By Sean Hartnett
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General manager Jeff Gorton spent the offseason shaping the Rangers into a younger and faster bunch. As a result, there is a heightened level of expectations this season.
Familiar faces, including longtime alternate captains Derek Stepan and Dan Girardi, are no longer part of the puzzle. It will be up to the energetic legs of youth to push the Blueshirts back into the championship conversation.
It won’t be easy filling Stepan’s skates. The affable Minnesotan routinely delivered 50-point seasons, while providing steady play at both ends of the ice. It will probably take more than one person to replace Stepan’s multifaceted contributions and straight-shooting brand of leadership.
The Rangers have opted to back first-line center Mika Zibanejad with Kevin Hayes, preseason rookie standout Filip Chytil and veteran David Desharnais down the middle. Hayes will look to take advantage of increased minutes, while Desharnais could thrive against less-demanding matchups in a fourth-line role. Smooth-skating Chytil demonstrated fine instincts around the net throughout the preseason, but repeating the trick over the course of an 82-game NHL season could be a different ballgame.
Rick Nash is entering his contract year looking trim and hoping to better last season’s 38 points. Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich will be expected to be better in their sophomore seasons, while Hayes, Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller must continue upward progression. It will be interesting to see if Michael Grabner can match last season’s 27-goal effort, but fan favorite Mats Zuccarello should be a pretty safe bet to finish near 60 points.
Paul Carey surprised some by beating out the competition to win a roster spot. The 29-year-old forward impressed throughout the preseason with his speed, versatility and penalty killing prowess.
Energetic winger Jesper Fast was initially expected to be out until November after undergoing a labral repair of his left hip in June. However, the 25-year-old Swede is progressing well in his rehabilitation and has participated in on-ice passing drills in a non-contact jersey. There’s a chance he could return to the lineup in late October. In the meantime, it won’t be easy for the Rangers to make up for Fast’s superb man-down work.
Kevin Shattenkirk is the game-changing acquisition this franchise has needed since the 2016 offseason salary cap crunch influenced the decision not to resign Keith Yandle. At 28, Shattenkirk is in the prime of his career and will be relied on to jump-start a Rangers power play that converted just 7.7 percent of its opportunities in the playoffs last spring.
Shattenkirk has recorded at least 30 assists and 40 points in six of his seven NHL seasons. The only time he did not reach these heights was the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Erik Karlsson, Duncan Keith and Yandle are the only other NHL defensemen to amass 30 assists and 40 points in six different seasons since Shattenkirk’s rookie campaign of 2010-11.
The New Rochelle native ranks second among NHL defensemen in power play points (131), and third in power play goals (32) and power play assists (99) since the start of the 2011-12 season. Shattenkirk is the only defenseman who is third or higher in all three categories over that span.
Though much attention is paid to his man-up value, Shattenkirk is a tremendous upgrade to the right side of a defense that struggled last season, and he’s one of the league’s best at advancing the puck.
Brady Skjei is quickly becoming one of the NHL’s most complete young defensemen. The 23-year-old registered 39 points in his first full season and could see increased power play minutes this season. Skjei is an excellent skater, can serve as dependable shutdown man, and he is trending upward offensively.
Captain Ryan McDonagh enjoyed one of his finest offensive seasons in 2016-17, notching 42 points in 77 games. Though his power play role will be decreased due to the addition of Shattenkirk, expect McDonagh to be even better offensively now that he will be paired with more offensive and quicker-skating partners compared to aging Girardi.
It’s possible that head coach Alain Vigneault experiments with Shattenkirk as a partner for both McDonagh and Skjei. The Rangers’ top four of McDonagh, Shattenkirk, Skjei and Brendan Smith should be effective at driving offense, establishing zone time, and playing reliably in their own end.
Tony DeAngelo is an intriguing prospect, having spent last season splitting time between the Arizona Coyotes and AHL Tucson. His strengths are his skating, creativity, and puckhandling. He has the potential to develop into a good offensive player at even strength and a power play asset. Though his defensive game needs polish, he’s the kind of smooth-skating blueliner who could thrive in Vigneault’s uptempo system.
The Rangers will be his third franchise in three seasons. DeAngelo will be looking to move on from a checkered past, which included twice being suspended for what the OHL deems as “homophobic, racist and sexist language” and two suspensions for abusing officials.
DeAngelo is a 21-year-old and it would be unfair to judge anyone’s character by mistakes made in their youth. He has been given a clean slate and a terrific opportunity to show his on-ice development and off-ice maturity on a high-aiming Rangers team.
Nick Holden and Steven Kampfer will each begin the season as spare defensemen. Finalized, cap-compliant rosters are due to be filed at 5 p.m. Tuesday. The Rangers have enough cap room to carry 13 forwards, eight defensemen and two goaltenders.
Franchise netminder Henrik Lundqvist’s .910 save percentage last season was the lowest of his career, but he rebounded during the playoffs to the tune of a sparkling .927. Expect him to hover around .920 in 2017-18, now that he’s playing behind a group that will spend less time pinned in its own end.
New backup Ondrej Pavelec only appeared in eight NHL games last season and possesses a .908 career save percentage. Goaltending coach Benoit Allaire worked wonders with former Rangers goalies Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta, but it remains to be seen if he can guide Pavelec back to the form that saw him post a .920 mark in 50 games back in 2014-15. It’s a big question for this team, considering Lundqvist’s age (35) and scaled-back workload.
Will the offseason retooling be enough for the Rangers to improve on last spring’s second-round playoff exit? Check back Wednesday for my 2017-18 NHL season preview and predictions.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey