The high command also has higher hopes for rookie Pavel Buchnevich.

In this age of speed and more speed, Grabner is a Kid Lightning and will add to the Rangers’ Au-Go-Go style. From the back end, Ryan McDonagh — one of the few scoring stars in the Team USA World Cup lineup — should be good for at least a 10-goal season.

Concerned about depth? Forget about it. Brandon Pirri is the “sleeper” acquisition; a steal as you’ll soon see. Also, Jesper Fast; good on the PK and all reliable.

 DEFENSE:

Filling the Keith Yandle gap will be management’s prime challenge, but hardly an overwhelming one. Let’s face it, as productive as K.Y. was, he was N.G. (as in no good) in the plus-minus department at minus-4. Compare that with McDonagh’s plus-26 and Dan Girardi‘s plus-18.

New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi (5) plays during an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The difference-maker should be rookie Brady Skjei, who might be plugged into Yandle’s spot. He impressed over seven games last season, averaging 17:44 time on ice. A lyrical skater, the first-round pick in 2012 plays either the left or right side and has the goods to be among the Top-4. Unfortunately, his training camp was less than starry and Brady knows he’s got his work cut out if he intends to get a handle on Yandle’s vacancy.

Girardi knows the onus is on him for a rebound season and Dangerous Dan insists that he’s up for a rapid return to form. The Maven seconds the motion. Ditto, Marc Staal, who, at 29, should be at the very top of his game. The unsung blue line acquisition is ex-Avalanche D-Man Nick Holden, 29, known to excel in his own end. Adam Clendening also could surprise.

The X-Factor is McIlrath. Critics contend that he’s not fast enough for contemporary high-speed hockey, but The Maven counters that his 34-game stint — and a plus-7 — merits full-time service for two very good reasons: 1) This boxcar of a backliner is steel-tough and will be the guardian of the little men; 2) He needs the coach’s confidence and enough ice time to prove he belongs. “I want him to be a defensive defenseman,” says A.V. (That we shall see.)

Plus, if you want a good long-long shot: Ryan Graves, who had a strong year at Hartford last season and he’s not bad on offense either.

All things considered, this is a blue-line collection better than most.

 GOALTENDING:

The good news is that Vigneault plans to trim Henrik Lundqvist‘s crease-caretaking enough to give him season-long breathing room. Last season, The King faced 1,944 shots, more than any he’s had to contend with in five years.

Even better news is that Antti Raanta is ready, willing and able to fill the breach with the best possible backup work. That Henrik is 34 should not be construed as a negative. Ex-Ranger Hall-of-Famer Johnny Bower was just peaking at that age.

New York Rangers defenseman Mark Staal (28) defends as Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) of Sweden makes a save in the first period of an NHL hockey game at the Barclays Center in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

 SPECIAL TEAMS:

Penalty-killing needs work, big-time. It fell to 26th in the league last year, which explains why Grabner was imported to turn PK into A-OK. Always a breakaway threat, the Austrian has scored a dozen shorthanded goals over six seasons.

 ROOKIES:

The plum of all plums is Vesey. The Hobey Baker winner has Calder Trophy written all over him. Skjei, if he’s sharp and Buchnevich are no slouches either. It’s a good crop.

 COACHING:

After three years, A.V. has posted an admirable 144-80-22 record. The current roster should enhance that mark, but he has to get his club past the first round this time around.

General manager Jeff Gorton has given him the material to succeed so the onus is on the bench boss.

 CONCLUSION:

The Blueshirts’ 101-point season — admirable as it was — turned sour once Lundqvist was injured in Game 1 of the Pittsburgh series. Somehow, the New Yorkers never regained their equilibrium, being ousted by the eventual Champs. With a longer than usual off-season respite and encouraging new talent, the Rangers are in excellent position to be the NHL’s surprise club.

The Maven says the sky’s the limit for A.V., Inc.