10 Questions Facing The NY Rangers As They Open Training Camp For The 2021 22 Season

<10 Questions Facing The NY Rangers As They Open Training Camp For The 2021 22 Season>

It's always sad to see summer come to an end, but I have some news to cheer you up.

The 2021-22 New York Rangers will take the ice for their first official practice Thursday morning at the MSG Training Center in Tarrytown.

They'll begin training camp with 60 players, but within a few weeks, the roster will be cut down to 23 (or fewer). That leaves many hurdles to clear before the Oct. 13 regular-season opener in D.C. against the Capitals.

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The Rangers will return to a six-game preseason schedule, with the first game coming Sunday night against the Islanders at Madison Square Garden. The primary focuses during that time will be implementing head coach Gerard Gallant's system, ingratiating new players into the mix and figuring out the best way to arrange the lineup.

There are several unknowns, with some questions sure to linger even after camp is complete. But to get us started, I dove into the 10 topics I'm most interested in:

Where’s the Bread?

Artemi Panarin remains the Rangers’ best player, which puts the decision on how to deploy him at the top of Gallant’s to-do list.

Consider this: The Breadman has played 111 games with Rangers; 114 if you include the playoff bubble in the summer of 2020. In that span, he’s only started nine on the same line as No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad – the first seven of the 2019-20 season and just two last season.

The main reason, of course, is because of Panarin’s success playing alongside Ryan Strome. The dynamic winger has produced 153 points for the Rangers, good for an average of 1.38 per game, while Strome’s career has taken off with 108 points in those two seasons.

Gallant said Wednesday that "it's too early to say" which direction he'll go, but he did add this: "I don't want one line that's going to stack up and then the other lines aren’t as strong."

It would be hard to blame him if he keeps the Panarin-Strome combo intact. But will the temptation to see what happens if he puts his two-best forwards together be too hard to ignore? It's worth a look, at least.

Will Mika Zibanejad play out the final year of his contract?

Whether he plays with Panarin or not, this could be a very consequential season for the top-line center.

If Zibanejad plays out the final year of his contract, his next deal will hang in the balance. A big season would raise his price tag and push the Rangers into a tough spot given their future salary cap concerns. But any regression would diminish his leverage.

His trajectory after the 2019-20 season was heading for a major pay day. Zibanejad led the NHL in goals per game after a flurry to finish the pandemic-shortened season.

The 2020-21 season was a much different story, with the 28-year-old later admitting that “it took me a while… (to) feel up to speed” after a preseason bout with COVID-19. But No. 93 overcame his sluggish start to finish strong and hit the 50-point marker, reaffirming his place as one of the better centers in the league.

Here's a fair warning: Zibanejad has stated his desire to stay in New York and the Rangers are motivated to keep him, which is why no one should be surprised if extension talks heat up during camp. It’s going to take a seven- or eight-year commitment to get it done, but my sense is the Rangers are willing to go there if it’s for an average annual value they can stomach.  

Nothing is imminent, but it's a situation worth monitoring.

How will they replace Pavel Buchnevich?

We’ll get to the additions team president and GM Chris Drury made this summer, but there’s no question that the most valuable player to come or go was Buchnevich.

The 26-year-old winger came into his own last season, collecting 48 points (20 goals and 28 assists) in 54 games while proving to be one of the Rangers’ best two-way forwards. His quality work on the penalty kill was an especially pleasant surprise, adding to his overall worth.

With Buchnevich in need of a new contract, the Rangers opted to trade him to the St. Louis Blues for Sammy Blais and a 2022 second-round pick. Their goal was to preserve salary cap space for next season (and beyond) while creating an opportunity for some of their highly drafted wingers to move up in the lineup.

Those are valid reasons, but the fact remains that the trade weakened their roster for the coming season. Now the pressure shifts to their young forwards, particularly right-wingers Kaapo Kakko and Vitali Kravtsov, to compensate for the loss of a key contributor.

Do any of the left wingers shift to the right?

With Buchnevich gone, there’s a case to be made that the Rangers’ three-best wingers all play on the left side – Panarin, Chris Kreider and Alexis Lafrenière.

Gallant sounds open to shifting one to right wing.

"Most players like to play their offside," he said. "Especially skilled players."

It won’t be Panarin, but both Kreider and Lafrenière played there a little bit last season. Moving one would allow Gallant to use all three, plus Kakko, as the four wingers on the top-two lines.

It’s not a move that should be forced, though.

If neither are comfortable switching sides, it actually could help achieve more balance. Playing Kreider on the third line would create a deeper overall lineup for a coach who is known to evenly distribute ice time in order to keep pace with his up-tempo system.

Which of the first-round forwards are ready to breakout?

The Rangers are expected to enter the new season using forwards selected in the first round of four consecutive drafts – Filip Chytil (2017), Kravtsov (2018), Kakko (2019) and Lafrenière (2020).

They’ve each flashed their potential, but none have put it together for a full season. The highest single-season point total for any of them is 23, which Chytil has done twice and Kakko did as a rookie in 2019-20.

Remember that none are older than 22, but it's important to see steady progress.

Chytil and Kakko are entering their fifth and third years in the league, respectively, which should work in their benefit. Kravtsov is the least experienced with only 20 NHL games played — but he's played 148 in the KHL, which is considered the second-best league in the world. And while Lafreniere is the youngest at 19 (he’ll be 20 on Oct. 11), most believe he offers the highest upside. The former No. 1 overall pick finished off his rookie season with seven points in his final nine games, inspiring hope that a breakthrough is coming.

If the Blueshirts are going to take this rebuild to the next level and become the perennial contender they envision, they’ll need at least two (preferably three) of those young talents to live up to their draft placement. All four should play in the top nine, so ice time and opportunity will be theirs for the taking.

Can the Rangers create their own identity line?

A lot of attention has been focused on the impact of Tom Wilson and the Washington Capitals bullying the Rangers are the end of the 2020-21 season. But the way the Blueshirts were manhandled by their chief rival, the Islanders, may have been more influential.

The Isles excel at smothering their way to boring wins. And a critical part of that strategy is executed by their fourth line, which has been become known as the Identity Line.

Drury is hoping he’s assembled his own version. By trading for big, bruising wingers in Blais and Ryan Reaves, signing Dryden Hunt and protecting Kevin Rooney in the expansion draft, the Rangers believe they have the makings of a fourth line that will bring their lunch pail every day and willingly do the dirty work. Morgan Barron, the 6-foot-4 rookie center, will also vie for a role.

Is Nils Lundkvist ready?

The Rangers signed left-handed defensemen Patrik Nemeth and Jarred Tinordi in free agency, but the bottom-pair spot on the right side remains up for grabs.

There’s a clear path for the organization’s No. 1 prospect to win the job.

Lundkvist comes to New York after a record-setting career in the SHL. The No. 28 overall pick from the 2018 draft took his time, refining his game while building up in body, before deciding he was ready to make the jump.  

No one doubts his poise or offensive skill set, but there’s still a lot to prove. Defending the best forwards in the world and adapting to the fast-paced, hard-hitting NHL game are challenges that need to be met.

If Lundkvist falters, there are a host of defensemen prospects nipping at his heels. Zac Jones, Matthew Robertson and Braden Schneider could all make a push in the next few weeks.

"There's some opportunity for some guys to make a hockey team, obviously, with some spots, but you’ve got to earn it," Gallant said. "You've got to take advantage of it."

Who will be the next captain?

Gallant hearkened back to his time in Vegas to let us know a captain announcement is coming.

"If I was a betting man, I think we're going to have a captain on day one," he quipped on Wednesday.

But who will it be?

For the last few years, Kreider and Zibanejad have been considered the leading candidates. Kreider is the longest-tenured Ranger and does an admirable job of setting the right tone in the locker room and through the media. Zibanejad is a quieter leader, but his demeanor has a calming effect on the group – and he’s certainly earned his teammates’ respect.

But the Rangers could have placed the “C” on either guy’s chest a while ago. The fact that they haven’t yet makes you wonder if they were waiting for someone else to emerge.

By the end of last season, I was hearing lots of whispers about Jacob Trouba stepping up with his leadership. He’s not a big rah-rah guy publicly, but apparently he took the reins behind the scenes on several occasions.

Is there another darkhorse candidate? Does Drury see a young player such as Lafrenière, Adam Fox or Ryan Lindgren as captain material? Perhaps, but I still view Kreider, Zibanejad and Trouba as the leading contenders.

What impact will Gerard Gallant’s system have?

Say what you will about former coach David Quinn, but the Rangers made significant strides on his watch.

Forwards such as Buchnevich, Strome and Zibanejad had their best seasons under him, while young defensemen such as Fox, Lindgren and K’Andre Miller hit the ground running as rookies. Progress was made in the rebuild, all while the Rangers finished with winning records each of the past two seasons – despite usually icing the youngest roster in the league.

Quinn was let go, not for lack of development, but because Drury felt it was going to take a more seasoned coach to get the Rangers to the next level.

That’s why Gallant was chosen as his replacement. The Rangers believe his fast-paced, puck-pressure system will turn a talented roster into one that can win in crunch time. There will be an emphasis on rugged defense, aggressive forechecking and working hard in one-on-one battles.

The thing is, Quinn often asked for the same from his players. The issue was that he couldn’t get them to do it all consistently enough.

"I looked at the Rangers’ tape from last year," Gallant said. "The system’s not going to be a big difference. It’s about executing the system and doing the right things."

With the roster fortified with grit, Gallant’s task is to do better – and get the Rangers to the playoffs.

The Rangers are tougher. But are they better?

This is the essential question for the 2021-22 season.

The Rangers subtracted a top-line player and did not land the impact center they were seeking. On paper, that makes them look worse.

But since the day he stepped into his new position, Drury has preached wanting “clearly defined roles.”

Previously, he felt there was an imbalance – too many finesse players; not enough who would fight for loose pucks, get to the tough areas and do the little things it takes to win.

By adding muscle in Reaves, Blais, Nemeth, Barclay Goodrow and more, the Rangers believe they've found the right mix of skill and toughness.

"We’ve brought more grit to our team – and you have to have grit," Gallant said. "If you look at the teams that played in the finals, Montreal (and) Tampa. I mean, Tampa was a great team and won the (Stanley) Cup the last two years, and I think it was because of what they added. They had their great skill players, but they added some character and grit, and that that really helped them win. I think we had to add a little bit of that element."

Whether that leads to more wins is to be determined. The exciting part is we’re about to find out.

Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.

Source : https://www.lohud.com/story/sports/nhl/rangers/2021/09/23/10-questions-facing-ny-rangers-they-open-training-camp/5807665001/

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