New York Rangers: Biggest surprises in 1st half of 2023-24 NHL season

NHL: New York Rangers at Florida Panthers
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers reached the halfway mark of their 2023-24 schedule Saturday, a 3-2 loss to the Washington Capitals. Despite their fourth straight defeat (0-3-1), the Rangers could look back on a highly successful first half to the season.

The Rangers were an impressive 26-13-2 in their first 41 games. The Blueshirts hit the midpoint of the season first in the Metropolitan Division, third in the Eastern Conference and sixth overall in the NHL.

They are to be commended for adapting quickly to a new coach, Peter Laviolette, and a different system of play, notably a commitment to playing a more structured game defensively, particularly through the neutral zone.

The Rangers were 18-4-1 on Dec. 3, including a 10-0-1 run from Oct. 21-Nov. 18 that featured a sweep of a five-game road trip. And despite an 8-9-1 finish to the first half, the Rangers proved their mettle overcoming injuries to Adam Fox, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko.

Much goes into their success, so far, including some surprising developments.

Related: Peter Laviolette gets All-Star coaching nod after excellent job in first half

Rangers’ biggest surprises in 1st half of 2023-24 NHL season

NHL: New York Rangers at Carolina Hurricanes

Artemi Panarin’s goal scoring

That Artemi Panarin was fourth in the NHL with 58 points through 41 games was not a big surprise, considering the wing is one of the most consistent, prolific point producers in the League. Nor was it a shock that he set a Rangers record by starting the season with a 15-game point streak.

What’s surprising, though, is Panarin’s goal scoring. His 26 goals halfway through the schedule was fifth in the League, six shy of his NHL career-high 32 set in 2019-20 with the Rangers and on pace for 52 this season.

It’s not that Panarin can’t score this many goals considering his scintillating skill. It’s that Panarin is more a playmaker. He’s always been a pass-first player. This season, Panarin is sniping more. And that’s created a massive boost for the Blueshirts’ offense.

Jonathan Quick’s resurgence as Rangers’ backup goalie

Jonathan Quick provided a spark, solid play and, most importantly, wins as Igor Shesterkin’s backup in the first half of the season. That the 37-year-old, coming off a subpar season with the Los Angeles Kings and Vegas Golden Knights in 2022-23 and uninspiring preseason with the Rangers, did all that was a very pleasant surprise.

Quick didn’t lose in regulation through his first 11 decisions (9-0-2), had road shutouts against the Edmonton Oilers and Pittsburgh Penguins and allowed one goal or fewer in five of his first 11 starts. Clearly there’s still something there with the three-time Stanley Cup champion.

Then there was the Scorpion save Dec. 29 against the Florida Panthers.

The Connecticut native is 0-3-1 since Dec. 15 but no one is panicking. Quick has established himself as an excellent partner for Shesterkin.

Rangers vastly improved in face-offs

The Rangers were second in the League, winning 54.6 percent of their face-offs, in the first 41 games. That’s not simply surprising. It’s shocking.

Face-offs have been a Rangers’ weak spot for years, if not decades. Since becoming an official statistic in 1997-98, the Rangers have never won more than 53.3 percent of their draws in a season.

Vincent Trocheck has been key here. He leads New York and is among the NHL leaders winning face-offs at a 62.5 percent clip. Blake Wheeler has taken only 53 draws but won 64.2 percent of them. Barclay Goodrow is at 53.8 percent. And Mike Zibanejad and Nick Bonino each is over 51 percent.

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Vincent Trocheck having career season

Speaking of Trocheck, the center has emerged as one of the Rangers’ best players this season. It’s not a stretch to say he’s in the conversation with Panarin to be the first-half MVP for the Blueshirts.

His dominance in the face-off circle is a game changer. Trocheck also was averaging a point per game (41 points) in the season’s first half. Three of his 13 goals were game winners. And he’s had a hand in so many game-changing goals this season.

Trocheck seamlessly moved up the lineup when Chytil was injured and has been a terrific fit with Panarin and Alexis Lafreniere. He has 11 multi-point games and is averaging more than 21 minutes of ice time per game as a consistent force on both sides of the puck.

Alexis Lafreniere, Will Cuylle take next step in development

Perhaps there’s only a small element of surprise in how Lafreniere and rookie Will Cuylle have taken the next step as NHL players. But the development of each young forward has been a positive development.

Averaging an NHL career-high 17:17 in ice time, Lafreniere is thriving with the increased responsibility given him by Laviolette. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick had 11 goals and 15 points through the first 41 games, on pace for his first 20-goal and 50-point season in the NHL. He’s shooting a lot more and playing like he belongs with Panarin and Trocheck. It’s a major development for the Rangers.

Cuylle played all 41 games in the first half and leads NHL rookies with 107 hits. Playing in New York’s bottom six, the 21-year-old has seven goals, tied for 10th among rookies. It’s just a matter of time before Cuylle receives more time in the top six.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny