On the final day of the 2018-19 season, the Rangers went into Pittsburgh carrying the youngest team in the National Hockey League. An entire offseason later, at the end of a summer of full of renovations and improvements, and with the unveiling of the 2019-20 season mere days away, these Rangers haven't aged a bit.
Training Camp is said and done, and so, for now, is the unenviable work of whittling down an NHL roster. And so on Monday morning the Rangers hit the ice for practice in Westchester with 22 players remaining on their team, making them ready with the group that later this week will kickstart a new era on Broadway. Twenty of those players will pull on the Blueshirt on Thursday to face the Winnipeg Jets, for a long-awaited Opening Night at Madison Square Garden.
Among them is one teenager, three 21-year-olds and a total of eight players age 23 or younger. The group's average age is 25.6, rounding up; at April's season finale, it was 25.5, rounding down.
Three players are rookies; two will make their NHL debut on Thursday at the Garden.
Still, speaking with NYRangers.com on Monday and taking a look at all the young talent around him in the Rangers' room, Henrik Lundqvist put it in perspective this way: "You're not here because you're young, you're here because they believe you can make a difference on the team. When the game starts, we count on everybody. Doesn't matter how old you are, doesn't matter whether it's your first year, or your 10th year, whatever. It takes everybody."
"I think it's a good blend," General Manager Jeff Gorton said. "The coaches are comfortable with the group. I think our team is comfortable where they're at. We're looking forward to Thursday."
The teenager in the group is 18-year-old Kaapo Kakko, the second overall pick in June's Entry Draft who spent this past summer under about as bright a spotlight as a rookie can have in an offseason. There may not have been much suspense as to whether Kakko would be a part of the Blueshirts' Opening Night roster, but still, as Head Coach David Quinn said, "we were clear with all these guys that they were going to have to make the team this year," and from his brilliance in Traverse City to not just his three preseason games but his camp as a whole, Kakko earned his place in Thursday night's lineup.
"My expectations were really high, and he met them," Quinn said. "I'm not surprised that he's the player that he is. I've loved what he does away from the rink, how he carries himself, how coachable he is. There's just a lot to like about him."
"It was my goal to make the team, and that's it," Kakko said. "Feels good."
Along with Kakko, the other rookies headed for Opening Night are a pair of defensemen in Libor Hajek and Adam Fox. Hajek had only five games with the Rangers in the spring before a shoulder injury put a stop to his season, but he certainly left a lasting impression both then and in this camp -- as did Fox, the Long Island native acquired in a summer trade with Carolina, who wasted no time carving out a spot on his childhood team.
It is conceivable that Hajek and Fox could form an all-rookie lefty-righty pair on the Rangers' blue line, if not right away then once the two 21-year-olds, born 13 days apart, have had some time to get their feet under them.
"He opened eyes right away," Gorton said of Fox, who is among the five players who will make their Ranger debuts on Thursday night. "Obviously when you make a trade like we did, we had high hopes for Adam, and you hope he makes it sooner than later. But I think from the moment he went to Traverse City, and the way he played, he never fell off. In fact, he looked really comfortable throughout camp in games.
"Just the way he carries himself on the ice, you get a feel of a really mature player, and somebody who's ready to help us now."
"I think I got comfortable pretty early," said Fox, whose dad, a longtime Season Ticket Member, will be bringing an entourage to the Garden on Thursday night. "It's a younger team, so it's a little easier to come in and adjust a little quicker. But I think my experience at Worlds definitely helped me coming in kind of knowing what I have to do well. So it definitely felt very comfortable."
In addition to the three rookies, four other Rangers will be entering their second full season -- Lias Andersson, Brett Howden and Brendan Lemieux up front, and Alexandar Georgiev in goal. "They earned their opportunity," Quinn said, and all four were among an especially young group of Rangers who impressed coaches and management with their final preseason outing on Saturday against an NHL-ready Islanders team. That list that also includes Greg McKegg and Micheal Haley, as well as prospects like Vitali Kravtsov ("I don't think he's too far away," Gorton said) and Ryan Lindgren ("I would expect to see Ryan sooner rather than later"), who will begin the season in Hartford, where they can play more minutes and all situations.
"I think Lias really helped himself in the last few games, to put himself over the top. Whether it was one game or two games or maybe his whole camp, I think a guy like that helped himself," Gorton said. "I liked a lot of things we saw on Saturday from a group that was playing against an NHL team. We purposely put people in situations we needed to see them in and see if they're going to make our team in those spots. And I liked what we saw as far as competitiveness of our group that night."
Andersson played just over half the season with the Rangers in 2018-19, but Thursday will be the 20-year-old's first NHL Opening Night. "It's a dream come true to be on an NHL team with an organization like this," said Andersson, whose offseason workout regimen has him starting the season about 10 pounds lighter this year. "I'm obviously happy, but I'm not going to lean back or anything. The hard work starts now."
On top of all that, this Rangers roster includes seven players with more than 400 NHL games under their belts, and three of those -- Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome and Jacob Trouba -- will be just 26 years old by season's end. "It's weird that we're calling some of these guys veterans," Gorton said of his young group, but those were the players who in Quinn's words came to Training Camp and "set the tone, right from the get-go," adding: "I think we're further ahead certainly than we were last year at this point."
"It's been a long camp -- seems like it's been a lot longer than three weeks. But it was competitive," the Head Coach said. "It's just good to get down to one team now, and get ready to start on Thursday night."