New York Rangers most improved players leading the charge in 2023-24
A lot has transpired for the New York Rangers since January 2023, and as we enter the final week of the year, there’s much to evaluate regarding coaching changes, new player personnel, and shifts in the team’s style of play.
However, one critical factor that’s powered them to the top of the East is noticeably improved performances from several team members who were already with New York last season: Artemi Panarin, Vincent Trocheck, Alexis Lafreniere, Jacob Trouba, and Jimmy Vesey.
Let’s examine these players a little more closely as 2023 draws to an end.
New York Rangers most improved players
Last postseason’s first round exit from the playoffs, by his own account, made Artemi Panarin decide to recharge his game in the coming season — and not just in the playoffs, should the Rangers make it there a third year in a row. Combine that with the leadership and demands of a new head coach, Peter Laviolette, who appears to have spurred the group not only via a new system on the ice, but via a new, high-octane culture in the locker room, and the groundwork was set perfectly for the Breadman to live up to his offseason vow to himself.
Just observationally, the 32-year-old has played with both more of a shoot-first mentality this season, and with more of a defensive mindset, as well. He has 44 points through 32 games, with 18 goals and 26 assists. According to NHL Edge, Panarin’s candidacy for the Hart Trophy this year is supported by the actual numbers, however. Some of his glowing stats include: 99th percentile in the league in SOG; 73rd percentile in shooting percentage; 98th percentile in goals scored; and 96th percentile in offensive zone time. One point of interest is that the Breadman has spent 32.5 percent of his time in the defensive zone, which is in the 99th percentile, as well.
Notable is that only six of Panarin’s 18 goals are power play goals. The rest (12) have been achieved at even strength — and for a squad as dependent on special teams as the Blueshirts, that’s a significant percentage.
A significant acquisition by general manager Chris Drury at $39, 375,000 for seven years in July 2022, though Vinnie Trocheck put up respectable numbers last season, it was a little difficult at times to see him as bringing the value to the Rangers that Drury had been hoping for. Immediately slotted into the second line center spot that had been previously occupied by Ryan Strome, the chemistry with Panarin on his left wing in the 2022-2023 season just never seemed to quite get there; and it looked like it was negatively impacting both their games.
But that was then, this is now. In the 2023-2024 season, the 30-year-old has improved not only in his impact on the second line (since the injury to Filip Chytil); he’s become a league leader in face-off percentage (63.4%) and to all appearances, a locker room leader, as well.
Trocheck has become a real factor on the power play, and already has almost half the number of assists overall in 32 games (20) he had in 82 games played last season (42). Five of his eight goals to date have been scored on the power play, and he already has two game-winning goals. The Pittsburgh native has 30 blocked shots, to 44 for all of last season. Similarly to his line mate Panarin, Trocheck is in the 97th percentile in offensive zone time, and 92nd percentage in defensive zone time.
The first overall draft pick in 2020, Alexis Lafreniere seems to have found new life in his approach and in his game this season. Although players develop at different rates, the leap Lafreniere appears to have made this season with new line mates and a new head coach is impressive; and it shows not only in his play but in his overall demeanor, as well.
Consistently playing right wing for the first time in his NHL career, the 22-year-old already has more than half the number of goals scored (9) that he did last season (16), seven of which were at even strength. Of the three forwards on his line, he receives the fewest power play minutes — so if he scores, it will usually be at five-on-five play. The Quebec native’s average ice time has risen (16:56), and he already has more than half the SOG (77) that he did last season (135). Similarly to his line mates, Lafreniere’s offensive zone time is in the 92nd percentile and defensive zone time is in the 94th percentile.
“It feels good,” remarked the forward last week. “Just playing some more minutes, getting some good ice time to try and produce and generate chances. It’s been fun. We’re (second) in the league, we’re winning, so you just want to keep that going.”
Named Rangers’ captain in the 2022 offseason, Jacob Trouba has always had the respect of his teammates, even if fans have taken a little longer to be convinced of his leadership. Brought in as a bit of a two-way player and not simply as a defenseman, in his heyday “Troubs” scored up to 50 points one year (2018-2019). This season, however, it appears the coaching staff have recognized most of the 29-year-old’s talent really does lie in his defensive abilities, and he hasn’t been shoehorned into a power play role nor pressured to regularly score.
Whether that’s the reason for his improved play on the ice, or simply feeling more comfortable in his role as captain this season, none of us can really know. But with 103 blocked shots already on the season, which is more than half his total for any NHL season to date, Trouba’s become a major defensive presence for the Blueshirts not only because of his gritty, aggressive style of play — but because he’s actively keeping the puck out of the net.
The captain is taking fewer penalty minutes; and fortunately, this season, there hasn’t been a significant reason to throw his helmet as a message to his teammates (at least to date). Trouba’s strengths are coming through, while any of his weaknesses are being thoughtfully de-emphasized.
In his second stint with the Blueshirts, Jimmy Vesey finally may have found a permanent home. Signed to a two-year, team friendly contract last season, the 30-year-old has jumped around somewhat in his NHL career, playing with six different teams. Never a huge goal scorer, Vesey has been valued for his defensive play despite his role being that of a forward. He’s a great addition to a penalty kill or a checking line; but this season, his (fourth) line has been given many chances against opponents’ top lines because they show some skill in the offensive zone, as well.
Having played left wing for most of the season till now, Vesey has ten points and 46 SOG to date; and he has 28 game winning goals for his career, four of which have come this season. Balancing defensive prowess with play making ability isn’t always easy, but the veteran forward is showing it’s possible — and his +/- of 5 isn’t surprising given the dual role his line plays for New York.
Centered by Barclay Goodrow with the veteran Tyler Pitlick on right wing, the Rangers’ fourth line has been an important one for most of this season; and consequently Vesey’s contributions cannot be overlooked. After all, shooting in the 83rd percentile on the fourth line is something most coaches — and fans — would happily take any day of the week.