Whether or not the 2021-22 New York Rangers are actually one of the NHL’s best teams as currently constructed is probably still up for some level of debate. But one thing should be quite certain at this point in the season: They have definitely positioned themselves as contenders that has a chance to make a great deal of noise.
There are still a few “ifs” involved with that, of course, but the potential is absolutely there.
Even with their ugly loss to Colorado on Wednesday (a typical “schedule lose” with a No. 3 goalie making his NHL debut) they they still own the second-best points percentage in the league. If you assume it is going to take 96 points to qualify for an Eastern Conference playoff spot (the current baseline based on the standings, and a good benchmark for most seasons) they would only need to play .500 hockey over their remaining 57 games to reach that point. Keep in mind, the Rangers played at .551 pace over the prior two full seasons. So that should be an easily attainable goal.
They should — emphasis on should — have built themselves enough of a cushion in the East playoff race to be penciled in to one of those eight spots, even if they experience some kind of a regression in the second half.
That regression might still come, as there are some potential red flags here, at least as it relates to their 5-on-5 play. Their possession and scoring chance numbers at even-strength consistently place them among the bottom-10 (per Natural Stat Trick), which is not really where you want to reside. Good teams generate more shots and chances than their opponents, and that typically leads to scoring more goals and winning more games.
But there are some exceptions to that with the right circumstances. Specifically, if your team has elite talents and elite goaltending.
The Rangers have both.
For whatever flaws they still have, the Rangers have superstar level players in all of the right spots.
Artemi Panarin is one of the 10 best offensive players in the world and can drive a teams offense.
[Related: NHL Power Rankings: Rangers, Wild climb toward top]
While his goal scoring has been slow this season, Mika Zibanejad is a top-tier offensive player and is currently being crushed by an uncharacteristically low shooting percentage that is due for a rebound (he started slow here last year as well before going nuts in the second half).
On defense, Adam Fox is the reigning Norris Trophy winner and at age 23 is already one of the NHL’s top all-around defensemen. He also keeps getting better.
Then there is the most important piece of them all: Starting goalie Igor Shesterkin. If there is anybody that knows the value of an elite goalie and what they can do to mask flaws on a team, it is Rangers fans. After seeing Henrik Lundqvist do that for more than a decade, they have seamlessly transitioned into watching Shesterkin do the same so far in his young career. When healthy, he is a game-changer, a season-changer, and a potential franchise-changer. Since making his NHL debut the Rangers have a 39-19-5 record in games where Shesterkin is the deciding goalie, while his .926 save percentage during that stretch is third best in the league (trailing only Juuse Saros and Jack Campbell, while being tied with Andrei Vasilevskiy).
Every contending team needs those types of players at all levels of the roster. They are the most difficult to find and acquire. The Rangers already have them.
At some point they are going to need players like Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière to take significant steps forward, and that potential is still very much there.
But what really makes the Rangers an intriguing team right now is the fact they have the flexibility and resources to address their flaws.
They not only have the trade capital to be active players in the market in terms of young prospects, they also have more salary cap space this season than almost every other team in the league. They could, in theory, acquire just about any player they want that is available before the trade deadline. It is something they should aggressively pursue.
For starters, do not overvalue your own prospects. No matter how deep your prospect pool is (and the Rangers have one of the deepest prospect pools) not all of them are going to pan out. If they can get you another impact player that could strength your chances right now, it is worth looking into.
Especially in the Rangers’ situation. Panarin, Zibanejad, and Chris Krieder are not going to be top-line players forever. This is their chance, and this is the year the Rangers have the flexibility to go all in to help them. Next season a lot of that extra salary cap space disappears when new contracts for Zibanejad and Fox kick in with only Ryan Strome set to come off the books. It will not be a dire salary cap situation, but it will not be as advantageous as it is right now. Any rental that is potentially available (Tomas Hertl? Mark Giordano? Filip Forsberg?) should be on the table.
There was obvious pressure for the Rangers to be a playoff team this season, especially after the wholesale changes made within the front office and coaching staff during the offseason. Now that they look to be on path to be there, and have put themselves in a strong position in the standings and with the salary cap for this season, they should be looking to take another step beyond that and speed up the timeline even more.
You only get so many prime shots at something like this. You do not want to miss them when you get them.
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.