By Sean Hartnett
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Thirty-one teams have questions to answer as NHL training camps open this week. Even the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins naturally have positional battles to settle and newcomers to integrate.
The Pens are constructed with superstar talent, lightning speed and the blossoming youth required to take a crack at completing a Stanley Cup three-peat. On the opposite end of the spectrum is the newly-minted Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion franchise that will form its identity on the fly.
Somewhere between those two extremes sits the Rangers. Since the 2004-05 lockout, the Blueshirts have qualified for the playoffs in 11 of 12 seasons and reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. In the quest for their first league championship since 1994, the offseason brought significant changes to the team’s core. Most notably was saying farewell to longtime alternate captains Dan Girardi and Derek Stepan, who had only worn Rangers blue during their careers.
Only Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh, Mats Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, Rick Nash, Marc Staal, J.T. Miller and Jesper Fast remain from New York’s 2014 playoff roster. Let’s start with Lundqvist, the longest-serving and oldest Ranger.
MANAGING LUNDQVIST’S WORKLOAD
Lundqvist will turn 36 on March 2. Injuries and a rest plan limited the three-time All-Star to 57 games last season. His .910 save percentage was a career low, but he recaptured his best play in the postseason, posting a .927 mark in 12 playoff games.
A few eyebrows were raised when Ondrej Pavelec was signed as Lundqvist’s backup. The 30-year-old holds a .907 career save percentage and posted just an .888 mark in his eight NHL appearances last season. Goaltending coach Benoit Allaire has his work cut out for him in shaping Pavelec into a quality backup.
The Rangers will need strong performances from Pavelec in a highly competitive Metropolitan Division where last season’s bottom four — the Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and Devils — are expected to be stronger. There won’t be any gimmie victories and if Pavelec falters, it will force Lundqvist into an increased workload. The Rangers want to keep Lundqvist fresh and his health will play a major role in how deep their potential playoff run goes.
Allaire has previously worked wonders on projects like Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta, molding them into No. 1 goaltenders whom the Rangers eventually traded for assets. He certainly has an eye for polishing rough diamonds and it wouldn’t be surprising if Pavelec takes his game up a notch next season.
As the roster currently stands, many experts view the Rangers as short at center. Replacing Stepan, a perennial 50-plus point player who offers intelligent play on both ends of the ice, won’t be easy. More than ever Mika Zibanejad will be counted on to lead the way and Kevin Hayes will be expected to take the next leap in his progression.
After Zibanejad and Hayes, it’s unclear how the rest of the pivot depth shakes out. Free agent addition David Desharnais could fill a bottom-six role and if rookie Lias Andersson, the seventh overall pick in the 2017 draft, impresses, he could find his way into the opening-night lineup. Scouts like the 18-year-old’s hockey IQ, hands and work ethic.
It’s possible that Miller shifts to center, but head coach Alain Vigneault may opt to keep continuity going by keeping him on the wing.
FILLING OUT THE BLUE LINE
In recent years, the Rangers have taken strides toward becoming younger and faster, particularly on the back end. This summer, it was out with the old in Girardi and Kevin Klein, two veterans whose performances dipped due to injuries and age.
Marquee free agent signing Kevin Shattenkirk’s ability to advance the puck and drive offense will be a major factor as the Blueshirts try to improve in transition and on the power play. Since the start of the 2011-12 season, Shattenkirk has 131 power play points. Among NHL defensemen, only Ottawa Senators captain Erik Karlsson has racked up more (146).
Expect McDonagh, Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith and Marc Staal to assume five of the six regular defenseman spots. The competition to fill the sixth/seventh roles will be intense, with Nick Holden and Steven Kampfer returning, speedy Anthony DeAngelo viewed as a high-potential impact player, and a slew of hopefuls, including Neal Pionk, Alexei Bereglazov, Ryan Graves, Sean Day and Vince Pedrie eager to state their case.
Holden’s play was incredibly reliable during the first half of last season. He endured a difficult second half and was on the ice alongside Staal for several backbreaking playoff goals that led to a second-round elimination by the Senators. Holden definitely ended his first season on a sour note and will be out to prove this preseason that he’s a far better player.
A bounce-back campaign from Holden would come in handy as it would afford the Rangers the opportunity to patiently develop their young blueliners in Hartford. Don’t discount Kampfer in the race to earn a sixth/seventh gig with the big club. Kampfer was handed a two-year extension in April and Vigneault seems to like his combination of speed and physicality.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey