No one player or executive had a greater influence on how the New York Rangers will look in 2021-22 than Tom Wilson of the Washington Capitals.
A game after the Rangers had been eliminated from playoff contention last season, the Caps’ enforcer gave the Blueshirts a black eye.
In a span of seconds, Wilson punched a prone Pavel Buchnevich in the back of the head in a goal-mouth scramble and later rag-dolled star forward Artemi Panarin to the ice, ending his season.
Over the next few days, the league fined Wilson $5,000. The Rangers ripped the NHL and they were fined $250,000. Team president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton were fired after the team owner disagreed with their approach, and Chris Drury took over for them. Coach David Quinn also was fired.
In the offseason, the Rangers decided to revamp the lineup to give it a more physical presence. They acquired enforcer Ryan Reaves from Vegas, signed the gritty Barclay Goodrow as a free agent, and traded Buchnevich to St. Louis for Sammy Blais, another physical player. No-nonsense coach Gerard Gallant was hired.
The days of the Rangers playing four skill lines are over. No one is going to push them around anymore.
“I think if you look at the teams in the past that have won, you have the hard-nosed players that produce offense, but they’re tough to play against,” Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba said. “They kind of set a tone to a game, set an edge. They’re just guys that are not fun to play against. We’ve played against them in the past and they’re guys that you’d rather have on your team.”
The Rangers certainly have enough skill players with Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. There also is a corps of young talent that includes Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil. The defense is led by Norris Trophy winner Adam Fox, Trouba, and K’Andre Miller. The goaltending is solid if Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev stay healthy.
Wilson downplayed his role in the transformation, saying it was a perfect storm that led to the changes.
“They obviously wanted to play tougher. They wanted to bring in some grit,” Wilson said. “I mean, in the first place it shouldn’t be a guy like Panarin that’s jumping on my back. That whole situation — I won’t speak to it too much — but he shouldn’t feel like he ever should have had to do that.”
Wilson called Panarin one of his favorite players in the league, adding he’s a great player with a great personality.
“So I’m glad that’s in the rearview a little and obviously they’ve made some moves that they think’s going to make their team better,” Wilson said. “I mean, maybe it does a little bit have to do with the toughness of the division, but I wouldn’t credit that to me.”
Here’s what to watch in a season the Rangers will highlight in January with the retirement of the No. 30 jersey worn by star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. He retired in the offseason after missing last season with a cardiac issue.
Drury and Gallant are running the show at the Garden after the team missed the playoffs with a 27-23-6 record.
Gallant is best known for leading Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final in their expansion season in 2017-18. This will be the fourth team the 58-year-old has handled, including tours with the Panthers and Blue Jackets.
On the ice, Gallant was a scorer who didn’t mind playing a physical game. He expects his players to play two-way hockey and take care of teammates.
A former Rangers’ captain, Drury was in demand around the league. He was in the right spot at the right time when owner James Dolan got fed up waiting for his team to succeed.
Adam Fox has come a long way since being acquired in a trade with Carolina in April 2019. He had eight goals and 34 assists in 70 games as a rookie. The 23-year-old had five goals and 42 assists and was a plus-19 en route to winning the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman. He averaged almost 25 minutes in 55 games.
If the progression continues, the Rangers will have a shot at the postseason.
The Rangers know they are going to get goals from Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider and Ryan Strome. They lost 20 goals trading Buchnevich.
Lafreniere, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, and Kakko, No. 2 the year before, need to pick it up this season along with Chytil and Vitali Kravtsov. The four combined for 31 goals last season.
Shesterkin gave the Rangers what they wanted in the year after Lundqvist was not re-signed. Shesterkin went 16-14-3 with a 2.62 goals-against average and got four-year contract in August.
Georgiev was a roughly .500 goalie as the backup. Keith Kinkaid flashed some old form, going 3-2-1 with a 2.59 GAA after injuries got him in the lineup.
The Rangers were good on special teams last season but could be better.
They finished No. 14 on the power play, scoring 37 goals and converting on 20.7% of their chances. The penalty kill was even better. They were No. 10, killing of 82.3% while scoring eight short-handed goals.