NHL on NBC: Can Rangers jump from rebuild to Stanley Cup contender?

NBC’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Saturday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. Bruins-Rangers stream coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When the Rangers meet the Bruins on Saturday afternoon, they’re staring at a team that’s more or less where they want to be.

For many, it seemed like the Rangers needed to continue to add pieces for some time, like they’ve been since boldly signaling a rebuild. Reports indicate that John Davidson and Jeff Gorton leaned that way … and then Rangers owner James Dolan shockingly fired them.

Plenty of people believed that the firing was in some way related to the statement that left the Rangers $250K lighter, but Dolan insists that the change to Chris Drury was a long-time coming.

Whether you totally believe that the timing was coincidental or not, Dolan’s said plenty of other things that make you wonder about the direction of the Rangers rebuild. Dolan is sending a message for big changes for the rebuilding Rangers, and it’s fair to ask if they’re truly ready for it.

Mixed messages about Rangers’ need to make big changes, speed up rebuild

Following the Rangers’ shocking changing of the guard, it was tough not to get mixed messages about where the rebuild is at. At least when you compare sentiments from new GM Chris Drury, and then ponder what owner James Dolan has said.

“Honestly, we have enough talent now to compete for a Stanley Cup,” Dolan told the New York Post’s Larry Brooks in a phone interview.

“ … But other owners, other general managers have been telling me for a year that they can’t believe how stocked we are with talent, but talent alone doesn’t do it. We’re missing this piece and we need it. And when I looked at our organization, I felt that we need to change the whole organization and change the culture.


In that interview, Dolan states that the Rangers have enough talent to compete for a Stanley Cup. Among others, the Athletic’s Rick Carpiniello reports that Dolan felt the Rangers should have made the playoffs this season.

Drury, on the other hand, refuted the idea that the Rangers were expected to make the playoffs.

“I don’t think that was the expectation,” Drury said, via Carpiniello (sub required). “I don’t think that was a mandate …”

While Dolan spoke of needing to “change the whole organization and culture,” Drury said he didn’t expect to do anything “too drastic.”

Now, maybe the mixed Rangers messages from Drury and Dolan don’t mean much. It could be a matter of semantics, and they’re on the same page. Making sure they stay that way could be a big challenge for Drury.

The dangerous pursuit of grit

Either way, Drury faces a challenge: threading the needle between improving the Rangers as a whole, while also keeping his owner happy. One of the potentially challenging parts would be finding the sort of “grit” to complement the Rangers’ skill without overreacting and undermining the rebuild altogether.

Can you find players who can “win battles in an alley” without giving up too much on the scoreboard?

Ideally, the Rangers would add players who can bring some snarl but who can also, you know, play. Considering how the modern game is played, you can risk overreacting.

The Rangers merely need to look at the Penguins. Despite winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford overreacted to rough stuff from Tom Wilson, and the results set the team back.

[From 2019: A look back at the Penguins paying in their pursuit of answers for Wilson-type players]

Again, the Rangers adding more grit isn’t the worst idea.

It’s just important that they add functional grit. Don’t just win in “the street and the alley,” but also on the ice. Find forecheckers whose grit helps you create turnovers and retain pucks. The right type of fear might leave teams struggling with turnovers and breakouts.

Yet, if you swing too far in the wrong direction, you’ll be losing on the ice, and crying in that alley.

Speeding up the Rangers rebuild makes some sense

In late April, C.J. Turtoro argued that the Devils’ rebuild has been going better than the Rangers’ version. To summarize an interesting read, Turtoro argued that the Devils have the edge over the Rangers’ rebuild because of New Jersey’s strength at center, and their cap flexibility.

Rangers and Devils fans can argue that take until they’re red/blue in the face. But the more interesting point is that the Rangers could use a top-notch center in addition to Mika Zibanejad, and they do have some cap space.

Maybe most importantly, the Rangers need to seize the opportunity to make the most of some late primes.

Artemi Panarin is 29, Chris Kreider is 30, and even Mika Zibanejad is 28. Those players are by no means ancient, but it’s also possible that Panarin and others may start to lose a step or two soon.

You don’t want to run the risk of the prime years not lining up well between the Alexis LafreniereKaapo KakkoAdam Fox class and the older, Panarin-led group.

So, it’s important for Drury to make this point to Dolan, and other Rangers who are feeling bloodthirsty. There’s some serious talent on hand, but the Rangers still need more talent. Not just more snarl.

That’s once again where there’s a risk in overreacting to “will over skill.” If you overpay Ryan Reaves 2.0, you might hamstring yourself in trying to add a key piece that matters more on the ice.

Plenty of challenges ahead

Before this wraps up, Drury faces more than just big-picture rebuild vs. accelerate type questions in running the Rangers. Consider some of the key decisions:

  • He’ll want to reassemble parts of the front office after the firings of Davidson and Gorton.
  • Is David Quinn the right choice to bring the Rangers from rebuilders to contenders?
  • Plenty of contract/extension possibilities to mull over. Igor Shesterkin and Pavel Buchnevich are pending RFAs. If the Rangers want to extend Adam Fox and Kaapo Kakko, they can do so this summer. Just don’t forget to set aside money for Alexis Lafreniere and K'Andre Miller, as their rookie deals expire after 2022-23.
  • Meanwhile, Zibanejad won’t be a bargain much longer. And will it just be a buyout situation with Tony DeAngelo?

Overall, Chris Drury has his hands full during this next stage of the Rangers rebuild. That said, his Rangers predecessors handed him the raw materials to possibly put together something like the contender they’ll see in the Bruins on Saturday.

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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    Rangers sign Filip Chytil to 4-year extension

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    Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

    NEW YORK — The New York Rangers have signed forward Filip Chytil to a four-year contract extension worth $17.75 million, locking up another member of their core long term.

    The team announced the deal Wednesday night. Chytil will count just under $4.44 million annually against the salary cap through the 2026-27 season.

    Chytil, 23, is in the midst of a career year. He has set career highs with 22 goals, 20 assists and 42 points in 66 games for the playoff-bound Rangers.

    The Czech native is the team’s sixth-leading scorer and ranks fourth on the roster in goals. The 2017 first-round pick has 144 points in 342 NHL regular-season and playoff games. He was set to be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer.

    New York already had top center Mika Zibanejad signed through 2030, No. 1 defenseman Adam Fox through 2029, veteran Chris Kreider through 2027, winger Artemi Panarin through 2026 and reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Igor Shesterkin through 2025.

    General manager Chris Drury’s next order of business is an extension for 2020 top pick Alexis Lafrenière, who is only signed through the remainder of this season and can be a restricted free agent.

    Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews returns to ice, hints at retirement

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    CHICAGO — Longtime Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews returned to the ice but hinted his stellar NHL career could be winding down after 15 years.

    Toews, 34, skated with teammates prior to Chicago’s game with the Dallas Stars. It was his first time practicing with them since a game in Edmonton on Jan. 28.

    He made a statement through the team on Feb. 19 saying he would be stepping away because of the effects of Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and “long COVID.”

    In meeting with reporters, Toews stopped short of saying he hoped to play in any of last-place Chicago’s nine remaining games. His eight-year, $84 million contract is set to expire at the end of the season.

    Toews said he’s feeling stronger, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play again for the Blackhawks or another team.

    “Both if I’m being fully honest,” Toews said. “I feel like I’ve said it already, that I’ve gotten to the point where my health is more important.

    “When you’re young and you’re playing for a Stanley Cup and everyone’s playing through something, that means something and it’s worthwhile. But I’m at that point where it feels like more damage is being done than is a good thing.”

    Toews, the Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick (third overall) in 2006, joined the team in 2007 and was a pillar of Stanley Cup championship clubs in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

    At the peak of his career, he was one of the NHL’s top two-way centers, winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 2013.

    In 1,060 regular-season games, Toews has 371 goals and 509 assists. In 139 playoff games, he’s posted 45 goals and 74 assists, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010.

    Toews missed the entire 2020-21 season with Chronic Immune Response System, which caused debilitating inflammation and fatigue.

    He appeared in 71 games in 2021-22, then started this season with renewed energy before slowing and eventually shutting himself down.

    Entering this season, it looked as if Chicago might deal him, as it did fellow star Patrick Kane, before the March trade deadline. But Kane went to the New York Rangers and Toews to injured reserve.

    Toews believed he was progressing before a relapse in January left him so sore and tired that he could barely “put on my skates or roll out of bed to come to the rink.”

    Toews said his progress over the past month has been “pretty encouraging” and he’s delighted to be back among his teammates. He has no timetable beyond that.

    “We’re just going to go day by day here,” Chicago coach Luke Richardson said. He deserves anything he wants to try to achieve here.”

    Richardson hoped Toews “can take that next step later in the week and hopefully (he) gives us the green light to go in a game.”

    But Toews emphasized his long-term health and ability to lead a “normal life” is most important. He wants to go out on a positive note and not hit the ice for a game playing through excessive pain and dysfunction.

    “It’s definitely on my mind that this could be my last few weeks here as a Blackhawk in Chicago,” Toews said. “It’s definitely very important for me to go out there and enjoy the game and just kind of soak it in and just really appreciate everything I’ve been able to be part of here in Chicago.”

    Budding Wild star Matt Boldy more willing to shoot, and it shows

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Boldy was unable to resist a smile in the aftermath of his second hat trick in five games for the Minnesota Wild, a young right wing and reluctant star trying to make sense of a remarkable hot streak.

    Does the puck feel as if it’s automatically going in the net these days each time he shoots?

    “Yeah, it does,” Boldy said in the locker room after leading the first-place Wild to a 5-1 win over Seattle. “My linemates are playing great. Hopefully you guys are giving them a lot of credit. You look at some of those goals – just putting it on a tee for me.”

    This non-attention-seeker has found himself squarely in the NHL spotlight. Boldy has 11 goals in nine games since Wild superstar Kirill Kaprizov was sidelined with a lower-body injury to raise his goal total to 28, in part because he’s been more willing to shoot. With vision and stickhandling as strengths and the humility of being a second-year player, it’s easy to be in a pass-first mindset.

    “Everybody kind of took turns talking to him. But it’s not that he didn’t want to. A lot of times a situation like that where a guy’s got that skillset, it’s a real unselfish quality, right?” coach Dean Evason said. “But I think he gets now that he helps the team a lot when he scores goals.”

    The Wild were confident enough in Boldy’s scoring ability to commit a seven-year, $49 million contract extension to him earlier this winter, after all.

    “I think I’ve always had that mentality, but sometimes you just get into spots and it comes off your stick good,” Boldy said. “When things are going well, the puck goes in the net.”’

    The Wild are 6-1-2 without Kaprizov. Boldy is a big reason why.

    “You go through the slumps, you learn what you need to do to score. I think he’s found a good way to be in the right spot and shoot the puck when he had a good opportunity,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said.

    The Wild have only won one division title in 22 years, the five-team Northwest Division in 2007-08. They’re leading the eight-team Central Division with eight games to go, with both Colorado and Dallas too close for comfort. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.

    With Kaprizov due back before the postseason and Boldy on this heater, a Wild team that ranks just 23rd in the league in goals per game (2.93) ought to have a better chance to advance. Eriksson Ek and Marcus Johansson have been ideal linemates for the Boston College product and Massachusetts native.

    Since the Wild entered the league in the 2000-01 season, only five NHL players have had more hat tricks at age 21 or younger than Boldy with three: Patrik Laine (eight), Marian Gaborik (five), Steven Stamkos (five), Alex DeBrincat (four) and Connor McDavid (four). Boldy turns 22 next week, so there’s still time for one or two more.

    “He’s big. He controls the puck a lot. He’s got a good shot, good release. He’s smart. He switches it up. He’s got good moves on breakaways. He’s a total player,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Fun to watch him grow this year.”

    Pezzetta scores shootout winner; Canadiens beat Sabres 4-3

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    Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports

    BUFFALO, N.Y. ⁠— Brendan Gallagher and the Montreal Canadiens rallied back to avoid playoff elimination with less than three weeks left in their season. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, are running out of chances to stay in the Eastern Conference wild-card hunt.

    Gallagher forced overtime by scoring his 200th career goal, and Michael Pezzetta scored the decisive shootout goal in a 4-3 win over the Sabres on Monday night.

    “It’s one of those things I think we earned that chance. We weren’t fantastic but we did enough on the road tonight to get a win,” Gallagher said. “Smiles all around.”

    The Canadiens could laugh, especially after Pezzetta celebrated his goal by putting his stick between his legs and riding it like a wooden horse — much like former NHL tough guy Dave “Tiger” Williams did during his 14-year NHL career spanning the 1970s and 80s.

    “I’m not sure we’ll see that again. One of a kind,” said Gallagher. “I’d be worried about falling over.”

    Pezzetta scored by driving in from the right circle to beat Eric Comrie inside the far post. Buffalo’s Jack Quinn scored in the fourth shootout round, but was matched by Montreal’s Jesse Ylonen, whose shot from in tight managed to trickle in through Comrie.

    Jordan Harris and Alex Belzile also scored for Montreal, and Jake Allen stopped 30 shots through overtime, while allowing one goal on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal would have been eliminated from playoff contention for a second straight season – and two years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final – with any type of loss.

    The Sabres squandered a 3-2 third-period lead to drop to 3-6-3 in their past 12. Buffalo also blew a chance to move to within four points of idle Pittsburgh, which holds the eighth and final playoff spot.

    “Just a little hesitation,” forward JJ Peterka said of the Sabres third-period lapse. “We didn’t play with much energy and we didn’t play that aggressive as we played the two periods before. I think that was the difference.”

    Buffalo’s Lukas Rousek scored a goal and added an assist while filling in for leading scorer Tage Thompson, who did not play due to an upper body injury. Peterka and defenseman Riley Stillman also scored, and Comrie stopped 38 shots through overtime, and allowed two goals on six shootout attempts.

    Montreal blew two one-goal leads to fall behind 3-2 on Stillman’s goal at the 8:31 mark of the second period.

    Gallagher scored on the fly by using Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin as a screen to snap in a shot inside the far left post. With the goal, Gallagher tied Bobby Rousseau for 24th on the Canadiens career scoring list.

    “I liked the way we corrected ourselves, it’s a sign of maturity, in the way we stayed on task,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said, in recalling how the Canadiens recently unraveled in an 8-4 loss two weeks ago to Colorado, which plays a similar up-tempo style as Buffalo.


    The Sabres hosted their third Pride Night, with Russian D Ilya Lyubushkin electing not to participate in warmups by citing an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Moscow, where he has family and visits in the offseason. The remainder of the team wore dark blue jerseys with the Sabres logo on the front encircled by a rainbow-colored outline.

    During the first intermission, the Sabres broadcast a video in which GM Kevyn Adams said: “This is about recognizing someone’s humanity and true identity. We know there are people out there struggling with who they are, and we want them to know that they have an ally in the Buffalo Sabres.”


    Canadiens: At the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

    Sabres: Host the New York Rangers on Friday night.