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Wednesday Night Hockey

Rangers rebuild includes ups and downs with youth

Could dress seven players age 21 or younger for 'Wednesday Night Hockey' against Red Wings

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- It was almost a half-hour after practice ended, coach David Quinn and most of the players on the New York Rangers were long off the ice, some even dressed and heading for their cars, for the freedom to enjoy a pristine fall Sunday in New York City.

Eight players were still skating. One was 32-year-old defenseman Marc Staal, a recent healthy scratch trying to get in extra work. The rest were all at least 11 years younger than Staal.

The rebuilding Rangers are growing up this season with seven players in the lineup the past three games who are all 21 or younger.

Defensemen Libor Hajek, Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren are all 21 and born in February of 1998. Forwards Brett Howden and Lias Andersson are also 21. Filip Chytil, another forward, is 20 and Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, is 18.

"We've been talking about this as an organization that not only do we feel very good about them as players, but as people too with their work ethic and drive, their coachability and all those things you're going to need to have success in this league," Quinn said. "They certainly enjoy each other's company. They work hard, love hockey, love being out there [on the ice]."

It's easy to see the bond developing as the Rangers head into "Wednesday Night Hockey" against the Detroit Red Wings at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS).

Video: OTT@NYR: Kakko nets backhander off Fox's slick feed

The seven young Rangers came off the ice Sunday as a group, one by one filing into the dressing room. Staal joked that he had to get home to see his kids. The Rangers' "kids" were taking their time to get their equipment off while joking around with each other. 

They weren't in a rush to get home. Some of them don't even have homes.

Fox, Hajek, Chytil and Lindgren all live in the same hotel in Manhattan. Fox said he'll soon be moving out to get his own place. Hajek will likely do the same because his status on the team, like Fox's, seems stable. 

Video: NYR@NSH: Chytil scores after nifty toe-drag

Chytil and Lindgren were recalled from Hartford of the American Hockey League last week, but it doesn't look like either will be going back any time soon.

Howden and Andersson have their own apartments in Manhattan. 

Kakko lives with a billet family in White Plains, New York. He enjoys it but being part of the Rangers 21U group has been most important to his development.

"It's so good for me," Kakko said. "We can talk about the same things. They're good friends for me. That's the biggest thing."

Fox said being around players their own age has helped them all adapt to the NHL.

"We try to be as close as we can and it's nice that no one is really isolated in the sense of it's not a bunch of thirtysomething veterans doing their own thing," Fox said. "A lot of us have been in the hotel together, on the road together. Guys grab meals together all the time. It's guys without wives or serious girlfriends. It's definitely built a good culture between us."

The Rangers veteran players have gained an appreciation for them because they see how important they are, especially with center Mika Zibanejad out of the lineup for the past three games because of an upper-body injury.

Kakko, Chytil and Fox all scored in a 4-1 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Oct. 29, which was the third time in Rangers history and first since Dec. 16, 1976 that they had seven players 21 or younger in the same lineup.

Video: TBL@NYR: Fox pads lead, scores first NHL goal

Chytil scored in a 2-1 win at the Nashville Predators on Saturday, and Kakko had the first multi-point game of his NHL career (goal, assist) in a 6-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Monday, the type of game that should be a learning experience for all of them.

"It's definitely a challenge when you're that young jumping in this league, but the impact they're having now is awesome," defenseman Brady Skjei said. "We need it. We have to keep building their confidence."

Ups and downs, like the game against Ottawa, are to be expected when more than a third of a lineup is made up of college-aged players. But to Quinn and the Rangers, the best part of this developing story is how much these players have grown since training camp.

Howden and Andersson, each in his second seasons, have fared well in roles as bottom-six centers, handling a little bit of everything, including shorthanded minutes. 

Kakko had arguably his best game against the Senators.

"He's skating a little bit faster, a little bit more physical, quicker to pucks, quicker to battles, a smile on his face," Quinn said.

Chytil had nine points (three goals, six assists) in nine games with Hartford, and he brought that confidence with him to New York, where he's been more physical, tougher on the walls and harder in the defensive zone than he was in his 75 games with the Rangers last season. 

Hajek shows his assertivness in his skating and physicality.

Fox has adapted his offensive game to the NHL game, making him dangerous because of his skating and instincts, yet still reliable defensively.

Lindgren hasn't looked out of place in his three games, but will be a healthy scratch on Wednesday, along with Andersson 

"We're a part of this team and the coaching staff, the other guys, I don't think they're looking at us as young guys who aren't expected to do anything," Fox said. "We definitely need to contribute and help the team win games."

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