Rangers Storylines To Watch As We Approach Training Camp
Let’s be honest, August is the least exciting month of the Hockey year.
The Stanley Cup Playoffs are over. The excitement of free agency is over. Yes, we do have various prospect tournaments, showcases, and development camps, however, as exciting as it is to see Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil scoring goals and turning heads, I think we can all agree that October 5th cannot come soon enough. Before the season begins there are a number of things that the Rangers need to figure out. Here are four Storylines to watch before the regular season begins.
1.) How will the Rangers utilize Kevin Shattenkirk?
Kevin Shattenkirk was the Rangers big splash during free agency. After scoring 56 points split between the St. Louis Blues and the Washington Capitals, Shattenkirk signed with the Rangers for 4 years and 6.65 million dollars per year.
It may seem obvious that Shattenkirk will slot into the top pair on the right side of Ryan McDonagh. However, it is never that simple with AV. Kevin Shattenkirk is an extremely talented Offensive Defenseman who puts up power play points at a rate only rivaled by the likes of Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns. However, there is a perception around the league that Shattenkirk is not great in his own zone. I personally do not buy into that narrative. While Shattenkirk may not be Ryan McDonagh, he is by no means a defensive liability as his HERO chart shows. Simply put, Kevin Shattenkirk is a top pair defenseman.
I believe that there are three scenarios that could play out in regards to Kevin Shattenkirk’s deployment.
First, I will cover the least likely scenario that I believe could happen. Kevin Shattenkirk will be paired with Marc Staal on the 2nd/3rd pairing and will quarterback the Rangers top power play unit. While I don’t believe this scenario will actually happen, there is some precedent in recent history. While Keith Yandle is not Kevin Shattenkirk, they are similar players. Both are extremely talented in the offensive zone and both have been questioned about their defensive prowess. During Yandle’s brief stay in New York, he was often relegated to the 3rd pair and 2nd power play unit. A player of Yandle’s skillset should, at the very least, be on the top power play unit and playing 2nd pair minutes. So, there is some pause for concern over Shattenkirk’s deployment this year. Again, I don’t believe this will happen, but it is a remote possibility.
The second alternative to playing on the top pair with Ryan McDonagh is that Shattenkirk will be paired with Brady Skjei or Brendan Smith. If the Rangers believe that Shattenkirk has defensive shortcomings they could choose to pair him with Brendan Smith. Smith, a very solid defensive defenseman, would be a very good complement to Shattenkirk’s offensive game. Alternatively, the Rangers could pair Shattenkirk with Brady Skjei on a dynamic second pair. They can take advantage of lesser competition with their high end passing and skating. This would allow the top pair, of Ryan McDonagh and Brendan Smith, to shut down the oppositions top line.
During training camp the Rangers will experiment with a number of pairs and deployments that include Shattenkirk. However, it will be very telling to see who he is paired with and how he is deployed when the Rangers have their top four of Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skjei, Brendan Smith and Shattenkirk all playing during the same game.
My Prediction: Kevin Shattenkirk will play the majority of his time paired with Ryan McDonagh and will be on the top power play unit.
2.) Who will emerge as the bottom defensive pair and 7th defenseman?
For the first time in years the Rangers have a significant amount of defensive depth. Currently, the Rangers are locked into Ryan McDonagh, Kevin Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei, and Brendan Smith as the top four defensemen. However, the Rangers also have Marc Staal, Nick Holden, Anthony Deangelo, Neil Pionk, Alexei Bereglazov, Ryan Graves, and to a lesser extent, Sean Day, competing for the 5th, 6th, and 7th defenseman roles.
As things CURRENTLY stand, the frontrunners for those slots are Marc Staal, Nick Holden, and Anthony Deangelo. Each of these players have a strong case. Marc Staal has held a large role on the Rangers for the past decade. He is an assistant Captain and is making 5.7 million dollars for the next four years. If Marc Staal is on the roster (he will be) he will have one of those three slots.
Nick Holden was Marc Staal’s partner for a large portion of last season and the majority of the playoffs. He also put up, a very respectable, 34 points (11G, 23A) during the regular season. Holden benefitted significantly from his high shooting percentage (13.1%). However, he still has the ability to contribute in the offensive zone. Although the pair seemed to hemorrhage goals in the playoffs, they were trusted by AV for consistent second line minutes. Nick Holden and Marc Staal will play for the Rangers if they are both on the team when the regular season begins.
Anthony Deangelo, along with the 7th overall pick in the 2017 Entry Draft, was the main piece in return for Derek Stepan and Antii Raanta. Deangelo is a young and very talented offensive defenseman who has significant upside. Last year he played in 39 games on the Arizona Coyotes, scoring 14 points (5G, 9A) 8 of which came on the powerplay. As the main piece in the Derek Stepan trade, the Rangers will give Deangelo every opportunity to win a slot.
Alexei Bereglazov signed with the Rangers out of the KHL this past season. Considered to be NHL ready, Bereglazov will have a very good shot to make the team out of training camp. Working in his favor is a KHL “opt-out-clause”. This means that if Bereglazov is sent to Hartford, he will have the option of returning to the KHL instead of playing in Hartford. I do not believe the Rangers will allow this to happen and will give him every chance to make the team.
After these four players the Rangers still have Neil Pionk, Ryan Graves, and Sean Day who will be competing for a slot during training camp.
Pionk was an undrafted NCAA free agent who signed with the Rangers over a number of other NHL teams. He is a 22 year old, right handed defenseman who can skate and move the puck well, scoring 34 points in 42 games for the University of Minnesota-Duluth this past season.
Ryan Graves is a big, 21 year old, left handed defenseman who has played in Hartford for the past two seasons. Graves plays physical and has a booming slapshot from the point that can get up over 100mph.
Sean Day was drafted by the Rangers in the 3rd round in the 2016 draft. After being only the 4th player (John Tavares, Connor McDavid, Aaron Ekblad) to be granted “exceptional player” status in the OHL, Day did not live up to the hype. This allowed the Rangers to draft him in the 3rd round of the 2016 Entry Level Draft. Recently, Day has gotten things together in his personal life, has gotten into much better shape and is making huge strides in his development. Out of the players on this list, Day has the most upside with his effortless skating and great offensive instincts. I don’t see him making the team this year. However, don’t be surprised if he turns heads and forces the Rangers to make an extremely tough decision.
My prediction is that we will see Marc Staal, Anthony Deangelo, and Alexei Bereglazov emerge from the competition in camp. All three will play on a rotational basis and the extra rest, coupled with sheltered minutes, will allow Marc Staal to play at a higher level than he did this past season.
3.) Who will fill the remaining Center slot?
The Center position is the only position that the Rangers have a glaring weakness at. As it currently stands the Rangers have Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, David Desharnais, and JT Miller (if moved back to center) to fill their four center slots. However, the Rangers would be better off leaving Miller on the wing, where he had a career high in points and showed flashes of the dominance and skill that they hoped they were getting, when they drafted him with their first round pick in 2011. That would leave the Rangers with an open center slot to fill prior to opening night. In order to fill that spot the Rangers have a few options.
First, the Rangers could sign a free agent center. While the pickings are slim, there are a few options available to them. Mike Fisher has announced his retirement which take the last big name off the free agent list. Even still there are a few free agent centers that could be signed for cheap.
Among the options include Alex Kerfoot, a Center who was drafted by the New Jersey Devils and has not signed an entry level contract, a la Jimmy Vesey. In recent years the Rangers have done an outstanding job in these situations, signing Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey. In addition, Kerfoot centered Vesey for two years while they were both playing at Harvard. While Kerfoot has also been connected to Vancouver, the Rangers would make sense for a number of reasons. The Rangers are a contender with a large need for a center. Kerfoot could step in right away and play with his former line mate for a contending team. He would not have unreasonable expectations placed upon him and would be allowed to develop with the Rangers as a 3rd line center. When August 15th rolls around, it will be interesting to see where Kerfoot lands.
The next option is for the Rangers to sign a free agent winger and move JT Miller back to center. While I mentioned that Miller would be better left on the wing, he would solidify the center position if no other centers presented themselves as options. Currently, there are a couple intriguing options on the open market including, the ageless wonder, Jaromir Jagr and Thomas Vanek. Both have scored over 40 points this past season and would add great depth to the bottom 6 and a powerplay presence on the left side of the ice. Jagr continued his onslaught on the NHL record books with 46 points (16G, 30A) in 82 games while Vanek put up 48 points (17G, 31A) in 68 games. Both would greatly help the Rangers continue their four line attack in the upcoming season.
The third option is to allow the players that they already have to battle it out for the remaining slot. While Filip Chytil is a long shot for a spot on the opening night roster, Lias Andersson is currently looking more and more likely to make the team to start the season. Andersson is showing why the Rangers drafted him 7th overall with his performance at the World Junior Summer Showcase, scoring Sweden’s two goals against the United States team. In addition to Andersson, the Rangers have Christoval “Boo” Nieves as a possible center candidate. Nieves was a contender for a spot on the Rangers last year. However, he got hurt before the season started and spent the majority of his season at Hartford. In 40 games, Nieves put up 18 points (6G, 12A) on a very bad Hartford Wolfpack team.
The final option for the Rangers is to trade for a center. There are a number of centers that have been connected to New York including Matt Duchene, Paul Statsny, and Tyler Bozak. While trading for a center would require salary manipulation, the Rangers could trade to strengthen their depth at center. The Rangers have a significant amount of defensive depth. They could form a solid trade package centered around Nick Holden in exchange for a center.
Prediction: Lias Andersson wins an open competition for the remaining center slot. Boo Nieves starts the season on the Rangers until Jesper Fast comes back from injury.
4.) Can a longshot force his way onto the roster?
This year the Rangers have a number of players who could surprise everyone and seize a roster spot. Vladimir Tkachyov, Sean Day, and Filip Chytil are the three players that intrigue me the most. Lias Andersson would have made this list if the Rangers had four established centers under contract. However, Andersson is firmly in the competition for the final center slot, as far as I am concerned.
Vladimir Tkachyov is a Russian prospect who went undrafted and was signed by Edmonton in 2014. However, the NHL annulled the contract due to eligibility rules. This past year Tkachyov played for Admiral Vladivostok where he put up 39 points (14G, 25A) in 49 games. Admiral is in the KHL and is considered the 2nd highest league behind the NHL. For comparisons sake, Pavel Buchnevich put up 37 points (16G, 21A) in 58 games in 2015-2016. Tkackyov was supposed to be present at the Rangers development camp in July. However, visa issues prevented him from participating.
There is no guarantee that Tkackyov will be at training camp or offered a contract by the Rangers. It is very possible that he signs a one year deal with Admiral and comes over to the NHL next year. However, if he does come to training camp, he has the skills to turn heads. Tkachyov can be a dynamic forward for the Rangers and force his way onto the roster.
Percent chance this happens: 15%
Sean Day is an extremely talented offensive defenseman who has the skills to be an impact player at the NHL level. Day is a high end skater, has great hands, and can see the ice extremely well. With these skills Day has the potential to be an impact player at the NHL level. However, Day will have to find a spot on a crowded left side that includes Ryan McDonagh, Brady Skeji, Marc Staal, Alexei Bereglazov, and Ryan Graves. Day was only the fourth player to be granted OHL “exceptional player” status for a reason. He has high end talent and will force his way into the Rangers lineup sooner rather than later.
Percent chance this happens: 10%
This last longshot is not making the team. I say again, he is NOT making the team out of camp. However, it is fun to dream, right? Filip Chytil was the Rangers 2nd selection (21st overall) in the 2017 entry level draft. While Lias Andersson is considered to be a “safe” pick, Filip Chytil is more of a lottery pick. He has very high end talent. He has the skills and potential to be a number one center down the road. The general consensus is that Lias Andersson’s ceiling is that of a number two center. Chytil is a long shot to make the team this year (He is not making the team). However, it is not completely out of the question to go to Hartford, develop his game, and become a call-up later in the season. Percent chance this happens: 0.000000000000001%
While Rangers hockey is still just under 60 days away, it seems like it is an eternity. However, before you know it, Rangers training camp and the pre-season will be starting and we can pretend that Rangers Hockey is back. Until then we can predict, micro-analyze, and argue these points to death. That’s always fun.