The last time John Davidson stood for a press conference, back in May at the Garden when he took the helm as the new President of the New York Rangers, he couldn't have known exactly what his team would look like when it came time to hit the ice for Training Camp.
Four months later, standing on Thursday against the backdrop of a newly rebuilt MSG Training Center, Davidson this time had his 56-man Training Camp roster laid out in front of him. The players are here, and, with Opening Night less than three weeks away, so is the anticipation.
"There is a tremendous air of excitement around here," J.D. declared on Thursday.
Four months into his new role and throughout an industrious offseason that included bringing in new players as well as building a rapport with returning ones, Davidson has yet to be together with his team, all in one place. That will change on Friday morning when the 2019 Rangers Training Camp takes the ice, and while none of this a new exercise for Davidson, entering camp this year, with this roster, in this city, all make it so much more enticing.
"This for me is exciting, because I've been involved with two different teams that have gone through this whole thing," said Davidson, who previously held his same role in St. Louis and Columbus. "When you see these young players come in and do well, when you see the experienced players embrace it, and they work together, it's a fun watch. It's exciting."
That mix of youth and experience will be represented beginning Friday morning by 30 forwards, 20 defensemen, and six goaltenders - a group that includes a couple of blockbuster summer acquisitions in Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba, as well as this year's crop of rookies such as June's No. 2 overall pick, Kaapo Kakko, and the recent Russian transplants Vitali Kravtsov and Igor Shesterkin, fresh off the Blueshirts prospects' 3-1-0 showing at the Traverse City Tournament. Traverse City standout Adam Fox falls in both camps: a rookie and a major summer pickup. And of course there are familiar faces - Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Filip Chytil, Pavel Buchnevich, Henrik Lundqvist, et al.
Plus, Davidson added, "One thing with the air of optimism, a lot of it is the coach. Coach Quinn - first of all he's a very good coach, obviously. … He's a great communicator. I think he's a guy that knows how to get the best out of players."
Entering his second go-round at an NHL training camp, David Quinn will get his first up-close look on Friday at some of the new weapons that Davidson, Jeff Gorton and Company have outfitted him with. Of those, the best-known quantities are Panarin, a lethal point-per-game winger who signed with the Blueshirts on July 1, and Trouba, a big, versatile righty blueliner acquired from Winnipeg on June 17. Their ages are 27 and 25, respectively.
"I think that when you have an opportunity to find a Trouba or a Panarin," Davidson said on Thursday, "you've got to step up and do what you need to to get them."
For now, perhaps no one on the Rangers knows Panarin as well as Davidson, after the two were together in Columbus for the past two seasons. Asked what Ranger fans are going to learn in the coming weeks and months about Panarin, Davidson talked about his high hockey IQ, and about his obvious skill coupled with his deceptive strength, but his first words were: "Competitive. Really competitive."
"In big spots in games, he likes to find a way," J.D. continued. "He's what I would term a no-maintenance guy - in other words, he's a guy that's going to show up for work every day. You don't have to worry about him showing up for work."
Davidson made a point to say that "we're not going to zero in on one player," which applies to the veterans and the rookies alike. At the same time, when the subject of Kakko's dazzling performance at Traverse City, Davidson gave a knowing chuckle. An illness had sidelined Kakko for the first two games of the tournament, and the Rangers' abundance of caution ahead of Training Camp kept him out of the last - but in the third, with the Rangers' prospects trailing Minnesota's by a 2-0 score, Kakko keyed a Blueshirt rally with three third-period assists, then handled the overtime winner himself, a wraparound finish after taking a pair of laps around the Minnesota zone.
"It was kind of fun, actually," Davidson said on Thursday of watching Kakko. "When you go to Traverse City - I think I've been going there something like 15 years … there's a number of players that you can just see it."
When Kakko finally got into that third game, "he was a little rusty, you could see," Davidson said. "And then he just took over. It was really special to watch - not only the 360-twice goal, it was more - you can see his mind: He's got poise at a high speed, he can play fast with the puck in small areas, yet he's reading where everybody is and making the plays. It was fun to watch.
"This kid, he's got something. It's going to be fun to watch him develop."
As Kakko enters his first Rangers Training Camp, Henrik Lundqvist is preparing for his 15th season in a Blueshirt, and the two will be first-time teammates after an offseason in which they faced each other at the World Championships, an overtime win in the quarterfinals for Kakko's Finns on their way to the gold. Davidson said he has been in touch with Lundqvist throughout the summer, the two goaltenders talking over the phone and then meeting up in person when Lundqvist came to skate in Westchester last week.
"He's in tremendous shape, I'll tell you that - just giving him a handshake you can just feel it," Davidson said. "He's in a great mood, he's excited, he loves the moves we've made. So I expect him to be Hank. And when Hank's Hank, he's pretty good.
"I think the veteran players like the fact that there's some good young players coming in, like the fact that we went out and got two experienced, real good players in Trouba and Panarin. So with that being said, I just sense with everybody, they're excited."