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Rangers remain optimistic about chances to win Stanley Cup

Confident window for championship still open for returning core

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

For the first time in a long time, nobody was asking New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault about the window to win the Stanley Cup with goalie Henrik Lundqvist and the core playing in front of him.

And then Vigneault brought it up anyway on the first day of training camp.

"Nobody has talked about the window, but when we beat [the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs] two years in a row [2014-15], who would have thought Pittsburgh would have won the Stanley Cup back to back with [Matt] Murray in goal," Vigneault said. "We've got a good team. We believe we can compete for the Stanley Cup."

Last season, a six-game loss to the Ottawa Senators, which included giving up leads late in Games 2 and 5 before losing in overtime, provided the Rangers enough reason to alter the core during the offseason.

Derek Stepan, New York's No. 1 center, was traded with backup goalie Antti Raanta to the Arizona Coyotes on June 23. Dan Girardi, a top-pair right-handed defenseman, was bought out and signed a two-year contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. They played 219 Stanley Cup Playoff games with the Rangers.

The Rangers replaced Girardi by signing defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who was considered the prize of the 2017 unrestricted free agent class, to a four-year, $26.6 million contract. Instead of replacing Stepan, New York moved Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes up a notch on the depth chart and selected two centers, Lias Andersson (No. 7) and Filip Chytil (No. 21), in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft. 

Mix those changes with returning players, including Lundqvist, defenseman Ryan McDonagh, and forwards Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello and J.T. Miller, and the Rangers' optimism to start the 2017-18 season is high. 

"I look at teams like Pittsburgh, and they've won the last two, but they're not these big, huge guys that are running around," Nash said. "They're all [players] like we've got here; they're fast, guys who can check well, that play hard. Their young guys step up and their leaders are their best players. I think we can do that here."

Here is a look at the five keys for the Rangers, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season: 

 

5 KEYS

1. Lundqvist healthy, confident

Lundqvist left New York in May disappointed, dejected, even slightly worried about the future. Less than two weeks later he was being mobbed by his countrymen after he helped Sweden win the 2017 IIHF World Championship.

Winning that gold medal, even if it was accompanied by a knee injury that took some time to heal during the offseason, reinvigorated Lundqvist. He arrived in camp confident in his game and with the winning feeling he needs going into his 13th NHL season, all with the Rangers.

Video: Henrik Lundqvist lands at No. 8 on the list

2. Shattenkirk's arrival

Shattenkirk is expected to solidify the right side of the defense and improve a power play that went 3-for-39 (7.7 percent) in 12 playoff games last season.

Shattenkirk has 104 power-play points the past four seasons, second among NHL defensemen in that span to Senators captain Erik Karlsson (114), who has won the Norris Trophy twice.

3. Moving up the depth chart

Zibanejad and Hayes were bumped up to be the first- and second-line centers.

Zibanejad had 37 points (14 goals, 23 assists) in 56 games last season but missed 25 games with a broken leg. A restricted free agent, Zibanejad agreed to a five-year, $26.75 million contract on July 25. 

Hayes had an NHL career-high 49 points (17 goals, 32 assists) in 76 games last season.

"I know they're both looking forward to their opportunity," Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said. "This is the NHL, let's see if they can step up."

4. Miller's versatility

Vigneault's surprise announcement on the first day of training camp was that Miller, primarily a wing in his five NHL seasons, would be opening camp as a center in an effort to fill the hole the Rangers have at the position on their third line.

The experiment lasted about 10 days. 

Miller will start the season on the wing, Vigneault said Monday, largely because the coach has been impressed with the play of 18-year-old centers Andersson and Chytil, veteran David Desharnais, and rookies Cristoval Nieves and Vinni Lettieri.

This is good news for Vigneault, who prefers Miller on the wing because of his ability to be aggressive on the forecheck and to play a power-forward role. Miller is versatile enough that he can play all three forward positions well, which should benefit the Rangers, especially with the potential inexperience they'll have at center behind Zibanejad and Hayes.

Video: NYR@SJS: Miller beats Jones up high with wrister

5. Kreider's consistency

It's no secret that Kreider can be the Rangers' most dangerous forward when he's playing fast, using his speed and power to push the opposition back, and putting them on their heels so he can attack across the blue line and drive the net.

The example Vigneault has used twice is the way Kreider, who scored an NHL career-high 28 goals last season, played in the third period of Game 6 against the Senators. He scored 53 seconds into the period and was dominant the rest of the way with two more shots on goal and four more shot attempts when he tried, and ultimately failed, to lift the Rangers to a comeback win. They lost 4-2.

"He was a beast," Vigneault said. "He was maybe the best player on the ice. That's what we're trying to get from him on a consistent basis."

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock

Vigneault said he's not putting a number on the amount of starts Lundqvist will make this season, but you can bet on it being at least 55, his number from last season, if he stays healthy. If he feels good he'll climb into the 60s. Consistency is the key for Lundqvist. He had too many ups and downs last season.

Biggest battle

Miller moving back to the wing means there is again an opening for a third-line center. Desharnais, Chytil and Andersson are the three likely candidates at this point, but it's not time yet to rule out Nieves and Letteiri. One of them might be the fourth-line center.

Most intriguing addition

Shattenkirk is going to play top-pair minutes and run the power play. He said he has to prove he's capable of playing against top lines across the League. 

Biggest potential surprise

Chytil, who turned 18 on Sept. 5, has turned heads in training camp with his skating, skill and presence on the ice. He was not expected to push for a roster spot this season but he was doing that. Andersson has also been impressive. There is an opening on the roster because right wing Jesper Fast is recovering from offseason hip surgery.

If Andersson and/or Chytil make the Rangers, it'll mark the first time they will have an 18-year-old skater on the roster since forward Manny Malhotra in 1998-99.

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Chris Kreider -- Mika Zibanejad -- Mats Zuccarello

Jimmy Vesey -- Kevin Hayes -- Pavel Buchnevich

J.T. Miller -- Filip Chytil -- Rick Nash

David Desharnais -- Lias Andersson -- Michael Grabner

Ryan McDonagh -- Kevin Shattenkirk

Brady Skjei -- Brendan Smith

Marc Staal -- Tony DeAngelo

Henrik Lundqvist

Ondrej Pavelec

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