Emerging New York Rangers storylines for the 2023-24 season

Heading into the 2023-34 season, the New York Rangers are still considered a contender despite a first round exit at the hands of the New Jersey Devils.

Of course, that playoff disappointment after reaching the Eastern Conference Final the year before led to many changes. Head coach Gerard Gallant was replaced by Peter Laviolette, and Chris Drury let all his trade deadline rentals walk to sign low-cost gritty veterans.

With that order of business complete, let’s look at some of the emerging storylines surrounding the team.

Alexis Lafrenière extension

When K’Andre Miller inked his two-year bridge deal on July 11, that left only signing fellow restricted free agent Alexis Lafreniere to a new contract on Drury’s to-do list.

The 21 year-old first overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft is entering a pivotal campaign with the Rangers hoping year four will be a breakout season.

In 2022-23, he registered 16 goals and 23 assists for 39 points in 81 games. Of course, there’s extra scrutiny not only on Lafreniere, but the entire organization to see him reach the lofty expectations of a number one selection.

There’s also been plenty of speculation regarding trade rumors this offseason. While recent comments by Drury and Lafreniere have quieted the noise, if no deal is in place close to training camp it’ll get real loud.

Kaapo Kakko must take next step

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at New Jersey Devils
Apr 20, 2023; Newark, New Jersey, USA; New York Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko (24) celebrates his goal against the New Jersey Devils during the third period in game two of the first round of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of top draft picks the Rangers are hoping for a breakout, Kaapo Kakko will be a under a microscope entering his fifth season.

Since being selected second overall in 2019, the 22 year-old is averaging just .41 points per game. That being said, 2022-23 was a career season with 18 goals and 40 points in 82 matches which is very promising.

Heading into this campaign, the path has been cleared for Kakko to prove he’s a top-six right wing. Trade deadline acquisitions Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko are unlikely to return, and newly signed Blake Wheeler should be the only threat to take any of Kakko’s power play minutes away.

This is also exact opportunity he’s been looking for and he needs to seize it.

“Get some power play time and also play more, that’s the next step,” Kaako said on breakup day. “There was some good things in the o-zone, staying with the puck close to the net and getting some chances. That’s my game.”

How will Peter Laviolette handle the lineup?

Now that we talked about two of the most important forwards the Rangers need to reach their full potential, a lot will depend on new coach Peter Laviolette’s lineup decisions.

There’s been mixed reviews on his handing of young players with Washington, but he’s also received praise for developing them in Carolina and Nashville. Of course, if Kakko and Lafreniere battle hard and compete, there’s should be no issues getting ice time.

“Those young players need an opportunity to grow and in the framework of a team, everyone wants to feel like they’re contributing,” Laviolette said at his introductory presser. “These conversations will take place and those opportunities will be there for [Lafreniere an Kakko] to grab that ice time and push.”

Should Laviolette pull a Gallant and lessen their ice time at the first sign of a slump, the Rangers’ fan base will get ornery quick.

Who will win the 6th spot on defense?

new york rangers zac jones
Oct 13, 2022; Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA; New York Rangers defenseman Zac Jones (6) during the third period against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

When the New York Rangers added 31 year-old defenseman Erik Gustafsson via a one-year deal for $825,000 on July 1 it improved the team’s depth on the blue-line.

Two weeks prior, 22 year-old defenseman Zac Jones signed a two-year extension with an AAV of $812,500. These two left-handed skaters will battle it out on the left side to partner with Braden Schneider on the third pairing.

At this time, it appears that Gustafsson has an edge over Jones because Laviolette is already familiar with him.

Last season, the Caps brought the veteran in on a one-year deal and Laviolette was very impressed with his overall game. In particular, he cited Gustafsson’s ability to breakout of the d-zone and willingness to compete for pucks.

Come training camp in September, this is one roster battle I’m very interested in seeing play out.