NHL.com is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, three questions facing the New York Rangers.
The New York Rangers have played 98 Stanley Cup Playoff games since 2011, the most in the NHL. The only banner they have to show for that success is for having won the Eastern Conference in 2014.
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It's not enough, especially at a time when they are on one of the best runs in their 91-year history. But the Rangers believe their window to win the Stanley Cup with goalie Henrik Lundqvist and coach Alain Vigneault remains open.
The Rangers freshened up the roster and created opportunities for promotion by buying out defenseman Dan Girardi and trading center Derek Stepan to the Arizona Coyotes. New York added a free-agent prize when it signed defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk on July 1.
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The Rangers hope the changes push them forward in their quest for the Cup, but there are questions they must answer before thinking about a parade. Here are three:
1. Can Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes handle being the top two centers?
Zibanejad, who agreed to terms on a five-year, $26.75 million contract (average annual value of $5.35 million) on July 25, is expected to take Stepan's spot as the No. 1 center. Hayes is expected to move up to be the No. 2 center after playing in the middle on the third line for most of his first three seasons.
Stepan averaged 55 points in the past four seasons and played in all situations. Zibanejad and Hayes have never reached 55 points in the NHL, but they gave Vigneault confidence they could do that and more last season.
Zibanejad got off to a terrific start with 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in 19 games before breaking his leg on Nov. 20. He had 22 points (nine goals, 13 assists) in his final 37 games and showed flashes of being a future No. 1 center in the playoffs. His issue has been inconsistency in his aggressiveness. He's occasionally too passive.
Hayes had an NHL career-high 49 points (17 goals, 32 assists), showing the growth the Rangers needed to see after his production and drive tailed off during the 2015-16 season. Hayes, who is 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, hasn't always used his big body and long reach to his advantage.
Video: NYR@DET: Hayes buries Miller's pinpoint feed in 2nd
2. Who will fill out the center depth?
Vigneault's preference is to keep J.T. Miller on the wing because he thrives there. That leaves David Desharnais and rookies Lias Andersson and Cristoval Nieves competing to be the centers on the third and fourth lines.
The Rangers may acquire a third-line center before the regular season starts Oct. 5.
"I would say it could be in the cards," Vigneault said. "Definitely a possibility."
Video: NYR@SJS: Miller hammers home one-timer for PPG
3. Can Ondrej Pavelec be solid as Henrik Lundqvist's backup goalie?
Pavelec has big shoes to fill behind Lundqvist, who is 35 and has relied on strong play from his backup in recent seasons because of injuries and occasional rough patches.
Antti Raanta won 27 games (including 16 last season) with a .921 save percentage and 2.26 goals-against average in the past two seasons as Lundqvist's backup. He'll have the chance to be a No. 1 after being traded with Stepan to Arizona.
In the two seasons prior to Raanta, Cam Talbot, now the No. 1 with the Edmonton Oilers, won 33 games with a .931 save percentage and 2.00 GAA as Lundqvist's backup.
Pavelec, who agreed to a one-year contract reportedly worth $1.3 million on July 1, lost his job as the Winnipeg Jets' No. 1 two seasons ago and spent most of last season in the American Hockey League. The Rangers might need 15 wins from Pavelec to get them close to 50 victories, which is what it took to finish in the top three of the Metropolitan Division last season.
Video: WPG@COL: Pavelec flashes the leather on Duchene