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GAME DAY: New Rangers Ring In a New Year

Debuts Abound as Puck Drops on 2019-20

by Michael Obernauer

RANGERS vs. JETS
2019 Opening Night
Madison Square Garden
MSG Network, 98.7 FM

GAME DAY
After the Draft Lottery and Draft day itself, after the trades and the signings, Traverse City and Training Camp, after all the building throughout a summertime on Broadway, it was the Rangers' new 18-year-old prodigy who said it simplest, and best:

"It was a long summer," said Kaapo Kakko. "But it's time to play hockey."

All those added pieces, and all the Rangers' returning ones, have been exciting only on paper these past few months; on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, they're finally on the ice. The Blueshirts are back, ready to raise the curtain on their 2019-20 season at their home rink, Game 1 of 82 coming against a Winnipeg Jets team that witnessed its own share of sweeping changes during the summer.

"You circle this day since the schedule comes out, and you're working towards it," said David Quinn, who embarks on his second season as the Head Coach of the Rangers. "And you're just waiting for the puck to drop."

Part of the offseason narratives of these two teams overlapped, when defenseman Jacob Trouba moved from Winnipeg to New York in a June trade. Trouba is one of four major offseason additions who will make their Blueshirts debuts on Thursday night, while the Rangers, among the NHL's youngest teams, will have three rookies in their lineup on Opening Night.

Both categories apply to Kakko, the No. 2 pick of the Entry Draft three long months ago who will take his first steps in an NHL regular-season game on Thursday night. Only 12 men younger than Kakko have played for the Rangers in the 92 seasons that have come before.

"For a guy that's 18 years old, he looks like an NHLer," Quinn said of Kakko after practice on Wednesday. "And he plays like one."

"He's had a good camp," added Henrik Lundqvist. "He looks ready."

While Kakko plays NHL game No. 1, Lundqvist will be the Rangers' starting goaltender on Opening Night for the 14th year in a row. He leads a contingent of returning Rangers that includes four players up front -- Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, Ryan Strome -- coming off career highs in goals.

And then there is Artemi Panarin, the biggest catch on the summer free-agent market who will begin just his fifth season in the League and his first in a Blueshirt. His center, Zibanejad, scored 30 times during his breakout campaign in 2018-19, and will start the new season flanked by a pair of skilled Russians in Panarin and Buchnevich, whose scoring binge in the final quarter of last season has the Rangers eagerly pondering what he'll be capable of in a top-line role in this one.

"Well, we do have a lot of skill," Lundqvist said. "And it's a young team, too, so you definitely see the potential. I like the mix. We have a bunch of players that have been around for a while and a lot of experience as well. I think that mix can help us throughout the year."

That mix is well represented at the center position, where Zibanejad and Strome -- two 26-year-olds who are within reach of surpassing 500 NHL games this season -- will begin the year centering the top two lines, while Brett Howden, 21, and Lias Andersson, who turns 21 next week, center the other two. Both Howden and Andersson made statements with their offseason regimens and their Training Camps, earning their spots on Opening Night -- Howden's second and Andersson's first.

It also will be the first Opening Night on Broadway for Strome, who was dealt to the Rangers last Nov. 16 and went on to score 18 goals, most by any NHL player who changed teams midseason. "New York City is a special place," Strome said on Wednesday. "You can just feel the buzz about our team and some of the pieces we have, and it's fun to be a part of it. It's an exciting time to be a Ranger."

Last season ended on a Strome goal, an overtime winner in Pittsburgh; this one begins with Strome centering Kreider, the team's longest-tenured forward, and Kakko, among its newest. "Everyone's understanding their role right now, and who they are and what they bring. And I think Quinny has given us the template we need," said Strome. "We put that together and we're going to have some success."

Five of the Rangers' six Opening Night defensemen, meanwhile, are 25 or younger -- including the top pair of reunited pals in Trouba and Brady Skjei. Two of the blueliners are 21-year-old rookies, Libor Hajek and Adam Fox, the Long Island product who estimates his cheering section for his NHL debut will consist of "only 20" or so family and friends. Quinn will start the season deploying those rookies as a pair.

"We like what we see from both these guys," the Head Coach said. "Libor obviously had that short stretch last year where he was productive for a five-game window (before a season-ending shoulder injury). And Fox has been really good every game he's been in. So we have confidence in these guys."

"Libor's a smart player," Fox said. "He's obviously defensive-minded, which helps me and kind of lets me play my game. And both being young guys, we kind of bounce things off each other that we see and pick up on. It's been good so far."

The Jets came within one point of a Central Division title last season before a first-round defeat to eventual champion St. Louis in six games. In the ensuing months, in addition to the Trouba trade, they saw ex-Ranger Kevin Hayes and defenseman Tyler Myers depart via free agency. They are without Dustin Byfuglien, who remains on personal leave from the team, as well as center Bryan Little, who suffered a concussion in Winnipeg's final preseason game.

Patrik Laine -- a 44-goal scorer as a 19-year-old two seasons ago -- and Kyle Connor each missed the majority of the Jets' training camp, but both RFAs signed contracts over the weekend and will be in Thursday's lineup, along with Winnipeg's potent top line centered by Mark Scheifele.

In all, eight Rangers will be playing Opening Night at the Garden for the first time, while Lundqvist has started every one of them since 2006. Given what the Rangers discovered they have in backup Alexandar Georgiev last year, Lundqvist is fully on board with a more conservative workload as this season moves along than in years past. But when it's Opening Night, Lundqvist gets the nets.

"You work the entire summer, you have a month where you skate at home, then you have Training Camp for three weeks. So when you play this game, it's like, 'Finally,'" Lundqvist said. "You just miss the game. You miss that excitement. It's a good feeling to be back."
 

PROJECTED LINEUP
10 Panarin -- 93 Zibanejad -- 89 Buchnevich
20 Kreider -- 16 Strome -- 24 Kakko
90 Namestnikov -- 21 Howden -- 17 Fast
48 Lemieux -- 28 Andersson -- 42 Smith

76 Skjei -- 8 Trouba
18 Staal -- 77 DeAngelo
25 Hajek -- 23 Fox

30 Lundqvist
40 Georgiev

NUMBERS GAME
At the age of 18 years, 232 days old, Kaapo Kakko will become the 13th-youngest Ranger, and 10th-youngest skater, in the franchise's history. He also will become the first player born in the 21st Century to play for the Rangers.

The Rangers are the only NHL team with eight players on their Opening Night roster age 23 or younger, and the only team with five players age 21 or younger.

The Blueshirts are starting their season on Garden ice for the fourth consecutive year, following a stretch of eight straight years opening on the road.

Beginning their 93rd season, the Rangers are 38-38-14-2 in home openers.

The Jets return three players who scored 30 goals last season -- Mark Scheifele (38), Kyle Connor (34) and Patrik Laine (30). Only the San Jose Sharks, with four, had more 30-goal scorers.

Winnipeg had the Western Conference's top power play in 2018-19, at 24.8 percent.

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox all are making their Rangers debuts. Panarin has six points (2-4--6) in his four career season openers.

Patrik Laine finished with 30 goals last season; he scored 21 in his first 24 games through the end of November, then just nine in the final 58 games after that.

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