NEW YORK -- Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, Adam Fox and now Artemi Panarin. Not even general manager Jeff Gorton thought the New York Rangers' offseason would go like this.
"You hope some of these things can happen," Gorton said after signing Panarin to a seven-year, $81.5 million contract. "You hope you get your free agents. You hope you can make some trades to improve your defense. You win the lottery, you have to get lucky there."
The Rangers got the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft Lottery, but that was a win for them, moving up four spots to draft Kakko, an 18-year-old right wing with star potential.
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That came after New York acquired two defensemen in trades: Fox, a Hobey Baker Award finalist from Harvard, from the Carolina Hurricanes on April 30, and Trouba from the Winnipeg Jets on June 17.
The Rangers' most impressive offseason move then came Monday, when they signed Panarin, a 27-year-old free agent left wing who scored 87 points (28 goals, 59 assists) for the Columbus Blue Jackets last season.
Panarin chose the Rangers after receiving a great deal of interest from the Blue Jackets, Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers and New York Islanders.
"He falls right into our plan," Rangers president John Davidson said.
Video: Artemi Panarin signs seven-year deal with Rangers
It wasn't long ago that plan was to rebuild to get younger, faster and more skilled. The Rangers announced that desire less than 17 months ago in a letter to their fans and followed it up by selling at the NHL Trade Deadline for two straight seasons to stay true to those words.
Now, after not making the Stanley Cup Playoffs in those two seasons, a handful of familiar players shipped out, a number of draft picks and prospects brought in, a coaching change from Alain Vigneault to David Quinn, and a change in president from Glen Sather to Davidson, the Rangers look ready to contend for a spot in the postseason because of this offseason.
"It's all falling into place," Davidson said.
Except there is still some trepidation from Gorton and Davidson about wading into the territory of raised expectations. Even though it's not up to them, they'd prefer the brakes get tapped on the sentiment that the Rangers should be a contender right away.
"Everybody keep in mind that this is a process and we're going through it," Davidson said.
The Rangers have to sign their restricted free agents, a list that includes Trouba, defenseman Tony DeAngelo and forwards Pavel Buchnevich and Brendan Lemieux.
They also have to figure out the future of left wing Chris Kreider, who after this season can become an unrestricted free agent. Kreider will likely be re-signed or traded before the season begins.
"Today is obviously a big day for us getting Panarin, and that's what we're thinking about right now, but we'll move forward here in the next few days and start to figure out what's next and where we go from here," Gorton said. "Chris in particular is a really good player, a player we like a lot, and we'll continue to talk to [agent] Matt Keator and Chris and see what's next."
The Rangers have to make the additions fit into a cohesive group, melding the experience they acquired with Panarin (320 NHL games) and Trouba (408 NHL games) with their abundance of youth. That's a big reason signing Panarin was so important to them.
Expectations in New York are skyrocketing as you read this story, and the Rangers feel Panarin will be the perfect insulation up front for Kakko; Vitali Kravtsov, a 19-year-old right wing who was the No. 9 pick in the 2018 NHL Draft; and forwards Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson and Brett Howden, each 21 or younger when the season begins.
"It's hard to win in this league, it's really hard to win in this league, and when you put these pieces together, some of them pop sooner than others," Davidson said. "We've got a lot of youth. We want Artem to be a part of this, and when these young players pop, he's still going to be in his prime."
The Rangers need to figure out if Chytil can play center in the NHL. He played primarily on the wing as a rookie last season. Can Andersson be a legitimate top-two or top-three center? If neither can be the No. 2 center behind Mika Zibanejad, does that mean it's Ryan Strome?
If Kreider is traded, who fills in behind Panarin as the second-line left wing? Will Kakko be the instant hit most people think he's going to be? Is Fox really ready to graduate from Harvard into the NHL?
"We've got a lot of work to do here," Gorton said. "We're on a good path, but where the timetable is and all that, our goal is to get better every day, and that's what we try to do."
Can't argue with their success rate this offseason.
"Obviously, we're happy," Gorton said. "I'll leave it at that."
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