The start of the 2022-23 NHL season is still a couple of months away, so there is still time for teams to round out their roster and make moves this offseason. That is good news for the New York Rangers because after the first month of the NHL offseason their roster still has some pretty significant question marks and concerns.
This was always going to be an important offseason for the Rangers because we were going to find out what they learned about why they had their success this past season and what they felt they still needed to do. For as successful as the season was, their playoff formula (sensational goaltending and a dominant power play overshadowing bad 5-on-5 play) is not exactly one that you want to rely on long-term. Being content with the progress and status quo was not going to be good enough.
The early returns are not exactly promising.
The Rangers’ one big move so far this offseason has been to sign unrestricted free agent Vincent Trocheck to a seven-year, $39.75 million contract.
[Related: 2022 NHL Free Agency Tracker]
Trocheck is a very good player, and in the short-term should be a nice fit as the team’s new second-line center. The seven-year term is a big picture concern, but the Rangers do not have to cross the bridge just yet.
The more immediate concern is that the signing of Trocheck (a really good player) came at the expense of losing Ryan Strome (also a pretty good player), Andrew Copp (also a pretty good player), and Frank Vatrano (also a pretty good player) in free agency.
That is one good player in and three good players out the door.
Strome and Trocheck have been pretty close to a wash offensively over the past few years, while Trocheck has a nice defensive advantage. So there is an upgrade there at the second-line center spot. That is fine.
The problem is they not only lost Strome, but also lost Copp and Vatrano. Strome has been replaced. Copp and Vatrano have not.
[Related: Rangers sign Trocheck]
While they did not spend a lot of time with the Rangers last year (both joining the team at the trade deadline) their arrivals were significant in taking them from a nice young, up and coming team, to a dangerous team that would be capable of doing real damage in the playoffs. They gave a team that needed scoring depth and more punch offensively exactly that. Copp, along with his offensive production (14 goals, 18 assists and 32 total points in 36 regular season and playoff games), was also a significant defensive upgrade.
There is still time for them to be replaced. But it is going to be a challenge. Most of the major trades have been made. The main free agents have mostly been picked over (though bargains and value can still be found). Even worse, the Rangers have less than $4 million in salary cap space to work with while still needing to re-sign restricted free agent Kaapo Kakko. They almost have to more salary out for another move.
At this point the Rangers seem to be counting on three things happening this season: Shesterkin being as dominant as he was a year ago, Chris Kreider‘s goal scoring surge being for real and not an outlier, and their young players taking a big step forward.
Can Shesterkin carry them again?
Shesterkin was the biggest factor in the Rangers’ regular season and postseason success. He was the best goalie in the league by a substantial margin and at times put the team on his back.
But for as dominant as he was, can he be that good again over a full season?
The problem with relying on percentages is that percentages fluctuate, even for great players. Since the start of the 2000 season we have seen 18 goalies play at least 40 regular season games and finish with a save percentage better than .930, including Shesterkin. Those goalies, no matter how good they are, almost always regress the following year. The only one that did not was Carey Price in 2015-16 whose save percentage went up by .001 …. while playing in only 12 games due to injury.
The full list.
On average, it was a .015 drop the next season. Even if you took .010 or .015 off of Shesterkin’s numbers this season he would still be in the top-five of the league, and perhaps even still lead the league. He was that much better than everybody else. But a 10-15 point drop in save percentage on the same number of shots is an additional 15-25 goals against. That is significant.
“Our goalie is better than your goalie, so let’s just see what happens” is not a sound plan. It did not get Henrik Lundqvist a Stanley Cup in New York, and it will not get Shesterkin one, either.
The young players will dictate everything
This is going to be the biggest key for the Rangers, and it can go a long way toward fixing a lot of the questions listed above, from scoring depth, to a potential Kreider regression, to improving 5-on-5 play.
This is where the Rangers can make their noise. Quite honestly, it is where they are going to have to make their noise.
We saw some promise from their Kid Line of Kappo, Alexis Lafrenière, and Filip Chytill in the playoffs. And they were great together. But it was also only a 140-minute sample size of 5-on-5 play. And while each of them has shown flashes of potential at different times in their young careers, they still have to show they can do it over a full season. Lafrenière and Kakko are still very young, and even though they were both top-two picks those players progress at different speeds. Not every top pick is an immediate superstar. But we are still getting to a point where we are going to need to see a significant jump if they are going to be star players, or just pretty good players. If it is the former, that is a positive game-changer for the Rangers. If it is the latter, it still leaves some questions.
[Related: Rangers took big step forward, but work still needs done]
K'Andre Miller and Braden Schneider can also make a significant impact on defense, and then there is the wild card that is Vitaly Kravtsov.
There is a ton of potential there with all of them. But not every young player or prospect pans out exactly as you hope, especially when you are dealing with five or six of them all at once. Some will exceed expectations, some will match them, some will get hurt, some will just be a disappointment.
This is still a good team. But is it as good as the 2021-22 team? Will it be better?
The success or failure of this group of players is going to go a long way toward determining how their 2022-23 season goes.
Given the roster moves they have made (and not made) this offseason, they almost have no choice.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.