NHL on NBCSN: Rangers’ rebuild — Good, bad, and the Lafrenière

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins. Pre-game coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

It’s hard to believe it, but the Rangers signaled their rebuild with “The Letter” almost exactly three years ago. Around Feb. 8, 2018, the Rangers embraced the rebuild, but were dodgy about the future of then-coach Alain Vigneault.

If that last sentence didn’t give you a sense of how much things have changed during this rebuild, just consider all of the pieces they’ve added.

Someone who came out of a time machine would view the Rangers’ rebuild as an unqualified success. Yet, as with rebuilds for teams like the Penguins and Blackhawks, there’s definitely been a heavy element of Draft Lottery luck.

So far, reviewing the Rangers rebuild means giving out mixed grades. In a lot of ways, the franchise is in a fantastic position to succeed. Still, there are enough lingering worries, and likely mistakes, that it’s clear that breakthroughs also aren’t guaranteed.

With that, let’s review some of the good and bad of the Rangers rebuild, three years in.

Rangers rebuild: The good

Above all else, the Rangers became trendsetters in being open about their process with fans. The Athletic’s Rick Carpiniello spoke to Los Angeles Kings exec Luc Robitaille (sub. required), confirming that others followed the Rangers’ blueprint.

“I like what they did when they came out with their letter,” Robitaille said. “”For us the goal was to be transparent right from the get-go, but I’d be lying if I told you that that letter didn’t push us to write one. We saw that they were super transparent with their fans, and as a fan, that’s all you want. That’s all you care about. As long as you know the direction, then it’s a lot easier to believe in what you’re doing.”

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Again, the Rangers enjoyed some incredible bounces, including winning the 2020 NHL Draft Lottery to land Alexis Lafrenière first overall, and making a big jump in 2019 to draft Kaapo Kakko at the No. 2 spot.

But, to some extent, there’s an element of “making your own bounces.”

Rather than making a half-hearted commitment to a rebuild — thus possibly ruining lottery odds and falling short of the playoffs — the Rangers simply pulled off that Band-Aid.

A mix of luck and skill

Even with less luck, the Rangers would likely be in a better position right now than, say, the Anaheim Ducks. Consider, for instance, the extra picks the Rangers stacked up. During the past three drafts, they’ve made five first-round selections, and have also made some additional second and third-round picks. You don’t necessarily get those extra picks if you’re holding out hope to eke into the playoffs.

And, frankly, some of those extra swings provide added optimism through these bumps in the road. As one of the Rangers’ three 2018 first-rounders, K'Andre Miller (No. 22 overall) serves as one of the brightest spots of a sometimes dim-looking defense.

No doubt, there’s some luck to go with the skill that comes from the good parts of the Rangers rebuild. Beyond the lottery luck, the Rangers didn’t need to do much but be in New York and back up a truck full of money to land Artemi Panarin.

Putting together a farm system recently ranked second-best in the NHL isn’t just about landing Lafrenière. It’s also about putting together bulk picks, and the Rangers deserve credit for that.

Ultimately, the Rangers biggest bright sides remain on picturing potential, but there are some early returns. Especially as Igor Shesterkin continues to push to keep this sometimes-overmatched team in games.

Growing pains for Lafreniere and Kakko

When a team lands a high first-round pick, the instinct is to wave away any early struggles. After all, these players aren’t complete products at 18 or 19 years old, even if they’re gifted enough to make an immediate jump to the NHL.

Essentially, it’s human nature to assume that players will work out whatever issues irk them early on. Sidney Crosby went from weak at faceoffs to dominant in the dot, right?

But development isn’t always a straight upward line, and sometimes teams just misdiagnosis players altogether. *Gestures uncomfortably to the career arc of Nail Yakupov.*

As PHT’s Adam Gretz notes, Lafreniere’s off to one of the slowest starts for a top pick since Joe Thornton and Vincent Lecavalier were beginning their careers in the dark days of “The Dead Puck Era.”* Lafrenière only has one point (an overtime game-winner) so far through his first 11 NHL games.

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Of course, Gretz also reminds us that Lecavalier and Thornton turned out fine. It’s certainly too early to be overly concerned.

That said, it’s also not the most promising development. After all, the overarching take on Lafrenière was that he was one of the most NHL-ready prospects in recent years. The expectation was that his game would be relatively polished. Instead, Lafrenière hasn’t scored in a 5-on-5 situation, and his underlying stats aren’t so hot.

And Lafrenière isn’t alone stumbling out of the gate.

After an honestly abysmal rookie season, Kakko is off to another modest start. Through 10 games, Kakko scored two goals and one assist for three points.

It’s not all bad news for Kakko, mind you. His possession stats indicate that he’s made big strides. Nonetheless, after looking like he could take to top level play right off the bat, Kakko is instead struggling like most players about to turn 20.

To make it clear: the Rangers rebuild still looks great, with Lafrenière and Kakko ranking as leading reasons. It’s just that we’re seeing stumbles and babysteps instead of leaps.

For the Rangers, they must be careful about how they’re developing players. Getting this right could make the difference between the Rangers’ rebuild being slow, quick, or even if it succeeds or fails. Some of that comes down to mentality. It’s fair to ask if David Quinn is the right coach for the job, among other questions.

It’s too early to be too worried about those two top prospects. It’s never too early to refine your process.

* – Actually, “The Dead Puck Era” mention was mine. Let’s all shudder in disgust at those dismal times.

Trouba’s troubles and other less-good-parts of the Rangers rebuild

Speaking of Quinn, the Rangers have definitely experienced some growing pains when it comes to building structure.

Yes, this team is a work in progress. When you hand Jacob Trouba a seven-year, $56M contract, you expect more than what we saw in 2019-20. Frighteningly, Trouba looked bad by anyone’s standards in 2019-20, not just “$8M defensemen” standards. Consider this jarringly rough player card, via Evolving Hockey:

There’s some hope that Trouba might rebound — at least to some extent — but it’s not exactly as if the Rangers added him and flipped a switch. As great as Artemi Panarin has been, the Trouba investment has been shaky.

Again, setbacks like these should inspire the Rangers to ask important questions about their rebuild.

Did management overrate Trouba? Could coaches place Trouba, Lafrenière, Kakko, and others (such as a currently-ice-cold Mika Zibanejad) in better situations to succeed?

Considering how much money is slated to Trouba, Panarin, Chris Kreider, and a few others, and that rookie deal windows won’t be open much longer for Lafrenière and especially Kakko, you have to find the right balance between patience and complacency.

In the grand scheme of things, the Rangers rebuild is on the right track. It’s up to management to steer it in the right direction, however, and not every call will be as obvious as drafting Lafreniere first overall (or saying, “Yes, take our money, Mr. Panarin”).

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Dellandrea scores twice in 3rd, Stars stay alive with 4-2 victory over Golden Knights

    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

    LAS VEGAS — With Dallas’ season on the line, the Stars got two critical goals from a player who was a healthy scratch the first two games of the Western Conference Final.

    Ty Dellandrea‘s goals came within a 1:27 span midway through the third period, and the Stars beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-2 to keep alive their hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final to face the Florida Panthers.

    “He’s one of the best guys I’ve ever played with,” said Stars goalie Jake Oettinger, who made 27 saves. “He deserves every opportunity he gets, and there’s no one happier for him than the guys in this room. It shows how special you are when you get taken out. He didn’t make it about him. He needed the opportunity to step up, and that’s what he did.”

    The Stars escaped elimination for the second game in a row and head to Dallas for Game 6 down 3-2. Dallas is attempting to become the fifth team in NHL history to win a series after being down 3-0.

    And look who’s back for the Stars? Captain Jamie Benn returns after a two-game suspension for his cross-check to the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in Game 3. That was the only game in this series that was decided early, and the Stars hadn’t even had a multigoal lead.

    “I know our group, and we weren’t happy about being in the hole we were in, and they decided to do something about it,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “And now we’re rolling.”

    The only problem for DeBoer was waiting two days to play Game 6.

    “Drop the puck,” he said.

    DeBoer said before the game if his team won, the pressure would shift to the Knights. Now it’s up to them to respond after twice being a period away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final and letting both opportunities slip away.

    “I don’t think we brought our best the last two games,” Stone said. “We were still in a good spot to win the game. We’ve got to bring a little bit better effort and start playing a little more desperate.”

    Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said “it’s a very good question” why his team didn’t play with more desperation, but he also wasn’t thrilled with the Knights’ execution.

    “We had 24 giveaways,” Cassidy said. “I’m not sure you’re beating the Arizona Coyotes in January with 24 giveaways. That’s no disrespect to Arizona, but it’s not the right way to play.”

    Dellandrea found the right way to play and put together the first multigoal playoff game of his career. Jason Robertson and Luke Glendening also scored, and Thomas Harley had two assists.

    Chandler Stephenson and Ivan Barbashev scored for the Knights, and Jonathan Marchessault had two assists to extend his points streak to four games. Adin Hill made 30 saves.

    Dellandrea scored from the right circle to put Dallas ahead, the puck deflecting off Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo with 9:25 left for a 3-2 lead. Then, Dellandrea scored from the slot with 7:58 remaining.

    Dellandrea said the older players kept him motivated when he was temporarily sidelined.

    “There’s no denying it’s hard,” he said. “I’m thankful for a good group of character guys, and you’ve just got to stay ready.”

    The teams traded goals in the first two periods.

    Jack Eichel battled two Stars players for the puck in Vegas’ offensive zone, and then Barbashev swooped in and made a fantastic move to glide past Oettinger and score with 6:24 left in the first period. The Stars wasted little time in answering when Glendening scored on a deflection less than two minutes later.

    Dallas was robbed of what looked like a sure goal when Hill snagged a point-blank shot from Roope Hintz, who then threw his back in disbelief.

    Like in the first period, the Knights had a goal in the second quickly answered by one from the Stars. Stephenson scored from the left circle at 16:40 of the period, and Robertson knocked his own rebounds 2:09 later to make it 2-2. Stephenson tied the Knights’ record with his eight playoff goal this year, and Robertson had his fifth of the series.

    Sabres sign Minnesota defenseman Ryan Johnston to 2-year rookie contract

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres ended a lengthy wait by signing Ryan Johnston to a two-year, entry level contract more than a month after the defenseman completed his senior college season at Minnesota.

    Johnston will report immediately to the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester, whose best-of-seven Eastern Conference final playoff series against Hershey is tied at 1.

    From Southern California, Johnston is listed at 6-feet and 170 pounds and was selected 31st in 2019 draft.

    His puck-moving skills fit Buffalo’s style of play, Johnston finished his college career with nine goals and 59 points in 143 career games, including four goals and 18 points in 40 games this year. He reached the NCAA’s Frozen Four in each of his final two seasons, with the Gophers losing in the semifinals last year, followed by a 3-2 overtime loss to Quinnipiac in the championship game last month.

    He also had a goal and three assists in seven games representing the U.S. team that won gold at the 2021 world junior championships.

    Johnston, who turns 22 in July, had the option to wait until August when he would’ve become an unrestricted free agent and eligible to sign with any team. Because Johnston was first-round pick, the Sabres would’ve been compensated with a 2024 second-round selection had he signed elsewhere.

    Both sides are banking on the player’s age and college experience to enable Johnston to make the jump to the NHL within the next two seasons. The Sabres will still control Johnston’s rights as a restricted free agent once his entry-level contract expires.

    Joe Pavelski scores on OT power play, Stars beat Golden Knights 3-2 to avoid West sweep

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    Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

    DALLAS — Joe Pavelski admits that he probably appreciates the big playoff goals more the later he gets in his career. But they all still feel just as good, and his latest kept the season alive for the Dallas Stars.

    “Just really living in the moment,” Pavelski said. “A tremendous feeling for sure, and glad we could play another game, and go from there and try to extend it.”

    The 38-year-old Pavelski scored on a power play at 3:18 of overtime – a one-timer from the middle of the left circle to the far post – and the Stars avoided a sweep in the Western Conference Final with a 3-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.

    Jason Robertson scored twice for his first career multigoal playoff game for Dallas, which played without suspended captain Jamie Benn.

    “We’re looking for goals and that’s kind of my responsibility I put on myself,” Robertson said. “I know these playoffs have been tough. … I was able to get the bounces that we needed tonight.”

    Jake Oettinger had 37 saves, two nights after the 24-year-old Stars goalie was pulled 7:10 into Game 3 after allowing three goals on five shots.

    The Stars had the man advantage in overtime after Brayden McNabb‘s high-sticking penalty on Ty Dellandrea. Fifty seconds into the power play, Pavelski scored on a pass from Miro Heiskanen. They won for the first time in their five OT games this postseason – Vegas won the first two games of this series past regulation.

    It was only the second Vegas penalty of the game, both high-sticking calls against McNabb. His penalty on Pavelski late in the first period set up the power play when Robertson scored his first goal with some nifty stickwork.

    Pavelski, in his 15th NHL season and still looking for his first Stanley Cup, scored his ninth goal in 12 games this postseason, but his first in five games. He has 73 career postseason goals – the most for U.S.-born players and the most among all active players.

    “He’s ageless. … I’ve seen that movie over and over again. Never gets old,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “He lives for those moments and he wants to be in those situations. Always has, and delivers almost every time.”

    Benn was suspended two games by the NHL on Wednesday for his cross-check with his stick landing near the neck of Vegas captain Mark Stone in the first two minutes of Game 3 on Tuesday night. Benn also will miss Game 5 on Saturday night in Las Vegas.

    William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault scored for Vegas. Adin Hill had his five-game winning streak snapped. He made 39 saves, including a game-saver with his extended left leg without about two minutes left in regulation on rookie Fredrik Olofsson’s swiping try in his first career playoff game.

    “Our effort wasn’t good enough. Closing a series is probably the hardest game in a series, right, so it just wasn’t good enough from our group,” Marchessault said. “It was still a one-goal game in overtime. It was right there for us.”

    Karlsson and Marchessault are among six of the original Vegas players still on the team from the inaugural 2017-18 season that ended with the Knights playing for the Stanley Cup, though they lost in five games to the Washington Capitals after winning the first game.

    Vegas missed a chance to complete a sweep, a night after the Florida Panthers finished off a sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.

    Vegas took a 2-1 lead midway through the second period when Marchessault, after whacking his stick on the back of Ryan Suter in front of the net, scored on a pass between the Stars defenseman’s legs from McNabb, another original Golden Knight.

    Robertson’s tying goal late in that period came on a ricochet off the back board just seconds after he had another shot hit the post. That was the fourth goal of this series, and sixth in the playoffs, after this regular season becoming the first Dallas player with a 100-point season.

    On his first goal late in the first that tied it 1-1, Robertson deflected Heiskanen’s shot from just inside the blue line up into the air. As Hill was trying to secure the puck into his glove, Robertson knocked it free and then reached around and swiped the puck into the net with his stick parallel to the ice.

    With former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and wrestling great Ric Flair both in the building wearing Stars jerseys Dallas was avoided being swept in the playoffs for the first time since 2001 against St. Louis in the second round. This was the Stars’ 21st playoff series since then.

    The Golden Knights scored first again – though not like those three quick goals in Game 3 that led to the earliest exit ever for Oettinger.

    Karlsson pushed the puck up and skated to the front of the net after passing to Nicolas Roy, whose pass through traffic went off a Dallas stick before Reilly Smith got it just inside the right circle and took a shot. Karlsson’s deflection past Oettinger only 4:17 into the game was his eighth goal this postseason.

    “There were a lot of rush chances,” said Smith, also with Vegas since the beginning. “I don’t think we did a good enough job of making it difficult on them. So we get another opportunity in two days.”

    Tkachuk sends Panthers to Stanley Cup Final, after topping Hurricanes 4-3 for sweep

    panthers stanley cup final
    Sam Navarro/USA TODAY Sports

    SUNRISE, Fla. — Matthew Tkachuk delivered for Florida, again. Sergei Bobrovsky denied Carolina, again.

    The wait is over: After 27 years, the Florida Panthers – a hockey punchline no more – are again going to play for the game’s grandest prize.

    Tkachuk got his second goal of the game with 4.9 seconds left, lifting the Panthers past the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 and into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1996 after sweeping the Eastern Conference final.

    The Panthers will play either Vegas or Dallas for the Stanley Cup starting sometime next week; Vegas currently leads the Western Conference title series 3-0.

    “This was pure joy,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.

    Bobrovsky stopped 36 shots to cap his stellar series – four games, four one-goal wins, three of them basically in sudden death, a .966 save percentage after stopping 174 of the 180 shots he faced. The first two wins were in overtime, and this one may as well have been.

    The Panthers scored 10 goals in the series, and Bobrovsky ensured those were all they needed. They were the No. 8 seed, the last team in, the longest of long shots – which is consistent with their history, after not winning a single playoff series in 26 years, a drought that ended last season.

    And now, beasts of the East. Tkachuk arrived last summer saying he wanted to bring Florida a Cup. He’s four wins away.

    “It’s amazing,” Bobrovsky said. “We showed the resilience … and we’re lucky to have Chucky on our side. He knows how to score big goals.”

    NHL Senior Vice President Brian Jennings was the one tasked with presenting the Prince of Wales Trophy. After some photos, Aleksander Barkov – the captain who had two assists, one of them on the game-winner – grabbed it, and skated it away. Some teams touch it. Some don’t. A few of the Panthers did, but Barkov didn’t pass it around.

    That’ll wait for the big prize.

    “It’s hard to explain right now. Everything just happened so quick,” Barkov said. “It means a lot. It definitely does. … It hasn’t been easy and nobody said it’s going to be easy.”

    Added Tkachuk: “We earned that thing, and definitely didn’t do it the easy way. We earned it.”

    Ryan Lomberg and Anthony Duclair had the other goals for Florida, which swept a series for the first time in franchise history.

    Jordan Staal – his brothers Eric and Marc play for the Panthers – took a tripping penalty with 57 seconds left in regulation, setting up the power-play that Tkachuk finished off after getting into the slot and beating Frederik Andersen to set off a wild celebration.

    “Eastern Conference champions,” Florida defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “It’s really cool. No doubt about it. But you know, at the end of the day, we have our eyes on something different.”

    Toy rats – the Panthers’ tradition, a nod to the unwanted locker room guests from Florida’s old arena in 1996 – sailed down from the stands, and the goal needed to survive an official review. But the rats were picked up, the goal was deemed good, and 27 years of waiting was officially over 4.9 seconds later.

    Jesper Fast seemed like he might have saved the season for Carolina, getting a tying goal with 3:22 left in regulation. Paul Stastny and Teuvo Teravainen had the first two goals of the night for the Hurricanes, while Brady Skjei and Jordan Martinook each had two assists. Andersen stopped 21 shots.

    “Everyone’s going to say, ‘You got swept.’ That’s not what happened,” Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “I watched the game. I’m there. I’m cutting the games. We’re in the game. We didn’t lose four games. We got beat, but we were right there. This could have went the other way. It could have been four games the other way.”

    That wasn’t sour grapes. He was right. A bounce here, a bounce there, a Bobrovsky not here, a Bobrovsky not there, and this series could have gone much differently.

    But Bob was his best. Tkachuk was clutch, over and over. And Florida is as close to a Cup as it has ever been; the Panthers were swept by Colorado in the 1996 final.

    Towels waved, strobe lights flashed, and the fans wasted no time letting the Panthers know that they were ready to a clincher.

    Tkachuk made it 2-0 on the power play midway through the first. Carolina – a 113-point, division-championship-winning team in the regular season – made it 2-1 later in the first on Stastny’s goal, and Teravainen tied it early in the second.

    Lomberg’s goal midway through the second gave Florida the lead again. It stayed that way until Fast got the equalizer with 3:22 left, and then Tkachuk finished it off – getting the Panthers to the title round in his first season.

    “It’s been unbelievable since July since I got here,” Tkachuk said. “And hopefully we can cap off this amazing year.”


    Panthers general manager Bill Zito was announced earlier Wednesday as a finalist for NHL GM of the year. … Tkachuk’s two goals gave him 21 points in the playoffs – extending his Florida single-season postseason record, which was 17 by Dave Lowry in 1996. … Slavin was quickly ruled out for the remainder of the game after Bennett’s hit, with what the Hurricanes said was “an upper-body injury.” Slavin wobbled as he tried to get to his feet. … Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel – who has also been a regular at Miami Heat games during their playoff run this spring – banged the drum before the game. When done, without a mic to drop, he simply dropped the mallet instead.


    Tkachuk’s goal midway through the opening period put Florida up 2-0 – and marked the first time, in nearly 14 periods of play to that point, that a team had a two-goal lead in this series. Every bit of action came with the score tied or someone up by one in the first 272 minutes (including all the overtimes) of the series.