Photo courtesy of The Canadian Press
With Christmas, the New Year nearly upon us and the launch of the Covid obstructed 2020-2021 season creeping up o it’s time to think about what the New York Rangers will look like.
The Blueshirts made the NHL’s return to play playoff format back in August only to get ousted in quick fashion by the Carolina Hurricanes. Luckily though for the Rangers that granted them a lottery ball in the draft lottery for the eliminated playoff teams and won them the right to select Alexis Lafreniere. You will hear many argue that they did not deserve the hockey gods to smile upon them for a second year in a row but we are not listening to the naysayers. One could add that had the regular season played out as normal, the Rangers very likely miss the playoffs and would have been lottery eligible for the pick anyway – imagine if Toronto or Pittsburgh would have won it given their standing?
With Lafreniere now in the fold and most assuredly making the Rangers January 13th opening night roster, – holding him out of the World Junior Championships starting December 26th – he will now join second year man Kaapo Kakko and returning core of Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider, Buchnevich, and Strome. As we all know the Rangers said goodbye to longtime Blueshirts, Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, and Jesper Fast (I still hate not re-signing Fast) but the Rangers again got younger this offseason, for the most part. With the new return to play structure, the NHL decided to remodel the divisional alignment to be able to make the 56 game schedule much easier for most teams on travel.
The Blueshirts will be playing in possibly the most cut-throat division in the NHL under this current alignment. The Bruins, Penguins, Flyers, Caps, Islanders, Devils, and Sabres respectively. While the Sabres and Devils won’t strike fear into the hearts of many Rangers fans, when you see a team 7-8 times in a season they are going to wind up stealing games that you would not generally expect. Especially when you are talking about a short season. The Sabres could be a true wild card in this division, while this is still a team trying to find their identity they do have some top end talent on their roster that they only bolstered by adding Taylor Hall to the mix with Jack Eichel. Let also not forget noted Ranger killer Jeff Skinner still being in Buffalo, even after a down season.
The Bruins, Caps, Isles, and Flyers should be the class of the East Division without a doubt. Every year I seem to say “this is the year Boston will finally take a step backwards” and it never seems to happen so this year I will forego that and just pencil Boston in as one of the top 4. Even though the Caps defense leaves a lot to be desired, their offense is still top notch. While I might have questions about their netminding in Ilya Samsonov and taking the reigns this year without the safety net of Henrik Lundqvist or Braden Holtby behind him, but even with that I am a big believer of Peter Laviolette getting the most out of this club behind the bench. For the most part I thought the Islanders overachieved last season as a team that was the sum is greater than all its parts but they believe in each other and Barry Trotz. Biggest question for the Isles for me will be their goaltending and how their defense will fair without Johnny Rocket and recently traded Devon Toews. The Flyers are still extremely talented and have the best goalie in the East Division in Carter Hart. Only question I have about Philly is when will they start to regress as most Alain Vigneault coached teams do? Will it be now in year two or will they make their Stanley Cup Final run this year before starting the inevitable downward trend?
The Blueshirts have a plethora of young talent bolstered by the Lafreniere addition and the continued development of Igor Shesterkin, Adam Fox, and Kaapo Kakko. However their blueline is still the biggest question of them all. Is Jacob Trouba going to solidify himself as this teams unquestioned number one? Will Jacques Martin be able to help Tony DeAngelo defensively the same way he did for Justin Schultz in Pittsburgh? Not even going to get into the Rangers adding Jack Johnson for Marc Staal. Pretty much identical players just one is making 4 million dollars less. The biggest question I have for the Rangers going into this season, does K’Andre Miller make the big club out of camp? He turned heads when he joined them during the summer before RTP and coaches seemed to really like what they saw in the first rounder. I might be in the minority on this one but I believe the organization should take their time with this kid, while he is extremely talented, he is still pretty raw as a d-man. Best move could possibly be to taxi squad him and let Hajek get the NHL reps, especially since I do not believe this team is a playoff team this year, take your time and let Miller get pro experience in down in Hartford.
This should be a great season overall and as much as I would love to see the Rangers make the playoffs again, I just do not see it happening at all. This division is just too tough and while there should be some bumps and bruises this year that is what you get during a rebuild. It will be great to see how this young team handles this challenge and how they learn and grow from it for the future.