Alexandar Georgiev

NHL Return to Play: A look at the Eastern Conference matchups

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We now know who will be potentially playing hockey later this summer and who will have a long wait until next season.

With the NHL’s Return to Play announcement on Tuesday, we learned the eight Qualifying Round matchups if play is to resume in a few months. We also learned that the top four teams in each conference will play to determine seeding for the First Round.

For the Eastern Conference, the winners of each Qualifying Round will go on to face one of Boston, Tampa, Washington, or Philadelphia.

Now that we know the teams, let’s take an overview of the four Eastern Conference matchups.

[MORE: A look at the Western Conference matchups]

(5) Penguins vs. (12) Canadiens

Regular season recap

At the time of the March 12 pause the Penguins were sitting in a playoff spot, four points behind the Capitals for the Metropolitan Division lead. The Canadiens, on the other hand, would be enjoying their off-season if we had the traditional 16-team playoff format.

How rough of a regular season was it for the Habs? Out of their 71 games played, they only won 19 in regulation. They were one of the league’s top possession teams (54% Fenwick, per Natural Stat Trick) but it was their own end of the ice where the issues popped up. Montreal was middle of the pack at 5-on-5 goals against (142) and shots against (1,710), save percentage (.917), and were bottom-10 in shooting percentage (7.49%).

The Canadiens experienced two eight-game losing streaks, a five-game skid, and went into the break losing 10 of their last 14 games. Pittsburgh also would be coming off a big-time slide having lost eight of their last 11 games. A several-month pause could certainly help break such a skid.

Between Matt Murray and Tristan Jarry, the Penguins needed both goaltenders this season. Murray started the year, Jarry took over and was named an All-Star Game replacement, and it was Murray getting most of the work down the stretch.

It was also a season of injury for the Penguins. Pittsburgh is currently third with 298 man-games lost to injury or illness, per ManGamesLost.com. Only seven players have played at least 60 games. But, in line with their season, one of those players, Dominik Simon, injured his shoulder in February and will be out at least six months following surgery.

Season series

Penguins lead season series 2-1-0. Last meeting: Feb., 14; a 4-1 Penguins victory.

Injured players who could return

Jake Guentzel suffered a shoulder injury in late December and was ruled out for 4-6 months. Should play resume in late July/early August that could be enough time to mend for the Penguins forward. Zach Aston-Reese, Brian Dumoulin, and Nick Bjugstad were all injured players who returned just before the pause. Unfortunately for Bjugstad, GM Jim Rutherford said on Wednesday the forward underwent an undisclosed surgery this week and will be out the rest of the season.

An ankle injury kept Jonathan Drouin out for Montreal’s last six games and an upper-body injury sidelined Tomas Tatar for three matchups. Jesperi Kotkaniemi (spleen), who was in the AHL at the time of his injury, is not expected to play again this season. Victor Mete could be back after suffering a fractured foot in February.

Storylines to watch

This will be a series featuring a team that dealt with major injuries seemingly every week, yet remained in contention for the division lead against one that has dealt with consistency issues. It’s a short series, so we know a hot goalie can steal games, which brings us to…

Carey Price, who became the focal point of a storyline about the Penguins fearing him in a short series, hasn’t been his usual dangerous self. He’s 32nd in even strength save percentage this season among goalies with 1,000 minutes played (.919) and 32nd in goals saved above average (.27). Why would Mike Sullivan’s team be scared of that?

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(6) Hurricanes vs. (11) Rangers

Regular season recap

It was a tight race at the bottom of the Metro as well as for one of the East’s two wild card places. The Hurricanes played 68 games and earned 81 points, putting them in the top wild card spot with two games in-hand on the Rangers, who were two points behind Carolina.

New York is in the middle of a franchise transition rather than the tear-it-down approach to rebuilding. They’ve brought in youth to mix in with prime-age veterans and it resulted in a good step forward. There are plenty of decisions to be made in the off-season, but GM Jeff Gorton’s moves have set the team up well. Artemi Panarin is a Hart Trophy candidate, Mika Zibanejad scored a career high 41 goals, as did pending restricted free agent defenseman Tony DeAngelo (15 goals, 53 points). Chris Kreider, who was nearly dealt at the trade deadline before signing a seven-year extension, hit 20 goals for the fifth time in the last six seasons. Rookie Adam Fox, whose signing rights were traded from Carolina to the Rangers last summer, played his way into the Calder Trophy discussion with 42 points.

The Hurricanes were one of two NHL teams to vote against the Return to Play proposal. Player rep Jordan Martinook said the reason was because they felt it was unfair for a team already in a playoff spot to have an extra round to participate in. Carolina headed into the break with a three-game winning streak and were feeling confident about their final 14 games.

Whatever goaltender the Rangers play will be busy. The Hurricanes fired 300 more even strength shots on goal than New York. They’ll also be tasked with facing a tough offense with Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov leading the way. Carolina likes to dominate possession, but like Montreal, their own zone tends to be where the issues develop. Their goaltender has been sub-par, leading to a .912 5-on-5 save percentage despite 1,549 shots allowed at even strength, fewest in the NHL.

Season series

Rangers lead series 0-4-0. Last meeting: Feb., 21; a 5-2 Rangers victory.

Injured players who could return

Leg injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Sami Vatanen had them out of the lineup for extended periods of time. Given the time between games potentially being played, the Hurricanes blue line could be bolstered with those two back on the ice. Brett Pesce, meanwhile, may not be back in time from shoulder surgery. His timeline was 4-6 months back in March.

Chris Kreider fractured his foot on Feb. 28, but he should have enough healing and rehab time for a return to the lineup.

He wasn’t injured, but the Rangers will likely be without Brendan Lemieux for some portion of the series. The forward was suspended after the NHL pause for an undetermined amount of time. There will be clarity on that before games resume.

Storylines to watch

Is this the Adam Fox Bowl? Maybe the Brady Skjei Series? Whatever angle you go with, this is a divisional matchup with two teams believing in their bright futures. Part of the next generation for New York is goaltender Igor Shesterkin, who returned from injuries sustained in a car accident just before the pause. Will head coach David Quinn go with him in goal ahead of Alexandar Georgiev or Henrik Lundqvist, who has made one start since Feb. 3?

[MORE: Why Hurricanes, Lightning voted against Return to Play proposal]

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(7) Islanders vs. (10) Panthers

Regular season recap

Neither team entered the break in a traditional playoff position, but they weren’t far off the pace. The Islanders were one point back of Columbus for the second wild card spot, while Florida sat three points behind the Blue Jackets.

Under new head coach Joel Quenneville, Florida remained on the playoff bubble, but one wonders how much further up the standings they would be if Sergei Bobrovsky, who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal in the summer, played better than his .900 even strength save percentage. Could he steal a short series? Sure, but his .904 career playoff save percentage doesn’t instill much confidence.

While the offense will rely heavily on Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Mike Hoffman, they also have received good depth production. Noel Acciari potted 20 goals, Brett Connolly hit for 19, and Frank Vatrano hit for 16. It remains to be seen how much they’ll miss Vincent Trocheck, who was dealt to Carolina in February, bringing back a package that included Erik Haula and Lucas Wallmark.

If we’re still counting losing streaks, the Islanders would enter a resumption in play on a seven-game losing skid. That slide goes back to mid-February as they won just twice in their last 13 games and have six total victories since Jan. 11. They lost a comfortable playoff position and found themselves fighting for a wild card place in a competitive Metro.

That 17-game point streak earlier in the season seems forever ago.

Veteran Andy Greene was added to help a defense that hasn’t been what you’d expect from a Barry Trotz team in 2019-20. Only Ottawa has allowed more even strength shots on goal and the Islanders have allowed the fifth-most high-danger scoring chances. That’s a big change from the team that swept the Penguins out of Round 1 a year ago.

J.G. Pageau was acquired at the trade deadline to assist an offense that needs firepower. The Islanders don’t generate a ton of even strength chances and only feature a pair of 20-goal scorers — Brock Nelson (25) and Anders Lee (19).

Season series

Islanders lead season series 3-0-0. Last meeting: Dec. 12; an Islanders 3-1 win.

Injured players who could return

After receiving 90 stitches following a frightening skate-to-the-eye injury in March, Johnny Boychuk should be back on the Islanders’ blue line. Casey Cizikas, who suffered a skate laceration, is also expected to be ready to go. An Achilles injury put defenseman Adam Pelech out of the lineup in January and it would be a stretch to see him back this summer.

Storylines to watch

The Panthers own the possession advantage here (50% Fenwick to 47%, per Natural Stat Trick) and have converted more 5-on-5 chances with an edge in shooting percentage at 9%. A huge factor will be in net with Bobrovsky against Semyon Varlamov. The Islanders netminder has a .921 ESSV% vs. a .903 for Bob. If New York, who has scored the third-fewest 5-on-5 goals among the Return to Play teams, can get their offense going, it could spell trouble for Florida.

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(8) Maple Leafs vs. (9) Blue Jackets

Regular season recap

The Maple Leafs offense is potent, as we saw through 70 games. Auston Matthews put home 47 goals, followed by William Nylander‘s 31 and John Tavares‘ 26. Their top two lines are dangerous, but their goaltending will be among their biggest questions.

Frederik Andersen‘s .915 ESSV% puts him near the bottom among goaltenders with at least 1,000 minutes played. He had to play a lot of hockey given Toronto’s backup issues. Maybe the extra time off will allow him to get his game back? Consider his likely counterpart, Elvis Merzlikis, who posted a .931 in 32 games played. Or if John Tortorella could go with Joonas Korpisalo, who put up a .926 in 37 games.

Columbus was among the lowest scoring teams at 5-on-5, with 125 goals compared to that of Toronto’s 158. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though, as the Blue Jackets were right behind the Maple Leafs with 1,837 EV shots. Converting was the issue, as seen by their 6.8 shooting percentage. Even if Andersen isn’t on his game, Toronto can overcome that with a smothering offense.

The pause could allow the Blue Jackets to get healthy as their 352 man-games lost to injury led the NHL. Already dealing with the loss of Panarin and Bobrovsky in free agency, Columbus didn’t lose faith in their ability and persisted, even as players were being added to the injury list on a regular basis.

Season series

Maple Leafs have a regulation victory. Blue Jackets have an overtime win. Last meeting: Oct. 21; a 4-3 Columbus OT win.

Injured players who could return

Could Josh Anderson come back by late summer? He was given a 4-6 month recovery period and it’s been nearly three months since he underwent shoulder surgery. The extra time off bodes well for Cam Atkinson (ankle), Oliver Bjorkstrand (ankle), Seth Jones (ankle), and Alexandre Texier (back) among the Blue Jackets’ long list of walking wounded.

For the Leafs, Ilya Mikheyev (wrist laceration), Jake Muzzin (hand), and Andreas Johnsson (knee) should be good to go when play resumes.

Storylines to watch

On one hand you have a Blue Jackets team that was battered all season long, fighting for a playoff spot despite losing their two biggest stars in the summer. They surprised many and really played with a chip on their shoulders all season long.

On the other hand, there’s a chance that if Toronto win they could face the Bruins for the third-straight season — and we all know how much Maple Leafs fans love seeing Boston in the playoffs.

MORE:
NHL targets early June for Phase 2 of return to play plans
Which play-in playoff series would be the most exciting?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Rangers coach Quinn explains what makes Panarin special

Rangers head coach David Quinn gets a firsthand look at how dominant Artemi Panarin can be, so it makes sense that he’d provide interesting insight on the superstar winger.

During the latest episode of NBC Sports’ “Our Line Starts” podcast, Quinn explained that he believes Panarin is a unique talent. “Sneaky strength” is part of what makes Panarin special, according to Quinn.

Quinn explains what sets Panarin apart

It’s not sheer brute strength in the most direct, muscle-mass sense. Instead, Quinn explains that Panarin possesses significant hand and stick strength. Combine that with a world-class hockey IQ, and it helps explain why Panarin is so tough to stop.

Quinn cites a specific example of those qualities producing strong results for the Rangers. Back in late February, Panarin overpowered and beguiled multiple Islanders defenders to set up Mika Zibanejad‘s overtime goal:

Panarin sits tied with David Pastrnak for third in scoring this season with 95 points (32 goals, 63 assists [all career-highs]). The Hart Trophy argument improves for Panarin when you dig deeper. Take, for instance, Panarin standing atop the entire league by Evolving Hockey’s Goals Above Replacement metric:

Quinn Rangers Artemi Panarin GAR

More on the Rangers in “Our Line Starts”

Whether you prefer the “eye test,” enjoy supplementing sensory details with “fancy stats,” or delight in all of it as a hockey buffet, it’s clear that Panarin is a superstar. He’s also a lot of fun to watch, especially when he breaks out one of his goal celes.

Rangers head coach Quinn touched on other Rangers talking points with Liam McHugh and Anson Carter.

One of the more interesting bits revolves around how Henrik Lundqvist handled the competition with Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev. It’s not surprising to learn that Lundqvist shows class, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless. Especially considering Mats Zuccarello‘s righteous anger regarding the treatment of Lundqvist from late April.

Check out the full episode in whatever format you prefer. There’s video above this headline, and an audio version below. Here’s a guide for different topics in case you want to skip around:

3:20-4:55 Quinn’s assessment of Rangers’ season
4:55-7:30 Zibanejad, and Panarin’s second half MVP push
7:30-9:45 Lundqvist’s demotion and the dilemma in goal
9:45-11:40 Learning from Bill Belichick
11:40-13:15 Taking over for the legendary Jack Parker
15:25-19:45 Quinn’s memory of his draft day in 1984
19:45-24:10 Fallout from Quinn’s hemophilia diagnosis
25:40-28:00 BU’s crushing loss in 2015 NCAA title game

 

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

More on the Rangers’ 2019-20 season:

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.

NHL Power Rankings: Teams with the best long-term outlook

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In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we take a look at the teams with the best long-term outlook.

How are we defining long-term outlook? Pretty simple, and it comes down to one fairly important question: Does this team have a chance to win the Stanley Cup (or two Stanley Cups) over the next five years.

That takes into account talent currently on the roster, talent coming through the farm system, salary cap situation, and pretty much everything else that is required to win it all.

Where does your favorite team sit?

To the rankings!

1. Colorado Avalanche. Unless they royally screw it up somehow this is the ideal situation in both the short-and long-term. They could win the Stanley Cup as soon as this season, and should be a constant contender for the next five years (and more). They have superstar players just now entering their prime, they have great young players on cheap deals and a nice pipeline of talent coming through the system, and they have a great cast of complementary players around the stars. Nearly every core player is signed long-term and they have a ton of salary cap flexibility to add players where needed.

2. Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning have been one of the best teams in the NHL for more than five seasons now and are still searching for that championship for this particular core. Even with their recent postseason shortcomings this core is still absolutely good enough to get it done, they are still mostly in their primes, and signed long-term. Salary cap situation will be tight, but they have elite players at every position on the ice and plenty of depth.

3. Boston Bruins. A Stanley Cup Finalist a year ago and the best team in the NHL this season. The Bruins are one of the league’s elite teams and well positioned to compete for the foreseeable future. The only thing that might start to slow them down is the age of some of their top players and a few questions beyond this season (contract status for their goalies, adding depth within the salary cap).

4. Pittsburgh Penguins. As long as they still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Jake Guentzel performing the way they have been they are going to be in a position to compete. There will come a time in the next few years where the former three really start to slow down (or maybe even retire) but that time is not here yet.

5. Washington Capitals. Similar outlook as the Penguins, where as long as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson, and T.J. Oshie are doing their thing they are going to be in the mix for the Stanley Cup. They also have a really nice wave young talent starting to emerge with players like Ilya Samsonov and Jakub Vrana.

6. Toronto Maple Leafs. At some point they have to get through Round 1 of the playoffs, and until they do they will be a postseason punchline. But I like to bet on talent, and Toronto, even for all of its flaws, has a ton of talent. Championship talent. The big contracts at the top will require some creative salary cap maneuvering, but every team that wins a Stanley Cup has a similar roster construction with a small number of players eating up a significant portion of salary cap space. That concern is overblown.

7. St. Louis Blues. I like the Blues in the short-term. I like their chances to repeat this season, especially in the Western Conference. But they have some big free agents to deal with in the coming years and that creates at least a little bit of long-term uncertainty. They are not going away yet. But they do have some big questions to answer down the line (Alex Pietrangelo, the goalies, Jaden Schwartz, David Perron, etc.)

8. Carolina Hurricanes. A team that has been on the rise for a while and arrived last season with a stunning trip to the Eastern Conference Final. The Hurricanes have a great young nucleus in place with a sensational defense and a handful of outstanding young forwards led by Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and an emerging superstar in Andrei Svechnikov.

9. Philadelphia Flyers. There is a lot to like in Philadelphia right now. Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracak can still be impact players in the short-term, while they have two front-line players in Sean Couturier and Travis Konecny in the prime of their careers. The X-factors here are the trio of Shayne Gostisbehere, Ivan Provorov, and Carter Hart. If they progress and become the players the Flyers hope they will that can be a game-changer in Philadelphia. That is especially true as it relates to Hart.

10. Vegas Golden Knights. An outstanding team in a very winnable division. The big concern here is that it is a little bit of an older team with several players in their core starting to approach age 30 and beyond.

11. New York Rangers. Artemi Panarin is one of the league’s most best offensive players, but what truly makes this team fascinating going forward is the young talent around him. They have two outstanding young goalies (Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev), an emerging star on defense in Adam Fox, and a potential superstar in Kaapo Kakko.

12. Edmonton Oilers. It is very tempting to put them higher on the list because Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are that good. They are the best 1-2 punch in the league, and in theory that should give them a great window to compete in. But there remains a lot of questions after them.

13. Calgary Flames. They are not as good as their 2018-19 record and they are probably a little better than they have showed this season. There is a good core in place, as long as they do not do something outrageous like trade Johnny Gaudreau, or something.

14. Vancouver Canucks. Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser, and Quinn Hughes is a potential championship trio, and 2019 first-round pick Vasili Podkolzin has enormous potential for when he makes the jump to North America. They still have a lot of work to do around that young core, though.

15. Florida Panthers. This season has been a massive disappointment, but Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are an amazing steals at the top of the lineup which gives them a huge advantage.

16. Nashville Predators. A tough team to get a feel for long-term. I like their talent, I think they still have a chance to compete for a title, but I also wonder if they already missed their best opportunity.

17. Columbus Blue Jackets. There is some really good talent here, and the defense duo of Seth Jones and Zach Werenski is tremendous. The performance of the goalies in the short-term will dictate a lot.

18. Dallas Stars. I feel like they need more impact talent at forward. Tyler Seguin is still really good, but Alexander Radulov isn’t getting any younger. John Klingberg and Miro Heiskanen are the long-term faces of the franchise. A lot of their success this season is goaltending driven, and that’s fine in the short-term, but you can’t rely on that every single season.

19. New York Islanders. Given the current construction of the roster the Islanders are positioned to be a fringe playoff team, but lacking the superstar talent to really become a true Stanley Cup contender.

20. New Jersey Devils. Sometimes timing is everything. The Devils have had two of the past three No. 1 overall picks, but they did not have them in a year where there wasn’t a Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, or even a Steven Stamkos available. Nico Hischier is outstanding, and Jack Hughes has the potential to be there, but there are some big questions around them.

21. Winnipeg Jets. Love the forward talent, really like the goalie, but have some serious concerns on defense. Like Nashville, I think we may have seen this team miss its best shot.

22. Chicago Blackhawks. The window slammed shut rapidly and brutally. They still have some high-end players, and Adam Boqvist and Kirby Dach have big-time potential, but this is going to be three consecutive non-playoff seasons and five years without a playoff series win. Not sure if the window opens backup anytime soon. By the time Dach and Boqvist become stars, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews might be slowing down.

23. San Jose Sharks. I could see the Sharks rebounding next season and being a playoff team again, but the age of their core and the salary cap situation with some of those contracts is a long-term concern.

24. Minnesota Wild. I’m still having a hard time seeing the long-term direction here or where this team is going. Not a bad team. Not a great team. Just sort of stuck in the middle.

25. Arizona Coyotes. This is not a bad team, and there is definitely upside here, but if they can not re-sign Taylor Hall they will have a glaring lack of impact talent at forward and without some significant luck in the draft lottery will not be in a position to add any anytime soon.

26. Montreal Canadiens. They have good players and Marc Bergevin has made his share of good moves, but the end result is never anything other than mediocrity. That is a difficult cycle to get out of.

27. Buffalo Sabres. Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin should be a reason for optimism, but there is no sign that ownership or management knows how to properly build around them.

28. Detroit Red Wings. The current roster is not good but they have draft assets and one of the most respected general managers in the league. The salary cap situation is also better than it looked a year or two ago. They are still a LONG way from contention.

29. Los Angeles Kings. They are finally starting to lean into the rebuild and have an interesting farm system, but it is going to take some time.

30. Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks have had a pretty great run throughout the salary cap era, winning a Stanley Cup, making three other Western Conference Finals, and almost always being a playoff team. But that chapter has closed and it is time for a new beginning and a rebuild.

31. Ottawa Senators. There should be reason for optimism here. There are some really good young players in place, they have salary cap space, but it all starts at the top with ownership. It is really tough to buy into them long-term for that reason.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

What is the Rangers’ long-term outlook?

New York Rangers
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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the long-term outlook for the New York Rangers.

Pending Free Agents

The Core

There are a lot of very intriguing pieces in place here and a lot to like about where this team can go in the very near future.

Artemi Panarin is a superstar, while Mika Zibanejad (still signed for two more years after this one) has proven to be a perfect complement for him on the top line.

Kaapo Kakko may have experienced some growing pains in his rookie season, but he still has star potential and they have two outstanding young defensemen in Anthony DeAngelo and Adam Fox to be the foundation of the defense. DeAngelo is a restricted free agent this summer and has played his way into a raise, but the in-season trade of Brady Skjei should give them enough flexibility under the salary cap to easily get a new deal completed with him.

Add in the return of Chris Kreider and a couple outstanding young goalies in Igor Shesterkin and Alexander Georgiev and they have some of the most important pieces of a contending team in place — top-line players, including a handful of already elite (and potentially elite) players.

Those are the most difficult pieces to find in any rebuild, and the Rangers have them. They definitely have some work to do around the edges with the depth, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find the complementary pieces than it is to find the core pieces.

Long-Term Needs

It mostly comes down to depth. At forward, center depth could still be a concern in the short-term if Ryan Strome is unable to duplicate his offensive performance this season.

Defensively, they have some big question marks after Fox and DeAngelo.

Marc Staal remains a fraction of what he used to be and still has a fairly significant salary next season. Jacob Trouba was supposed to be a big addition, he was a disappointment this season and still carries a huge salary cap hit for the next six years with a no-movement clause that will kick in this summer. They need him to be significantly better than he has been for that $8 million price tag he carries.

It would also be a huge boost to their long-term outlook if Kakko became a star. That would be a game-changer for them to have another elite winger to help take some of the pressure off of the top-line and give opponents another big-time scoring threat to worry about.

They also need a solution to the Henrik Lundqvist situation.

Long-Term Strengths

Goaltending is a potentially intriguing one due to the presence of Shesterkin and Georgiev. If you are going to phase out a legend the way the Rangers did this season, you better have one hell of an option already in place. As it turns out, the Rangers might have two of them.

Goalie is always the X-factor position in the NHL and can be the biggest difference-maker on the ice. It would be foolish to expect Shesterkin to maintain the .932 save percentage he has had in his first 12 appearances, but the upside is there for both of them to be outstanding NHL goalies. If it plays out that way, the Rangers could have the position set for the next decade.

They also have one of the league’s best offensive players in Panarin to serve as their franchise player, and the potential of Kakko to join him in that class.

Looking even further ahead, they also have two first-round draft picks in the 2020 draft class.

MORE RANGERS:
• Looking at the 2019-20 New York Rangers
Rangers biggest surprises and disappointments so far

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

New York Rangers: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the New York Rangers.

Adam Fox ended up being far more impactful than Jacob Trouba

While the Rangers’ mega offseason was highlighted by the addition of Artemi Panarin (who has proven to be worth every penny) they also did a lot of work to their defense.

Kevin Shattenkirk was bought out, highly touted prospect Adam Fox was acquired and signed, and Jacob Trouba came in from the Winnipeg Jets.

While Fox was always viewed as a high-ceiling prospect, Trouba was the player that was expected to make the most immediate impact this season. It did not work out that way at all. While Trouba struggled through a disappointing debut season in New York, Fox rapidly emerged as not only the Rangers’ most impactful defenseman, but one of the rising stars in the league. He has not received as much league-wide fanfare as Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes in Colorado and Vancouver, but the gap between them is not that large at all. Fox has been an immediate sensation both offensively and defensively and looks like he has a chance to be a cornerstone piece to the Rangers’ blue line for the foreseeable future.

Henrik Lundqvist gets phased out

It is a little surprising the way it happened, while also disappointing to see his time with the Rangers end the way it seems destined to end.

For more than a decade Lundqvist has been the face of the franchise. Heck, at times he has been the franchise. For years he helped propped up a shaky defense and elevate the Rangers to a level that exceeded their talent level, helping to make them a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. He is the greatest goalie of his era, and one of the best to ever do it. Now his future with the team seems cloudy at best.

As the 2019-20 season went on, it became clear that Lundqvist is no longer a significant part of the Rangers’ plans as he was mostly relegated to backup duties in the Rangers’ three-headed monster rotation.

While Lundqvist still has one year remaining on his contract beyond this one, the team seems ready to roll with the young duo of Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev. So much so that Lunqvist started just five of the team’s 32 games after January 1 this season.

What happens next remains to be seen. Is there a trade to be made? A buyout that allows him to become a free agent and choose his destination in a quest to finally get his name on the Stanley Cup? Or perhaps even just calling it a career.

Chris Kreider stays

At the start of the 2019-20 season it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Kreider was going to be on the move before the trade deadline.

Even though the front office made huge additions in the offseason, it was still a team in the middle of a rebuild and Kreider was a player that seemed poised to bring a strong return.

While the possibility of a contract extension was always on the table, it just always seemed to be a long-shot and the least likely option. But with the Rangers inching back toward playoff contention, and a strong core starting to emerge that could make the Rangers a playoff team as soon as next season, the two sides were able to hammer out a deal to keep him in New York on a seven-year, $45.5 million contract. Given Krieder’s age the term definitely carries some long-term risk, but it is not an outrageous salary cap hit for what he can still provide.

He should still be a quality, productive top-line winger for a few more years before it becomes an issue.

The centers turned out to be a little better than expected

If you were to look at the Rangers’ roster at the start of the season the one big question mark that may have existed was their depth down the middle. And while that still may be the case when it comes to the bottom lines, the top-two duo of Mika Zibanejad and Ryan Strome exceeded any and all expectations.

Zibanejad has always been a fine, productive player, but he ended up being a perfect match alongside Kreider and has turned in a massive offensive performance that has helped form one of the league’s best top-line duos this season.

The bigger surprise was on the second line where Strome has had a career year offensively and is a 22-goal, 68-point pace offensively. He has played his best hockey since joining the Rangers in the middle of the 2018-19 season. He will still be a restricted free agent after this season.

MORE RANGERS:
Looking at the 2019-20 New York Rangers
Rangers’ long-term outlook

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.