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Rangers believe they can compete for Stanley Cup

Coach Vigneault anxious for competition on defense, feels there is 'good buzz' at training camp

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The words seemed to come easily to New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, not practiced or prepared, just honest and believable.

"We believe we can compete for the Stanley Cup," Vigneault said Thursday during his first press conference of the season.

Vigneault's words are reasonable, just. The Rangers have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for seven straight seasons, got to the Eastern Conference Second Round last season and have won six series in four seasons under Vigneault.

Goalie Henrik Lundqvist, 35, is healthy and, according to Vigneault, looks lighter and younger.

"In my mind, he's still in the elite top-five goalies," Vigneault said, "and he wants to prove that."

Video: Vigneault Looks Ahead to 2017-18 Rangers Season

The Rangers have arguably never been deeper, or at least quicker, on defense entering a season under Vigneault than they are this season after signing defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to a four-year contract on July 1. They have him and captain Ryan McDonagh as a likely top pair, with Brendan Smith and the emerging Brady Skjei as the projected second pair.

Marc Staal and Nick Holden are holdovers, but the Rangers acquired Anthony DeAngelo from the Arizona Coyotes, and signed college free agent Neal Pionk and Alexei Bereglazov from the Kontinental Hockey League to push them.

"We're real excited and anxious to see what our back end is going to deliver," Vigneault said.

Vigneault said he believes centers Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes will take the next step and prove they are legitimate top-six forwards.

He is looking forward to more leadership coming from Hayes, and forwards Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello. He thinks forwards Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich will show significant growth in their second NHL seasons.

"There is a good buzz here," Vigneault said. "We've got tremendous opportunity."

They also have a number of questions and important decisions to make before opening night, which is Oct. 5 against the Colorado Avalanche at Madison Square Garden.

Video: Vigneault On Rangers Leadership Group

Is Staal, the longest-tenured defenseman -- he's entering his 11th season in the NHL, all with the Rangers -- in jeopardy of losing his job?

"It would be safe to say that there are a few guys that maybe for the first time in a long time, Marc being one of them, that are fighting for ice time, fighting for a spot on the team," Vigneault said.

Staal is signed for four more seasons with a $5.7 million salary-cap charge, according to CapFriendly.com. But that doesn't mean he's a lock.

If DeAngelo, Pionk or Bereglazov perform better and deserve more ice time, the Rangers could try to trade Staal. Short of that, they could try to waive him and, if he clears, send him to Hartford of the American Hockey League.

"I believe in Marc Staal, but at the end of the day this is probably the first time in a while that he's fighting for a spot and minutes," Vigneault said. "He knows that."

The Rangers' depth of natural centers is, in Vigneault's words, "on the respectable line," which is to say the coach has concerns. That's why he's going to use J.T. Miller at center during training camp.

Miller was drafted by the Rangers as a center in 2011, but he has primarily played on the wing in his 278 games with New York. However, he might end up as the Rangers' best option to be a third-line center behind Zibanejad and Hayes because the other candidates are far from sure things.

Video: AV On Rangers Center Depth

David Desharnais, 31, who signed a one-year contract on July 4, has 43 points (17 goals, 26 assists) in 114 games the past two seasons. Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil were the Rangers' first-round picks this year, Nos. 7 and 21, respectively. Cristoval Nieves has played one game in the NHL.

"I'd rather go out and see right here early on in training camp a guy like J.T., who has played that position before, how he looks, how he feels," Vigneault said. "He's not a young player anymore. He's a veteran player, so I want to see that experience and what he can do at that position."

There is outside skepticism about Lundqvist's new backup, Ondrej Pavelec, and his ability to do for the Rangers what Cam Talbot and Antti Raanta did during Vigneault's first four seasons.

Pavelec, the former Winnipeg Jets' No. 1 goalie, signed a one-year contract on July 1. He spent a good part of last season in the AHL and was below average in his eight-game stint in the NHL with the Jets, going 4-4-0 with a 3.55 goals-against average and .855 save percentage.

Vigneault won't put a number on the amount of games he wants Lundqvist to play this season, but it's fair to project that Pavelec will have to play at least 20-25. He might have to win more than half of his starts to supplement Lundqvist's production to help get the Rangers in the playoffs.

"I think our team has got him at the right time," Vigneault said. "You only get so many kicks at the can in this League. You've got to have a highly-motivated guy that wants to listen to the goalie coach, that wants to help a team win so that he can prove that he belongs in the NHL."

The Rangers want to prove they can finish at the top of the NHL, not just come close, as they have in the past. This may very well turn into their best team in the Vigneault era, but it arguably has more uncertainty than any of the other four entering training camp.

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