Revamped New York Rangers team finding its way in the early going

new york rangers
Oct 16, 2021; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; New York Rangers forward Chris Kreider (20) reacts with teammates including forward Mika Zibanejad (93) after scoring a goal against the Montreal Canadiens during the second period at the Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Rangers President and General Manager, Chris Drury made many changes in the offseason. Moves getting the most attention were the addition of grit and the hiring of Gerard Gallant.

Now it’s time for the new and familiar faces to come together and navigate an NHL season. It’s only been four games, but there are already some obvious improvements in the Rangers’ play. There have also been some concerns.

Rangers are much more physical so far this season

Under former Head Coach David Quinn’s system, the Rangers often shied away from physicality. But that doesn’t work in the NHL. Plays can’t always be perfect and pretty; there needs to be an element of grit. It’s clear that under Gerard Gallant, the team is already adding a solid element of physicality.

Ryan Reaves and Sammy Blais have been talked about a lot since being acquired over the summer. As neither is a huge point producer and both play a physical style, they fit into Drury’s vision of everyone having a defined role.

Through the first four games, Reaves has recorded 17 hits. Blais has played three games and recorded nine hits. They’re already making a difference in the lineup. Their strong efforts are leading to opportunitites. The goal should be for the fourth line to become an identity line, and adding grit is a certainly a step in that direction. If they can be consistent with this type of play, they will establish a reputation in the league. The Rangers are trying to make the playoffs, so they can’t have teams taking advantage of them like last season. These additions are helping send that message early.

Aside from new grit, the changes seem to be affecting players that were already here. The most obvious case of this is Chris Kreider. He has been plenty noticeable through the first four games, recording three goals. But it’s not just the scoring that’s been drawing attention to him. Under Quinn, it couldn’t really be said that physicality was a key factor in Kreider’s style of play. But in these first few games under Gallant, Kreider is hitting more and willingly getting involved in scrums.

During the preseason he went after P.K. Subban for knocking Ryan Reaves out of the game, it was clear indication where his game was going. Larry Brooks argued that this behavior is consistent with Kreider’s identity as a player. It appears to be something that may have been suppressed under Quinn.

Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière have an opportunity to establish themselves

new york rangers
Oct 16, 2021; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; New York Rangers forward Alexis Lafreniere (13) celebrates after scoring a goal against Montreal Canadiens goalie Jake Allen (34) during the third period at the Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

Kaapo Kakko is in his third NHL season with the Rangers and Alexis Lafrenière is in his second. They were both high draft picks at second and first overall respectively. They now need to show why that was the case.

Kakko came into camp this season having worked hard, most notably in the gym, over the summer. He told Ilta Sanomat in August that he “felt that I am in better shape than in recent years. I expect more from myself heading into next season.”

Watching preseason games, Kakko immediately looked physically bigger. In the final preseason contest against the Islanders, he was a force on the ice. This carried into the first few games of the regular season with Kakko clearly appearing more confident with and away from the puck. He also looks stronger, appears to be adding an physicality to his game, and is better able to battle with opposing players. He was placed on injured reserve with an upper body injury, but hopefully won’t be any longer than 7 days.

Lafrenière spent too much time last season on the third line. But now he’s playing on the top line along with Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. Gallant is making the right decision in playing him there; he likely needs more ice time and to play with linemates with more experience to really flourish. This is only his second season, and his first full one, so he still has learning to do. But he already looks more confident this season, and he picked up an excellent game winning goal against his hometown Canadiens on Saturday.

Team must balance skill and physicality, play with consistent energy

Now that the Rangers have sufficient amounts of both skill and grit, they need to figure out how it all fits together.

Through the first four games, they have not always looked like a cohesive team. At times, they appeared confused or uncertain.

Simply put, the players are adjusting to a new system under a new coach, so this makes sense. But they will obviously need to put the physicality and skill together into a cohesive system. This needs to happen quickly so the Rangers don’t wind up chasing the division towards the end of the regular season and have a better chance of making the playoffs.

The Rangers are having trouble bringing consistent energy and pressure. They experience stretches where they’re unable to get significant zone time. An early trend that needs to be broken is speeding up play only after a goal is scored. The Rangers proved against Dallas and Montreal that they can play at a high place. But they need to get going from the beginning. Waiting until a goal is scored, either by the Rangers or the opponent, is too late.

Panarin and Zibanejad getting going and Shesterkin shining in net

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Oct 18, 2021; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; New York Rangers forward Artemi Panarin (10) celebrates his overtime winning goal as forward Mika Zibanejad (93) and Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly (44) and forward Michael Bunting (58) look on at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad were relatively quiet through the first three games, but picked it up against Toronto on Monday night. Panarin seemed almost unsure of himself in the first few games and was making too many hope passes. He only has four shots in these first four games, but he scored the excellent overtime goal to beat Toronto. On that play, he looked like the Breadman. There’s no reason to worry; he’s starting to get going.

Zibanejad has played well through the first four games. The story line going into Monday’s game against Toronto was that he’d done everything except score. He’s been great in both zones, playing effective defense and getting scoring chances in the offensive zone. Going into Monday night, he’d hit too many posts. But he finally scored in the first period period against Toronto. It was a matter of time; the flood gates should open now.

Igor Shesterkin looked slightly shaky in his first game of the season against Dallas, but has been incredible since then. He’s kept the Rangers in both games since then, particularly against Toronto. He is now 9-0-0 when 36+ shots in a game after that win.

In general, Shesterkin seems to have some issues with rebound control, but he played a smart game against Toronto and didn’t allow rebounds in critical situations. It’s not ideal for him to stand on his head every game, so the Rangers have to be better in the defensive zone. But it’s still helpful to know that they are playing in front of a reliable goaltender.

Note: All stats come from hockeyreference.com

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