By Sean Hartnett
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The tightening pressure of the salary-cap crunch forced the Rangers to trade possession-strong winger Carl Hagelin at this summer’s NHL Draft. Even though defensively-responsible winger Jesper Fast’s game has grown in leaps and bounds, it’s going to take a collective effort to soften the blow of losing Hagelin’s penalty-killing expertise, game-changing speed and dependable third-line production.

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Part of that responsibility falls on Emerson Etem, a high-potential 23-year-old winger acquired from the Anaheim Ducks in the Hagelin deal. Few players in the league can match Hagelin’s lightning stride. Though he’s not as fast as Hagelin, Etem possesses the kind of speed that can cause havoc for opposing defenders.

Head coach Alain Vigneault often complimented Hagelin for his ability to “back off the opposition.” Next season, you might hear A.V. offering the same kind of praise for Etem. What the Rangers see in Etem is a player who effectively uses his speed to get to the outside of defenders the way Hagelin can – but also a player who boasts tremendous offensive upside and a powerful physique.

“Obviously, my strengths are my speed,” Etem said last Wednesday at the MSG Training Center. “With guys like (Chris) Kreider, the list goes on and on. With the loss of Hagelin, who’s a speed guy, I’m looking to obviously fill that role. At the same time, whatever they want me to do, I’m gonna do. I feel like I can play versatile. I can play the physical game.”

For three consecutive seasons, Etem bounced between Anaheim and AHL affiliate Norfolk. When he did crack Anaheim’s lineup, he mostly played on a fourth line bereft of skill players. Playing alongside offensively limited linemates explains why Etem only collected five goals and five assists in 45 NHL games last season.

“Right now, I really haven’t had the opportunity to break out offensively,” Etem said. “I feel like over the course of the summer, with training and all that, I should come into camp ready to go. Like I said, anything they ask me to do, any role they want me to play, I’m going to play. I play a speed game, and I think that’s what this team is looking for.”

Etem, a former 2010 first-round pick, will get a different kind of opportunity with the Rangers. After acquiring Etem at the 2015 NHL Draft, general manager Jeff Gorton said he has the chance to immediately slide into a top-nine forward role.

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“I’m looking to obviously have a big year,” Etem said. “It’s exciting, it’s a new opportunity for me. It’s something I want to take full advantage of. I’m going to do everything it takes to show the fans the style of game that I feel is exciting and electrifying.”

While an official training camp start date has yet to be announced, Etem is motivated to impress Vigneault and the coaching staff when training camp gets underway some time in mid-September. Two top-nine spots are up for grabs now that Hagelin is in Anaheim and Martin St. Louis has retired.

“I’ve got to show them come camp that I’m ready to fill those roles,” Etem said. “Obviously, with the two players that are gone – they were huge to this team. I’m looking to be a huge force.”

Kreider and J.T. Miller are two former first-round picks that have improved year by year under Vigneault. After enduring the typical ups and downs of youth, Kreider and Miller eventually established themselves as NHL regulars and are on track to reach their potential.

Now, Vigneault has another diamond to polish in Etem. A.V.’s uptempo system and a top-nine forward role could unlock Etem’s full potential.

“When we played New York last year, (there were) a lot of stretch passes – especially in the neutral zone,” Etem said. “Off the rush, they were quick. For me, being a speed guy, I’m looking forward to that. This is a great system for me to play in.”

There’s a strong chance Etem makes the most of his new opportunity with the Rangers and flourishes.

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Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.