It is the start of a new era for the New York Rangers on Thursday night as they unveil their new roster that was strengthened over the summer with the additions of veterans Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba, as well as the drafting of Kaapo Kakko.
Those additions have rapidly accelerated the team’s rebuild and definitely increased the excitement around the team. It might be dangerous for expectations to get too high right away, because even with the improvements it is still a very flawed roster with its share of weaknesses. But the entertainment level is going to skyrocket and there is at least a bright light at the end of the tunnel.
Out of all of the new additions, Kakko’s debut should be the most anticipated in New York because this is the type of player Rangers fans haven’t really had the opportunity to experience in a long time.
For as exciting as the Panarin signing may have been, that sort of thing is nothing new for Rangers fans. Big free agent signings and big name acquisitions are what this team does and has always done for decades. It is their brand. Big names, big money, bright lights. If there is a big-name player available on the open market or for trade, it is a good bet the Rangers are going to at least have a seat at the table when it comes to trying to acquire them.
That strategy has not always worked, but it is what they do.
Kakko, though, is a very different type of player.
If this rebuild is going to work, he is going to have to be one of the biggest players at the center of it. A young, mega-talented player with superstar potential that was drafted by the team. This is the type of player — if all goes according to plan — championship teams need. And it is the type of player that does not come through Madison Square Garden very often.
Think about it: Who was the last big-time prospect to make their debut for the Rangers with this much fanfare and this sort of potential?
They have had a lot good young players come through their system over the years with varying degrees of success. Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Ryan McDonagh all come to mind. They were all, in their own way, excellent players that had a lot of success in New York. But none of them brought the type of potential and excitement that a player like Kakko does.
They had some highly touted prospects that ended up being, for lack of a better word, flops (Michael Del Zotto, Pavel Brendl, Jamie Lundmark, Dan Blackburn, etc.) but not even they carried those kinds of expectations.
They didn’t have superstar, franchise-shifting potential.
First, the Rangers are almost never in a position to get such a player in the draft. Those players typically go within the first couple of picks and the Rangers have, historically, never really been in that spot.
When they selected Kakko No. 2 overall this year it marked just the third time in franchise history they used a top-two pick in draft, and the first time since 1966 when they selected defender Brad Park.
It was the first time they picked in the top-five since 1999 when they selected Brendl with the fourth overall pick, and it was only their sixth top-five pick ever.
The Rangers also haven’t really introduced a lot of young players to their lineup over the years and expected them to play major roles. Since the start of the 1990 season they have only had 11 different players make their NHL debut between the ages of 18 and 20 and go on to play a full season with the team.
You probably have to go back to Alexei Kovalev’s debut during the 1992-93 season to find a rookie debut that came with this much excitement in New York, with maybe an argument to be made for Henrik Lundqvist in 2005-06, but even that comes with the benefit of extreme hindsight and knowing what type of player Lundqvist turned into. Remember, when he made his debut he was already 23 years old and opened his rookie season as the backup to veteran Kevin Weekes.
Given their lack of depth down the middle and on defense, as well as the age of Lundqvist and the uncertainty behind him at the position, this is probably going to be another tough year for the Rangers. But it is still going to be a team worth watching every night and one that has a chance to build something special beyond this season.
The presence of Kakko in the organization is a big reason why all of that excitement now exists.
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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.