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.”