By Sean Hartnett
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Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton’s offseason mission was to make the Blueshirts younger, faster and better on both ends of the rink. A face-lift was needed after the Rangers were torched by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in a five-game first-round playoff exit.
“We’re trying to get as many young players as we can,” Gorton said in August. “The game is getting faster and younger and more skilled all the time, and we’re certainly in tune with that.”
Recent champions have been built with the following characteristics: fast-skating forwards, skilled defensemen who can start quick breakouts, four lines that can establish possession – and of course, strong goaltending. With Henrik Lundqvist continuing to shine into his mid-30s, the latter should be a certainty.
Lundqvist’s sharp play between the pipes has carried the Rangers season after season. Despite facing the most shots against of any goaltender and the highest volume of close proximity shots last season, the sensational Swede posted a .920 save percentage and the league’s fourth-best even-strength save percentage at .937.
How far the Rangers go this season depends on how much of the burden they can ease off Lundqvist’s shoulders. Being stronger at generating possession, improving shot metrics and establishing greater offensive zone time are the keys. The Blueshirts spent much of last season chasing in their own end and ranked 26th overall with a five-on-five Corsi For percentage of 47.4. They were outshot by an average of 1.9 shots per game.
Veteran blue line duo Marc Staal and Dan Girardi must improve after falling on hard times last season. Among NHL defensemen who skated at least 750 minutes, Girardi finished last in five-on-five Corsi For percentage (41.7), while Staal was tied for 16th worst. How much of last season’s drop-off can be attributed to injuries or the toll of deep playoff runs? Or was it part of an overall year-by-year decline? Head coach Alain Vigneault is hoping a summer of rest and full preparation will pay off in better versions of Staal and Girardi.
“They seem to be in a good space mentally,” Vigneault said last month. “Physically, this is the first time in a long time they’ve had a chance to recover from some of the bumps and bruises they might have had during the year and train for a good summer. They just seem anxious for this opportunity that the team has in front of them. They know they’re important parts of us having a successful season, and I sense they want to prove that they’re very good players.”
Gorton’s most notable move was sending popular and productive center Derick Brassard to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for promising center Mika Zibanejad. While Brassard provided his share of big-game goals, Zibanejad offers similar production and is better equipped to handle tougher defensive assignments. The 23-year-old Swede’s goal, assist and point totals have increased in each season of his career.
“For us, this is a younger player that’s coming off two 20-goal seasons, that we think is heading to the prime of his career,” Gorton said in July. “And the ability to get a younger player, to get a guy that’s fast, big, plays real well in his own zone can do a lot of things for us. That’s the exciting piece.
“I think the potential is there for more upside,” he continued. “He’s just scratching the surface at age 23. There’s not a lot of guys that have done what he’s done as far as score 20 before that age. You look at the way the game’s played. You look at some of the things — he kills penalties, he’s really emerged on the draws. I think since he’s come in he’s gotten better every year.”
Zibanejad’s development paired with the arrivals of hotly chased forward Jimmy Vesey, Russian super-prospect Pavel Buchnevich and pure sniper Brandon Pirri should give the Rangers an offensive boost. It also wouldn’t be surprising to see Rick Nash return to form after a leg injury limited him to 15 goals in 60 games last season. Zibanejad, Michael Grabner and well-rounded blue line recruit Nick Holden should help improve a penalty kill that fell to 26th overall last season.
It also cannot be understated how important Keith Yandle was at generating controlled entries and offensive chances. Having a surplus of immovable defensemen tied to expensive, long-term contracts forced Yandle’s exit to the Florida Panthers. He eventually signed a massive seven-year, $44 million contract. An interesting player to watch will be 23-year-old defenseman Adam Clendening, who fits in nicely with Vigneault’s up-tempo desires.
The Rangers enter the new season built to play with speed and are better equipped to defend in their own end. It’s an improvement, but probably not enough to overtake the Washington Capitals and Penguins in the Metropolitan Division. As currently constructed, the Blueshirts seemed destined for another third-place divisional finish – but keep in mind that Gorton is an astute front-office mind and is in the process of retooling the Blueshirts in the right direction.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey