Vitali Kravtsov

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Previewing the 2019-20 New York Rangers

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or worse: They should be significantly better. How could they not be after adding Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Adam Fox, and two potential rookie of the year contenders at forward in Kaapo Kakko and Vitali Kravtsov. That is a ton of talent to enter the organization in one summer and it should be enough to have the team at least in contention for a playoff spot.

Strengths: It is probably their talent on the wings. Panarin, Kakko, and Kravtsov will get most of the headlines as the new faces joining the team, but don’t forget about returning veterans Pavel Buchnevich (20 goals in only 64 games a year ago) and Chris Kreider. The two rookies are still unknowns and they will no doubt have some growing pains throughout the season, but their potential is through the roof.

Weaknesses: The Rangers are probably at their weakest down the middle, from center and back through the defense. Mika Zibanejad has become an excellent first-line center, but there is not much proven depth at the position after him. The defense will get a boost from the offseason additions of Trouba and Fox, but they are still lacking a true No. 1 on their blue line. Someone that can control the game in all situations, play 25-26 minutes per night, and be a cornerstone player. Trouba is good, but he is not going to be a player that is the go-to-defender on a championship caliber blue line. He is probably best served as a No. 2 or 3.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): When you have an offseason like the Rangers had it becomes easy for expectations to quickly get out of control. David Quinn has only spent one year behind the team’s bench (a clear rebuilding year) and it seems unlikely that he is entering the year in any real danger. Would that change if the Rangers don’t take any significant strides this season? It might. He is a 4 out of 10 on the hot seat rating.

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Three most fascinating players: Kappo, Panarin, and Henrik Lundqvist

Kappo tops the list of fascinating players simply because he is the most anticipated prospect to put on a Rangers uniform in quite some time. Every rebuild needs a young superstar to build around, and he could be that player in New York.

The free agent market is usually a fools paradise where long-term contracts end up backfiring spectacularly, but Panarin might be one of the exceptions to that. He has been one of the best offensive players in the league since entering the NHL, he does not have a ton of mileage on his career, and he is still at an age where he should be in the prime of his career. He showed in Columbus that he can not only carry his own line, but also carry a team.

It will be interesting to see how much Lundqvist has left in the tank and what his workload will look like. He turns 38 this season and probably only has a handful of seasons left in the NHL. He showed signs of slowing down a year ago but he also still flashed those moments of dominance where he can steal a game. You have to think Alexander Georgiev will get his share of starts this season, especially as the Rangers look to the future, but for now this is still Lundqvist’s net.

Playoffs or lottery: The biggest problem for the Rangers is they play in an absolutely loaded division that does not really have any truly weak teams. They should definitely stay in the playoff race all year but given their lack of depth at center and the question marks on defense they may not be quite ready yet. Their ceiling seems like a wild card. Their most likely finish is somewhere between 8th and 11th in the Eastern Conference.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

NHL Power Rankings: 10 most exciting rookies for 2019-20 season

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In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we continue to get you ready for the start of the 2019-20 season by looking ahead to some of the most exciting rookies in the league this season.

Included among them are the top two picks from the 2019 NHL draft class, a potentially overlooked New York Rangers prospect, and some key young players that could play big roles on contenders.

To the rankings!

1. Kaapo Kakko, New York Rangers. The highlight of a wildly successful offseason in Manhattan was the Rangers moving up to the No. 2 overall pick in the draft lottery and winning the opportunity to select Kakko. He has been a highlight reel at every stage of his development and is the most fascinating rookie in this year’s class. He has NHL size, incredible skill, and pretty much everything an NHL team could want in a potential franchise player. The Rangers added a ton of talent to their roster this summer and Kakko might be the most important long-term piece to join the team during this rebuild. You need superstars to win, and Kakko has that potential.

2. Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils. Just like their arch-rivals, the Devils had a huge offseason that saw them hit the jackpot in the draft lottery to to win their second No. 1 overall pick in three years. Hughes scored two goals in his preseason debut and is going to enter the season as one of the Calder Trophy favorites. The fierce rivalry between the Rangers and Devils, as well as the fact the Rangers took Kakko No. 2 overall, is going to be a great subplot to their careers and development.

3. Cale Makar, Colorado Avalanche. He was a late addition to the Avalanche’s postseason roster last spring and made an immediate impact. The Avalanche did not really shelter him much, and with Tyson Barrie having finally been traded after years of rumors they are going to have to lean heavily on Makar and Samuel Girard to play huge roles on their blue line.

4. Vitali Kravtsov, New York Rangers. Lost in all of the Kakko hype is that the Rangers’ have another top prospect ready to make his NHL debut this season. Kravtsov has spent the past three seasons playing in the KHL and more than held his own as a teenager, finishing the 2018-19 season as the third-leading scorer on his team. With him and Kappo making their NHL debuts this season there is plenty of reason for Rangers fans to be excited about their future.

5. Quinn Hughes, Vancouver Canucks. Even though the Canucks haven’t had any draft lottery luck over the past four years they have still managed to pick some franchise cornerstones with their top picks. Brock Boeser and Elias Pettersson already look like stars at forward, and now they get to see what Hughes can do on the blue line over a full season. He doesn’t have great size, but he has a ton of skill and has top-pairing potential. For a team that desperately needs a young impact player on defense, Hughes is going to be an important part of the Canucks’ rebuild.

6. Sam Steel, Anaheim Ducks. Even though he played 22 games in the NHL a year ago, Steel will still barely qualify as a rookie this season (the cut off is 25 games before the current season). He showed a ton of potential last year with 41 points in 53 games in the AHL, while also scoring six goals in his first brief taste of the NHL. With Corey Perry gone and Ryan Kesler out for the season the Ducks need their young players to take a big step, and Steel should be the one capable of making the biggest impact.

7. Ryan Poehling, Montreal Canadiens. After spending three years at St. Cloud, the 2017 first-round pick had a chance to play one game at the NHL level last year and it could not have gone any better for him, scoring three goals including the game-winner against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He figures to play a big role for the Canadiens this season and alongside Jesperi Kotkaniemi gives the Canadiens two promising young forwards to build around.

8. Alexandre Texier, Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets have high hopes for Texier and they are going to need him to him to produce after the team said goodbye to Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel this summer. He never looked out of place a year ago, scoring three goals in his first 10 games (including two goals in eight playoff games).

9. Martin Necas, Carolina Hurricanes. While most of the attention in Carolina gets focussed on the quality and depth of their defense, they are quietly assembling quite a collection of forwards as well. Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Nino Neiderreiter are all already outstanding players, while Andrei Svechnikov looks like he is on track to be a star. This year they should add another young piece to that core with Necas. He had a great year in the AHL (his first full season of pro hockey in North America) and is just another outstanding young player in an organization that is already full of them.

10. Dylan Cozens, Buffalo Sabres. One of the players from the 2019 draft class after the top-two that has a real chance to stick in the NHL this season. That is still not a given at this point (and probably the biggest reason he is not higher on the list) but he has had a strong showing in camp and is giving the Sabres plenty of reasons to give him a look into the regular season. He still has junior eligibility, but the Sabres aren’t exactly loaded up front and would be an intriguing addition to alongside Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner.

Honorable mentions: Filip Zadina (Detroit Red Wings); Evan Bouchard (Edmonton Oilers); Owen Tippett (Florida Panthers); Eeli Tolvanen (Nashville Predators); Erik Brannstrom (Ottawa Senators).

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Rangers begin training camp with goal of making the playoffs

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The New York Rangers have two clear goals this season: to keep improving and return to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

The addition of forwards Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko, and defenseman Jacob Trouba this summer helped accelerate the team’s rebuild, and now the Rangers believe they are ready to take the next step in the second year under coach David Quinn.

”We want to make the playoffs,” Quinn said Friday at the team’s practice facility in Greenburgh, New York, ‘Obviously it’s something we want to accomplish. The moves we made over the summer are just a continuation of what we’ve been doing over the last 16, 17 months. Within the walls of our locker room and the walls of this building, we feel good about the direction we’re going in and we’re going to continue to get better daily.”

The Rangers went into rebuilding mode by dealing some veterans at the trade deadline in 2018 and continued it at last season’s deadline. There were a lot of ups and downs in the first full season of the makeover, and they finished 32-36-14. New York had just five wins in its last 21 games (5-10-6) to end up seventh in the eight-team Metropolitan Division, 20 points out of the last wild card in the Eastern Conference.

Now, the team that began training camp with on-ice testing on Friday has even higher expectations than the one that left for the summer five months earlier.

”I want improvement,” Rangers team president John Davidson told reporters one day earlier: ”Playoffs is a goal for sure, but there’s got to be improvement the right way that you can count on long-term to get gratification out of the season.”

Quinn believes the familiarity the returning players have with his system should help their second training camp together get off to a better start than a year ago. And they should be better prepared for their coach’s physical demands.

”They certainly have done everything we’ve asked them to do away from the rink,” Quinn said. ”They look in better shape, they’re a little bit older, a little bit more mature. We just want to continue to build on the progress they made last year.”

Signing Panarin in free agency was a big boost. The 27-year-old had 28 goals and 59 assists last season while helping Columbus get the last wild card in the Eastern Conference and then beat Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay to advance to the second round. He brings career totals of 116 goals and 204 assists in 322 games over four seasons with Blue Jackets and Chicago Blackhawks.

Kakko was selected with the No. 2 overall pick in this year’s NHL draft, and Trouba was acquired in a trade with Winnipeg and then signed as a restricted free-agent.

Davidson, who rejoined the organization in May after stepping down as the president of the Columbus Blue Jackets, knows Panarin well.

”He’s competitive, really competitive,” Davidson said. ”The big spots in games, he likes to find a way. … He’s’ a guy that’s going to show up for work every day and you don’t have to worry about him.

”He’s very strong, strong on the puck, strong in loose-puck battles.”

Some other things to know as the Rangers head into their first practice sessions on Saturday:

BETWEEN THE PIPES: Henrik Lundqvist back for his 15th season after going 18-23-10, with career-worst of a 3.07 goals-against average and a .907 save-percentage. It also marked the first time he had fewer than 24 wins.

Alexandar Georgiev is coming off a solid season as the backup, going 14-13-4 with a 2.91 GAA. The 23-year-old could be challenged for the No. 2 spot by Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft, who has come over from the KHL.

Davidson and Quinn both said they don’t have a target for games in mind for Lundqvist, but don’t want to overuse him.

”We want him to have a great season so that when we do make the playoffs he’s in a position where he’s fresh,” Quinn said.

LINE COMBINATIONS: Quinn said he plans on starting camp with Pavel Buchnevich joining the first line with Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. Filip Chytil will get a look at centering the second line with Chris Kreider on the left wing and possibly Kakko or fellow rookie Vitali Kravtsov on the other side.

Lias Andersson and Brett Howden will get chances in the middle on subsequent lines. Ryan Strome is likely to start out on a wing, but could also see some time at center.

O CAPTAIN, MY CAPTAIN: The Rangers haven’t had a captain since trading Ryan McDonagh at the deadline in 2018, and there doesn’t appear to be a standout favorite to fill that role.

”I think we’d like to have a captain but that’s something that’s going to evolve,” Quinn said. ”We’re in a situation where it’s going to happen and the captain will pick himself in a lot of ways.”

Lundqvist hoping Rangers can take ‘one big step’ forward

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The second half of the 2018-19 NHL season took a toll on New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. As the losses piled up, which saw the team finish the season with only five wins in their final 20 games, the 37-year-old netminder had a difficult time dealing with the lack of success.

Two seasons without playoff hockey can wear on a player, especially one like Lundqvist, who has two years remaining on his contract and knows the opportunities to win a Stanley Cup are dwindling. So after the season the netminder took a month off to reflect and think about the good and the bad of the previous seven months.

“I remember last year the first two, three months I felt as good as I’ve felt in a few years,” Lundqvist told NBC Sports during the NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago last week. “I played at a level where I feel like I was making a difference, but then the second half was a lot tougher and we traded a couple of guys and the last couple of months was a battle, for sure, mentally. It was probably the toughest stretch of my career to try to deal with that. But you learn a lot about yourself. You try to look at the big picture, as well.”

The big picture included the youth in the Rangers’ system, which is highlighted by the likes of Vitali Kravtsov, Lias Andersson, Filip Chytil, and was boosted by the offseason additions of Adam Fox and No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko. That bright future was mixed with the present day and general manager Jeff Gorton’s summer where he reeled in the biggest fish in free agency, Artemi Panarin, and acquired and signed defenseman Jacob Trouba. Suddenly, some sun began to squeak through the clouds.

“It was an important summer also for the organization,” Lundqvist said. “To see the signings, the draft picks, I think we’re all pretty exciting going into this year. I feel like we’re taking a big step in the right direction. I look forward to camp and seeing what we can do.”

[MORE: Can Henrik Lundqvist bounce back for Rangers?]

The topic of Lundqvist pulling a Ray Bourque and seeking a trade out of New York to pursue a Stanley Cup has been out there for some time, but his love for the organization and the city, and, of course, his no-move clause makes that a tough avenue to go down unless both the player and team are willing to sit down and discuss that option.

“It’s so hard to picture myself anywhere else,” Lundqvist said. “I know things can change so fast, the way the organization feels and how I feel. But so far it’s been hard for me to picture that. Even now coming back after the summer, coming back to New York and preparing for another season, go to practice rink, go to the Garden again, I don’t know if I would ever give that up. I take a lot of pride in being part of that organization. Again, some things you can’t control, it’s not in my control all the time either.”

Lundqvist will be 39 when his contract ends in 2021 and he said his body still feels good and his excitement level, when you factor in the Rangers’ offseason and the budding young stars on the roster, is higher than it’s been for a few seasons. For now he’s taking things year-by-year and his passion for the game remains strong.

After tasting the Stanley Cup Final in 2014, Lundqvist’s goal and motivation is to get back there and ultimately see another championship banner raised to the Garden rafters. He wants to be a Ranger “forever” and he wants that winning feeling to return as he’s witnessed how great of an atmosphere in New York City can be when its sports teams are doing well.

“But I think now during camp you have to sit down and talk about as a group what are our expectations now, what’s realistic for this team,” Lundqvist said.

And what’s realistic?

“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I think that’s something we have to discuss. I hope that we can take at least one big step in the right direction. We should. For the young guys to improve and develop you need to raise the bar. I think with the additions we have with the team we should definitely raise it. The question is, how high.”

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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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.

Can Henrik Lundqvist bounce back for Rangers?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

Let’s tackle three questions for the Rangers in 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in (and how many new guys will fit in)?

Don’t blame head coach David Quinn if he uses phrases like “learning process” a lot next season, as there are a ton of new faces in New York, including players who figure to be top scorers and minute-eaters.

It’s not just about getting the most from Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. Really, it’s not even about integrating likely rookie impact-makers like Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox.

The Rangers must also decide if prospects like Vitali Kravtsov will make the team out of training camp, and if they’ll stay long enough to eat up a year of their rookie contracts. Quinn must decide if players like Lias Andersson are ready to take another step forward.

From a forwards and defense level, this is a very different-looking team, something that was cemented by the Kevin Shattenkirk buyout. As far as chemistry experiments go, the Rangers are basically mad science.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. Is Henrik Lundqvist washed up?

If you had to choose one Ranger to forget all about last season, it would be Lundqvist.

The Rangers’ defense was abysmal in 2018-19, and Lundqvist buckled under the pressure of trying to carry that sorry bunch, suffering through a season where he had a very un-Hank-like .907 save percentage.

When you look a little deeper at the numbers, you’ll see that his 2018-19 season wasn’t that far from normal, or maybe a “new normal.” Via Hockey Reference, you can see that his even-strength save percentage has been nearly identical for the last three seasons, as it was .919 in both 2018-19 and 2017-18 and .918 in 2016-17.

Before that, prime Lundqvist was regularly beyond .930 at even-strength, and so frequently above .920 overall that you almost set your watch to his elite play.

Considering that he’s 37, maybe the window for his elite play has finally closed, but maybe Lundqvist can squeeze out one or two more great years? Let’s not forget that Lundqvist wasn’t exactly protected in Alain Vigneault’s latter years with the Rangers, as those teams were often horrendous from a possession standpoint.

If Quinn can create more of cocoon for Lundqvist (and Alexandar Georgiev), might the Rangers improve at keeping pucks out of their own net? Even with Panarin leading a big boost in offensive punch, you’d think they’d need a lot more than they got from their goalies last season, Swiss cheese defense and all.

3. Will the playoff picture be an open road or treacherous path?

The Rangers aren’t the only team in their division that should be tough to gauge once prediction time rolls around, making it difficult to tell if the Metro will compare to what was a mighty Atlantic Division last season.

The Devils are just about as wildly different as the Rangers, and the Flyers made bold moves in their own right.

It’s easiest to imagine the Rangers falling in the wild-card range, so a lot may hinge on how other teams perform, both in the Metro and Atlantic Divisions. If the Panthers and Sabres take big strides — as they’re paying to do — then the Atlantic teams could gobble up as many as five playoff spots, forcing the Rangers to break into the top three of the Metro. That might be asking too much, so the Rangers have to hope for a little bit of a buffer when it comes to the playoff bubble.

(You know, unless they end up being far better or far worse than expected.)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.