Why the Rangers could be this year’s team to make big leap

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Every year in the NHL there is always at least one team that goes on a deep playoff run (second round or later) after not making the playoffs the previous season.

This past season it was Vancouver and Philadelphia.

The year before that it was Carolina, Dallas, and the New York Islanders.

The year before that it was Winnipeg and Vegas (expansion season).

Go back through most postseasons and you will find at least one team that took that significant leap. Over the next few days we are going to take a look at some teams that could be candidates to follow that path this season.

We are going to start today with the New York Rangers.

What to like about the Rangers’ chances

• They have high end talent at the top of the lineup with Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad.

Panarin is one of the league’s most dynamic offensive stars, and his debut season with the Rangers was one of the most productive in the history of the franchise. He is a game-changer. Zibanejad has also become an impact player and has averaged more than a 35-goal pace per 82 games over the past three seasons.

If you are going to compete for a Stanley Cup you need players like this at the top of your lineup, and with those two leading the way last season the Rangers were a top-five offense in the league.

Depth beyond them is a little bit of a concern, but that could be addressed thanks to their recent draft lottery luck. Speaking of which…

• Nothing can change a franchise more than a star player on an entry-level contract.

The Rangers now have two of them in 2019 No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko and 2020 No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere.

It is important to keep in mind that Kakko had a rough rookie season, and you have to anticipate that Lafreniere will have some growing pains as well. Not every No. 1 overall pick is going to step right into the league and be an immediate superstar. Sometimes it takes a couple of years. But the potential is certainly there, and if one — or both — of these players breaks out that would be a massive upgrade to an already good offensive team.

If you look at recent teams that made a similar one-year turnaround impact first and second year players are a common denominator (Andrei Svechnikov in Carolina, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor in Winnipeg, Miro Heiskanen in Dallas, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in Edmonton).

This is especially important for the Rangers this season because they are trying to build a team around $12 million in dead salary cap space. While the rest of the league is working with an $81.5 million cap, several buyouts have basically pushed the Rangers’ cap down to $68.3 million.

Getting a lot from Kakko and Lafreniere on entry-level deals would help make up for that.

• They have two outstanding young goalies.

The Henrik Lundqvist era may be over, but that does not mean goaltending is going to suddenly become a weakness. If anything, it might still actually be a strength. The concern here is that Igor Shesterkin and Alexander Georgiev are both relatively young with limited NHL resumes, but their early returns have been promising. Their play last year was one of the biggest reasons the Rangers made such a strong second-half push and played their way back into the playoff race before the season pause.

There are some concerns

• The defense could be a problem

This is the absolute biggest concern. Adam Fox looks like he is going to be a stud, and Tony DeAngelo can make a big impact offensively. But once you get beyond them there are a lot of issues.

Jacob Trouba‘s first year with the team left a lot to be desired and should be considered a disappointment (especially given his contract), while Brady Skjei was traded at the deadline a year ago.

After that, things get bleak. Brendan Smith spent last season split between playing defense and forward and isn’t great in either spot. It also does not matter how cheap his contract is, adding Jack Johnson is not the solution to your team’s defensive problems.

This is the clear Achilles Heel of this roster, and unless Trouba has a major bounce back year a lot of responsibility is going to fall on the young goalies.

• There are a lot of “ifs” here

The Rangers could be a great team if…

… Kakko and Lafreniere make a big impact.

… the goalies are able to repeat their performance from last year.

… Trouba rebounds on defense or somebody else steps up.

The more ifs you add to a team’s outlook, the more likely it is that one of them is not going to go as planned.

That could be a big problem for the Rangers, especially if it is something like the goalies not panning out.

Overall assessment

The long-term outlook here is fantastic, and this year’s team is going to be a lot of fun to watch. They have a chance to score a lot of goals, and they also have a chance to give up a lot of goals.

The make-or-break factor here will be how quickly the quartet of Kakko, Lafreniere, Shesterkin, and Georgiev makes a big impact.

If it is this season, this team could make a lot of noise very soon even if they play in a great division.

 

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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