Early key storylines for the 2023-24 New York Rangers

Alexis Lafreniere Kaapo Kakko
Dec 7, 2022; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; New York Rangers right wing Kaapo Kakko (24) celebrates with team mates after scoring a goal against the Vegas Golden Knights during the first period at T-Mobile Arena. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

As is the case before the start of another season, the New York Rangers always have something new going on.

In this instance, the Blueshirts have a brand new head coach at the helm in Peter Laviolette, who replaces a fairly successful Gerard Gallant. The latter only lasted two seasons, and was fired after taking the team to the Eastern Conference Final in 2022.

Of course, his unwillingness to adjust his system or matchup against the opposition led to a first round exit to the upstart New Jersey Devils this past season and a “mutually agreed” departure. Now it’s up to Laviolette to take not only this group to the next level, but also two very important high draft picks.

Let’s look at the key storylines in late August as we prepare for training camp in September.

Will Peter Laviolette give the kids a chance?

NHL: NHL Draft
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to Laviolette’s hiring, there were mixed reviews on his handing of young players with Washington. However, he’s also been given credit for developing kids in Carolina and Nashville. Which brings us to how he will handle Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko.

“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. With that being said, president and general manager Chris Drury did not make any major signings this offseason leaving Laviolette little choice but to play them.

Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko must make huge strides

This past Thursday, the Rangers officially announced the re-signing of 2020 first overall pick Alexis Lafreniere to a two-year extension with an AAV of $2.325 million ending months of worry and speculation about a trade.

The 21 year-old is entering his fourth NHL campaign and everyone is hoping for a breakout season. In 2022-23, he registered 16 goals and 23 assists for 39 points in 81 games under heavy scrutiny simply because Lafreniere was a #1 pick. Those lofty expectations are likely unfair for a prospect that joined a team that wasn’t your prototypical lottery winning bottom-feeder.

As for Kakko, he will be an under a microscope entering his fifth season. Since his second overall selection in 2019, the 22 year-old is averaging just .41 points per game. That being said, last year was a career season with 18 goals and 40 points in 82 matches which gives cause for hope.

Heading into this campaign, the path has been cleared for Kakko to prove he’s a top-six right wing. With Vladimir Tarasenko signed in Ottawa and Patrick Kane still recovering from offseason hip surgery only newly signed Blake Wheeler will be a threat to take any of Kakko’s minutes away.

Meanwhile, Lafreniere is still stuck behind Artemi Panarin and Chris Kreider on the depth chart for left wings. However, a real uptick in power play time should be in the cards for him to improve on his numbers.

For both of these kids, it’s exactly the opportunity they’ve working for and it’s time to make their mark for the Rangers.

Who will win the 6th spot on defense?

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Florida Panthers
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The Blueshirts added 31 year-old defenseman Erik Gustafsson to lineup with a one-year deal for $825,000 on July 1 improving depth on the blue-line. They also wisely extended 22 year-old defenseman Zac Jones to a two-year extension with an AAV of $812,500.

Which sets up a nice training camp battle for these two lefties to earn a job as Braden Schneider’s partner on the third pair.

At this time, Gustafsson appears to have an edge over Jones due to familiarity. Last season, the Caps brought in the veteran 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 likely the most up in the air competition for a job.

A rebound for Jonathan Quick

We all know Igor Shesterkin is the team’s unquestionable number one goalie, with newly signed Jonathan Quick as his backup. Despite leading the Los Angeles Kings to two Stanley Cups and adding a third with the Vegas Golden Knights this summer, he’s a question mark.

The 37 year-old was traded twice last year during a difficult campaign. First to the Columbus Blue Jackets, who immediately flipped him to the Golden Knights. Prior to the deadline deals, he posted a subpar 11-13-4 record in 37 games with L.A.. He did have a little rebound with Vegas going 5-2-2 in his ten appearances.

What is really worrisome was his 3.41 GAA and his poor .882 save percentage.

Quick did admit that the uncertainty of his future added to his struggles and is excited to play for his childhood favorite team. It will also benefit him greatly that Benoit Allaire, aka the goalie whisperer, is there to help him rebound.

At the end of the day, Shesterkin is expected to carry the lion’s share of the workload. In 2022-23, he played in 58 games and it’s likely he’ will’ll be very close to that again. That’s why the Rangers need Quick to be better and give them around 25 solid appearances next season.

Anthony Scultore is the founder of Forever Blueshirts and has been covering the New York Rangers and the NHL... More about Anthony Scultore

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