Chris Kreider

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.

Guerin, Wild try to stay calm despite challenges in signing Kirill Kaprizov

Wild hope to sign Kirill Kaprizov eventually Bill Guerin
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It’s rarely been simple or straightforward for the Wild to get treasured prospect Kirill Kaprizov to actually join the team. Sadly, for anxious Wild fans, it looks like the waiting game will continue. It’s also unclear how long this will feel like the neverending story.

Ideally, the Wild would be able to sign Kaprizov to a two-year entry level contract. The door would normally be open since his KHL deal expired.

The COVID-19 pause has complicated these eternally complicated matters, though. Such complications have prompted worries that the latest attempts at a Kaprizov deal might eventually fall apart.

To his credit, Wild GM Bill Guerin is trying to take the slow-and-steady approach with Kaprizov.

“I understand the anticipation of Kirill, and him getting signed, but this is just one of those things that’s gonna take a little bit of time,” Guerin told Dan Myers of the Wild website. “Would I have liked this done three weeks ago? Sure, I would have liked this done three years ago. But this is an unusual situation, and had things gone the way they normally would have, without coronavirus, things probably would have been different.”

(Wild fans nodded their heads so hard at the “three years ago” part.)

From fast forward to a pause

In previous seasons, teams have been able to sign prospects after their seasons ended at other levels, injecting talent late in a campaign, or even postseason. This sets up “everyone wins” scenarios. The teams get the boost of talent, while prospects were able to “burn” a year off their entry-level contracts despite limited games played.

Such benefits can sometimes be profoundly noticeable. Chris Kreider gave the Rangers a nice boost during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. As recently as last postseason, Cale Makar became an instant smash-success for the Avalanche.

Under normal circumstances, the Wild would be able to bring Kaprizov in the same way by signing him to a two-year deal that would run through 2020-21. Unfortunately, amid all of the COVID-19 confusion, the NHL paused teams abilities to sign Makar/Kreider-type deals. If that remains, a Kaprizov contract couldn’t kick in until 2020-21.

As the Athletic’s Michael Russo notes (sub required), there’s mild hope that people might be able to change the NHL’s mind on the matter. That hope may not be justified, however, as a source told Russo that there’s “zero chance” the NHL will change its mind.

“To be honest, I don’t know. It doesn’t really look like [he’d be eligible to play this season],” Guerin said to Myers. “But I don’t want to put words in anybody’s mouth or make a call that hasn’t been finalized. We’re just taking it day-by-day with him and wait.”

Several ways Kaprizov situation could go sour for Wild

This process has already been riddled with headaches.

Almost exactly three years ago, rumors circulated and were later confirmed that Kaprizov signed a three-year deal to stay in the KHL. While there was some hope in bringing Kaprizov to the Wild as early as 2018-19, fans were instead teased with glimpses of his brilliance.

And make no mistake about it, there’s serious evidence that the 23-year-old can live up to the hype. If big numbers in the KHL and international play won’t convince you, these highlights should drop a jaw or two.

Of course, strong work — including 33 goals and 62 points for CSKA Moscow this season — makes it even more appealing to keep Kaprizov from leaving the KHL.

If the Wild can bring Kaprizov over for whatever’s left of 2019-20, then the uncertainty surrounding 2020-21 becomes a problem. What if the league doesn’t open things up until December? That would be a long time for Kaprizov to wait around, especially in the near-certain event that a KHL team can dangle a lucrative offer for next season.

Russo listed some alternative options for Kaprizov and the Wild. Those options range from the dicey prospect of “loaning” Kaprizov to a KHL (or other league) team, just signing him to a two-year deal and getting him to the U.S., or even just waiting a year.

Russo also points out another consideration:

One wrinkle is that once Jan. 1 passes, Kaprizov will be in his 24-year-old year even though he doesn’t turn 24 until April 26. That means he would only be able to sign a one-year entry-level contract, not a two-year deal.

Sheesh, right?

Guerin seemingly handling the Kaprizov situation well for Wild

Again, one can understand if the frustration is mounting.

With that in mind, it’s probably positive that Guerin is fairly fresh to the Wild job. Much of the grumbling happened during Chuck Fletcher’s tenure as GM, so maybe the slate is cleaner now?

Guerin told Myers that he believes Kaprizov is “actually being really smart in taking his time” with this process. Beyond that, Guerin’s been in frequent contact with Kaprizov, and it’s not always been just business. Russo even noted in an April article that Guerin texted Kaprizov happy birthday in Russian when the prospect turned 23.

If it eases any tension (probably not much, but still), the Wild only used a fifth-rounder on  Kaprizov (selecting him 135th overall in 2015). So if this eventually pans out, the Wild might still get a steal.

They just needed to work hard to pull off that heist.

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.

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.

Looking at the 2019-20 New York Rangers

With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to take a look at where each NHL team stands at this moment with a series of posts examining their season. Have they met expectations? Exceeded expectations? Who has been the surprise? All of that and more. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

New York Rangers

Record: 37-28-5 (70 games), seventh in the Metropolitan Division, Out of the playoffs
Leading Scorer Artemi Panarin – 95 points (32 goals and 63 assists)

In-Season Roster Moves:

• Traded Vladislav Namestnikov to the Ottawa Senators for Nick Ebert and a 2021 fourth-round pick
• Acquired Julien Gauthier from the Carolina Hurricanes for Joey Keane
• Traded Future Considerations to the Philadelphia Flyers for J-F Berube
• Acquired a 2020 first-round pick from the Carolina Hurricanes for Brady Skjei

Season Overview:

The Rangers are just a couple of seasons into their rebuilding plan, but they made significant progress throughout the 2019-20 campaign. The season didn’t get off the greatest of starts though. After winning their first two games, they found themselves riding a five-game losing skid.

Things seemed to stabilize as season the progressed. They weren’t spectacular, they weren’t terrible. They just seemed to be a middle of the pack team in the Eastern Conference. But things started to change in February.

A team that seemed destined to miss the playoffs was making a serious push for a Wild Card spot.

The Rangers went on a four-game winning streak between Feb. 9-14. After a home loss to Boston, New York rattled off five consecutive victories. But they eventually cooled off in March, as they dropped five of their final seven games before the pause.

Overall, the Rangers took a step forward in their rebuild. Adding Artemi Panarin in free agency was like adding gasoline to the rebuilding fire. It’s a move that definitely accelerated the process. Also, Mika Zibanejad showed that he could be an elite number one center in the NHL (he had 41 goals and 75 points in just 57 games). The Rangers also decided to re-sign Chris Kreider instead of trading him away as a rental.

Despite trading Brady Skjei to Carolina, they still have a number of quality defensemen on the roster. Tony DeAngelo had a major breakout season, while Adam Fox was a terrific young player in his first professional season.

The Rangers’ biggest positional strength is between the pipes.

Yes, things got awkward this year because they had three different goalies competing for starts (one of them is franchise legend Henrik Lundqvist), but Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin both have very bright futures.

Again, the Rangers weren’t sitting in a playoff spot at the time of the NHL’s pause, but this rebuild is in seemingly very good shape right now.

Highlight of the Season:

There’s a number of Panarin highlights we could’ve gone with here, but Zibanejad’s five-goal performance against the Washington Capitals is impossible to beat.

At the pause, only David Pastrnak, Alex Ovechkin, Auston Matthews and Leon Draisaitl had more goals than Zibanejad.

MORE RANGERS:
Biggest surprises and disappointments so far
Rangers long-term outlook

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.