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Rangers manage expectations after adding Panarin, Trouba, Kakko

'Hopefully this summer's a step in the right direction,' GM says

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PLYMOUTH, Mich. -- After missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second straight season, the New York Rangers aggressively retooled their roster and now have a different issue to deal with.

They must manage high expectations.

The Rangers acquired defenseman Adam Fox in a trade with the Carolina Hurricanes on April 30, hired president John Davidson on May 17, acquired defenseman Jacob Trouba in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets on June 17, selected forward Kaapo Kakko with the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft on June 21 and signed forward Artemi Panarin as an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

New York fans are excited, and they should be. But general manager Jeff Gorton isn't declaring the rebuild over, let alone saying the Rangers should make the playoffs this season, let alone saying they should contend for the Cup this season.

"I'm not in the business of prognostication," Gorton said during the World Junior Summer Showcase at USA Hockey Arena on Tuesday. "We're just trying to get better every day. We know this is going to take a while to do what we want to do. Hopefully this summer's a step in the right direction."

Get used to hearing that message.

"We want to have a great [training] camp," Gorton said. "We want to go into the season trying to get better every day and improving month to month and setting ourselves up as we go forward. Where that is, where we are, where the rebuild is, you know, that's not really for me to decide.

"We'll see how the guys come back. Let's see how some of our younger players who were new to the lineup last year, how they respond, how much better they are. Let's see what some of the new players we're adding can add for our team. So, there's a lot of questions in there, and we're not going to have the answers until the season starts."

Video: Busy Rangers offseason started with May acquisitions

The Rangers need to sort out who will play center behind Mika Zibanejad, for example, after trading Kevin Hayes to the Jets on Feb. 25. Hayes was a pending UFA at the time. Winnipeg traded him to the Philadelphia Flyers on June 3, and he signed a seven-year contract with the Flyers on June 19.

Filip Chytil, Ryan Strome, Brett Howden and Lias Andersson each is a candidate.

"The natural question and spotlight goes on what's going to happen next to that second-line center," Gorton said. "I think there's a lot of people in house that we'll look at and see where it is."

The Rangers aren't the only team in the League that has improved, either.

Look across the Hudson River. After missing the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons, the New Jersey Devils selected center Jack Hughes with the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft on June 21, acquired defenseman P.K. Subban in a trade with the Nashville Predators on June 22, signed forward Wayne Simmonds as a UFA on July 1 and acquired forward Nikita Gusev in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights on Monday.

The rivalry could be reignited.

"They have the first pick; we have the second pick," Gorton said. "There's some intrigue there. We added a defenseman; they added a pretty big defenseman. So, you could see some things there that they're doing, and we'll see how it turns out. It's pretty fun. Everyone's trying to get better. I think the East, a lot of teams got better."

Video: Analyzing Trouba contract, Rangers' asset management

A year ago, the St. Louis Blues had a big offseason after missing the playoffs, adding centers Tyler Bozak and Ryan O'Reilly and forwards Pat Maroon and David Perron.

They started the season poorly and changed coaches Nov. 19, replacing Mike Yeo with Craig Berube; were last in the NHL on Jan. 3 and gave goalie Jordan Binnington his first NHL start on Jan. 7; and rallied to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Then they won the Cup.

Again, the Rangers are focused on improving each day, not setting the bar too high too soon. But that's what they're working toward.

"You look around the League," Gorton said. "You talk to players in free agency, and you get their thoughts. A lot of people, when they look at teams, they feel like the League changes quickly and teams get better quickly. We didn't have a hard time talking to players about what we were doing and the rebuild, so to speak, because people could see the plan.

"I think it's a young man's game, and that's why you see teams get better really quick. Hopefully we are one of those teams on the come."

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