NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the New York Rangers.
The New York Rangers know their window to win the Stanley Cup may be closing. After reaching the Eastern Conference Final three times from 2012-2015, they were eliminated in the first round last season by the eventual Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Rangers made a big splash last week in hopes of avoiding another early exit, signing highly coveted forward Jimmy Vesey on Friday. The 23-year-old met with seven teams after becoming an unrestricted free agent Tuesday before deciding he would begin his professional career in New York.
"From talking to [the Rangers], it seemed like they really needed to have me in their lineup, seemed that they believed in me," said Vesey, who won the 2016 Hobey Baker Award as the top NCAA player after he had 24 goals and 22 assists in 33 games as a senior at Harvard University. "That was something I was looking for, and I think that based on our talks, New York was the right fit.
"Talking to coach [Alain] Vigneault, [general manager] Jeff Gorton and [director of player development] Chris Drury, I was really impressed with those guys and I just thought that New York was somewhere that I could play and hopefully stick in the NHL."
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Gorton said signing Vesey was a no-brainer.
"Any time a guy like this becomes available, we're going to try to be in the race, and we're really excited to have him," Gorton said. "... I think he's got an ability to score, he can make plays, he's a very talented player. ... What number? What line? I wouldn't want to go down that road and say yet, but I think he can come in and play."
Vesey could be a linemate of another player acquired by the Rangers this offseason, center Mika Zibanejad, who on July 18 was traded from the Ottawa Senators with a second-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft for center Derick Brassard and a seventh-round pick in 2018.
"I want to have that goal or mindset to not just make the playoffs, but also go far and aim for the Cup. It's going to be exciting," said Zibanejad, who had NHL career highs of 21 goals, 30 assists and 51 points last season. "[I want] to be more of a threat to the other teams and having the opponents know that I'm out there, to be a big presence."
Gorton took some heat for trading Brassard, whose 27 goals led the Rangers last season, but he said Zibanejad has a lot of upside.
"He's just scratching the surface at age 23," Gorton said. "This is a younger player that is almost six years younger (than Brassard, 28), that's coming off two 20-goal seasons that we think is heading to the prime of his career. The ability to get him, to get a younger player, to get a guy that's fast, big, plays real well in his own zone, can do a lot of things for us, that's the exciting piece."
New York made several other moves to attempt to shore up its penalty kill, which ranked 26th (78.2 percent) in the NHL last season; in the previous two seasons, the penalty kill ranked sixth and third, respectively. Other players new to the Rangers this season include defenseman Nick Holden and forwards Michael Grabner, Josh Jooris, and Nathan Gerbe
"There's no secret our penalty-killing was not good, and some of the moves we made, if not all of them, have had some part in that," Gorton said. "We have to be better there. When we got a guy like Grabner or Gerbe, or to add Jooris or Holden … and now Zibanejad, yeah, that's a significant part of the game now, and for us to be in the top of the League is important.
"That's something we strive for and it didn't happen [last season], and I think it says so in all the moves that we made."
Video: The crew compares Brassard and Zibanejad
The first-round loss last season wasn't something the Rangers were expecting, but having an extended summer could help considering they have played 81 postseason games since 2012, most in the League.
"We've been fortunate to have some pretty long runs, obviously not successful as we want to be," defenseman Ryan McDonagh said last month. "It's not a good feeling to lose in the first round in five [games] the way we did. That's the biggest motivation, kind of that feeling of embarrassment and letting your teammates down, letting your organization down, letting the fans down that appreciate us and watch us all year. So like I said, I'm really anxious to, hopefully, see a lot of hard work from the guys paying off this year."
Four players who scored more than 20 goals last season will return for New York: Mats Zuccarello (26), Derek Stepan (22), J.T. Miller (22) and Chris Kreider (21). The Rangers also hope left wing Rick Nash will bounce back from an injury-plagued season (15 goals after 42 in 2014-15), and they will look for forward Kevin Hayes to increase his production (14 goals last season, 17 as a rookie in 2014-15).
"For us, [Hayes is] a 6-foot-5 center that has shown at times how good of a player he can be in this league, and I would expect that he comes back with a chip on his shoulder and plays really well," Gorton said. "And I would expect that from a lot of our players. After losing in the first round, I would expect that most of our players, if not all of them, are coming back with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder."