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Season Preview

Season Preview: New York Rangers

Young forwards have promise, concerns remain on defense

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer
At a glance

2015-16 record: 46-27-9, 101 points, 3rd in Metropolitan Division, 4th in Eastern Conference

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Lost to Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in Eastern Conference First Round

Additions: F: Pavel Buchnevich, Nathan Gerbe, Michael Grabner, Brandon Pirri, Jimmy Vesey, Mika Zibanejad; D: Adam Clendening, Nick Holden

Subtractions: F: Derick Brassard, Dominic Moore, Eric Staal, Viktor Stalberg; D: Dan Boyle, Keith Yandle

 

Projected opening night lineup

Forwards

Rick Nash -- Derek Stepan -- Mats Zuccarello

Chris Kreider -- Mika Zibanejad -- Pavel Buchnevich

Jimmy Vesey -- Kevin Hayes -- J.T. Miller

Michael Grabner -- Nathan Gerbe -- Jesper Fast

Brandon Pirri

Defensemen

Ryan McDonagh - Kevin Klein

Marc Staal - Brady Skjei

Nick Holden - Dan Girardi

Dylan McIlrath

Goalies

Henrik Lundqvist

Antti Raanta

Magnus Hellberg

 

Video: NYR@PHI: Stepan connects with Vesey to tie the game

The New York Rangers are younger than they were last season. The jury is still out if that means they're better.

The good news for the Rangers is they still have one of the best goalies in the NHL.

Henrik Lundqvist called last season up-and-down, but he still finished with 35 wins, a 2.48 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. Those aren't Vezina Trophy numbers, but they were good enough to get an inconsistent team into the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 101 points.

Lundqvist has become the Rangers' oldest player at 34. The reason: Dominic Moore and Dan Boyle are gone and the Rangers replaced them, as well as some others in their late 20s and early 30s, with a younger group that is expected to become a big part of the core.

The Rangers traded 29-year-old center Derick Brassard to the Ottawa Senators for 23-year-old center Mika Zibanejad on July 18. Zibanejad should be the Rangers' No. 2 center. He had 51 points in 81 games for the Senators last season. Brassard had 58 points in 80 games for the Rangers.

New York signed 23-year-old rookie free agent left wing Jimmy Vesey and brought 21-year-old right wing Pavel Buchnevich over from Russia. Vesey won the Hobey Baker Award last season while playing for Harvard. Buchnevich has been the Rangers' top forward prospect for the past two years.

Zibanejad, Vesey, Buchnevich, Kevin Hayes (24) and J.T. Miller (23) figure to be top-nine forwards, along with Rick Nash (32), Mats Zuccarello (29), Derek Stepan (26) and Chris Kreider (25).

Considering the Rangers haven't had a first-round draft pick since defenseman Brady Skjei (No. 28) in 2012, to have six potential top-nine forwards who are 25 or younger, five of whom are homegrown, is impressive.

Hayes and Vesey were draft picks of other teams who became college free agents. Buchnevich was New York's third-round pick (No. 75) in 2013. Miller (No. 15 in 2011) and Kreider (No. 19 in 2009) were first-round picks by the Rangers.

As much as the Rangers are banking on their youth to serve them well in the scoring department, they're hopeful their veteran defense can bounce back from a disappointing 2015-16 season.

Ryan McDonagh is the captain and leader of the defense. He'll get the most ice time if healthy. With the loss of Keith Yandle to the Florida Panthers, McDonagh might also have to quarterback the power play from the left point.

The questions start behind McDonagh.

Can Dan Girardi and Marc Staal be better than they were last season, when they struggled with consistency and speed? Will Skjei be a full-time contributor and can he do it from the right side, his off side? Can Dylan McIlrath skate well enough to keep up if needed in a bigger role?

The Rangers should know what to expect from McDonagh, Kevin Klein and Nick Holden. What they get from Girardi, Staal, Skjei and McIlrath will go a long way toward determining how good they can be as a team.

 

Why they should make the Stanley Cup Playoffs

The Rangers still have one of the best goalies in the League, and Lundqvist can do a lot to make up for a defense that isn't as mobile as it once was. New York also has more skill up front than it had last season, when it finished seventh with 233 goals. Stepan, Zibanejad and Hayes give them a solid 1-2-3 group down the middle.

Video: NYR@PHI: Lundqvist stops Gostisbehere through traffic

 

Why they could miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs

The Rangers could have problems breaking the puck out of their zone because of their defense, which last season was prone to turnovers in the defensive zone. That would put more pressure on Lundqvist and prevent the creative and skilled forwards from going to work in the offensive zone. Special teams could be a concern as well with no legitimate shooting threats from the points on the power play and a penalty kill that was 26th in the League at 78.2 percent.

 

Breakout candidate

Vesey. Once the dust settled on free agency after July 1, all eyes turned to Vesey, who chose the Rangers ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres. Expectations are high because of how his free agency played out. The Rangers have been impressed with his hockey sense and playmaking ability in preseason games.

 

On the hot seat

Nash. Last season was a disappointment for Nash, who scored 15 goals in 60 games after getting 42 goals in 79 games in 2014-15. Nash has two years remaining on his contract, which carries a $7.8 million salary-cap charge. There were rumors during the offseason that the Rangers were trying to trade him but couldn't find a taker at a suitable price. Nash is counted on as a top-six forward and a power-play threat. The Rangers need him to bounce back. If he can't, he could become trade bait, either prior to the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline or after the season.

Video: PIT@NYR, Gm3: Nash opens scoring with top-shelf SHG

 

Trophy candidates

Lundqvist (Vezina); Vesey (Calder)

 

Quotable

"It definitely feels different. It's a new look and almost a new style. We always talk about playing fast, but so far in camp it seems like we've got a lot of skill with that speed. In years past we might have had some speed, but now we've got real solid depth as far as three or four lines that have some goal-scoring ability. That goes back to how Pittsburgh was so successful in the playoffs. It wasn't about just the top line or two lines, it was that third and even fourth line with some guys making a huge impact. That's what we're hoping for here. Whatever breeds success you want to try to follow that." -- defenseman Ryan McDonagh

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