The New York Rangers underwent some pretty drastic changes this offseason in an effort to turn their ongoing rebuild into a success.
General manager Jeff Gorton was fired and replaced by Chris Drury. Head coach David Quinn, the man hired to usher in the young talent of this rebuilding phase, was replaced by Gerard Gallant. They also made a little bit of a philosophical shift to the roster by targeting toughness — and a lot of it — by bringing in Ryan Reaves, Barclay Goodrow, Jarred Tinordi, and Patric Nemeth to fill out the bottom of the lineup.
When it comes to the latter point, it is really easy to connect the dots back to that late season game against the Washington Capitals when they had their run-in with Tom Wilson that resulted in Wilson being fined, the Rangers blasting the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, and the league fining them $250,000 for said criticism. It was a wild sequence of events.
The Rangers can say the Wilson incident — or the mere presence of Wilson in their division — was not the inspiration for those moves all they want, but it is too much of a coincidence that they decided to take that direction at this point in time.
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They would also not be the first team in the Metropolitan Division to have that sequence of events play out where Wilson angers them, they criticize the league’s inaction, and then try to take matters into their own hands by changing the roster. Heck, the Pittsburgh Penguins tried the exact same thing with the exact same Wilson nemesis (Reaves) a couple of years ago. It is the exact same playbook Wilson pushes teams to follow for some reason.
So with all of that in mind it is kind of fitting that the Rangers open their 2021-22 season by playing Wilson and the Capitals so all of this chaos can play out right from the start.
But for all of the bluster about Reaves’ addition, and all of the changes they made behind the bench and the front office, there is only one thing that is going to make the Rangers’ rebuild a success. And it has absolutely nothing to do with any of those offseason changes.
The success or failure of the Rangers’ rebuild depends entirely on the development of their recent top draft picks and prospects, and them becoming franchise cornerstones.
Without that, everything else is simply window dressing and focus on a particular secondary narrative.
Having established stars in Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad certainly helps a rebuild. As does lucking your way into an Adam Fox that only wants to play for your team. But when you get the opportunity to pick in the top-10 (and top-two!) as often as the Rangers have over the past few years you can not miss on them. Because if you get them right, you are probably going to have a Stanley Cup in your future.
So far, the early returns for the Rangers have been less than encouraging. And that might be the most concerning element of the team’s current trajectory.
Between 2017 and 2020 the Rangers had eight first round draft picks, including four picks in the top-10. The early returns so far have been mixed.
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The Rangers already jettisoned one of those top-10 picks (Lias Andersson) last year for a second-round draft pick, while another, Vitali Kravtsov, might soon be on his way out the door after he failed to make the opening day roster and did not report to the American Hockey League. He has reportedly been given permission to seek a trade with other clubs. To this point, the Rangers received five goals in 86 man games from those two players. Not great.
The jury is still very much out on the other late first-round picks. Filip Chytil and K'Andre Miller have shown flashes of impact potential in the NHL, but are not consistently there yet.
All of that is just part of what makes the most recent top picks, No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko and No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafrenière, so important.
They are ultimately going to be the players that dictate where this thing goes and if it works.
Kakko is entering what might be a pivotal year in his development and if he is going to become a star player you would want to think it would start to happen this season. He took a significant step forward in a lot of ways last year, becoming one of the Rangers’ best possession drivers and scoring chance creators. It did not always translate into offense, though, or make a noticeable difference in his individual production. Some of that could have been how he was used and the talent he had around him, not to mention the number of minutes he received. He is slated to start Wednesday’s game on the second line next to Panarin and Ryan Strome, which should put him in a position to succeed.
Then there is Lafrenière. After an extremely slow start to his rookie season he started to flash some of the talent and potential that made him the No. 1 overall pick later in the season and finished strong, perhaps setting the stage for a big sophomore year. He is opening Wednesday night on the top line alongside Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. Like Kakko, it is an ideal situation for him to thrive in.
If you look at pretty much every Stanley Cup winning team in the modern era almost all of them have at least one top-two pick on their roster that became a superstar. In some cases, more than one. Those players, if you get them right, are franchise changers and championship building blocks.
So much focus this offseason has been spent on the Rangers’ changes and what they might mean for the culture and attitude around the team’s mindset. But if the potential young impact players do not become actual impact players, none of it is going to matter.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.