The New York Rangers have created arguably the top farm system in the NHL since beginning their rebuild with “The Letter” on February 8th, 2018. How did they get to this point so quickly?
During the past three years, the Blueshirts have demonstrated both patience and effective long-term planning by trading fan-favorites, such as Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh, and Kevin Hayes, for draft picks and prospects. They also benefitted from some extraordinary draft lottery luck along the way (i.e., Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko).
This is not to say that it has been the perfect blueprint for a rebuild to be clear. There have been some costly misfires during this process (e.g., signing Kevin Shattenkirk) in addition to potential future regrets (e.g., re-signing Chris Kreider to a 7 year/$45.5 million contract earlier this year). Nevertheless, GM Jeff Gorton should be commended for his overall work thus far.
So as the Rangers enter what is the second half of their ambitious rebuild, what should fans’ expectations be? More importantly, what steps should NYR management take to complete its rebuild? Let’s examine these questions on a season-by-season basis.
The Rangers Rebuild as it stands at this point
The Rangers will not be contending for the Stanley Cup in 2021. Why is that the case? In a nutshell, it is because this team is too green. To begin with, franchise building blocks Lafrenière and Kakko are only 19 years old. For context, their combined age is less than that of Toronto Maple Leaf Joe Thornton. The struggles of 2019 second overall draft pick Kakko in his rookie season are already well-documented. As talented as Kakko was, he simply wasn’t ready to compete in the NHL last season. Lafrenière is considered a better prospect than Kakko, but again he is only 19. He is not likely to dominate the league right out of the gate either.
For the Rangers to contend for the Stanley Cup, these two players will need to be ready to take over games. Realistically speaking, they are likely another 2-3 years away from possessing that kind of ability. And as spectacular as they are now, Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad cannot win postseason games by themselves. If they could, the Rangers would not have been swept in the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers by the mediocre Carolina Hurricanes.
On the blueline, the Rangers have also assembled an impressive arsenal. Unfortunately, most of these defensemen are not quite NHL-ready though. Their best defensive prospect, Nils Lundkvist, is playing in Sweden this season. The 2018 first round draft pick has not signed a contract with the New York Rangers yet.
Another promising 2018 first round draft pick, K’Andre Miller, has signed an entry-level contract with the Blueshirts; however, the forward-turned-defenseman has looked good so far this season, we should temper expectations. And 2020 first round draft pick, Braden Schneider, is most likely at least 2-3 years away from making his NHL debut.
In net, the future is now with Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev. Shesterkin just turned 25-years-old while Georgiev is still 24-years-old. Shesterkin dominated the KHL for years prior to making his NHL debut last season. He will be backed up by Georgiev who has already proven himself to be a capable netminder. This tandem could be among the very best in the NHL as soon as this season.
Despite the immense potential of the aforementioned players, the Rangers are playing in a realigned division this season which includes the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, New York Islanders, and Pittsburgh Penguins. Since the top four teams in each realigned division make the playoffs this season (i.e., no wild card teams), it will prove rather challenging for the Rangers to make the tournament barring an unexpected collapse from two of the teams listed above.
This should not be disheartening to Blueshirts fans though. The Rangers are still in the midst of their rebuild; and the competition level within this division should only expedite the development of young players like Lafrenière and Kakko.
Ultimately, fans should hope for a more competitive NYR team with postseason experience as a goal – not requirement – this year. Given these expectations, it would most likely be in the Rangers’ best interests to combine young players with veterans on each line. Moreover, a stronger third line led by Kreider would help the Blueshirts address some of their depth issues in this shortened season.
2021-2022 Season will be the most important year yet
What should Rangers fans expect for the 2021-2022 season? This is where the fun should really begin for the Blueshirts. Indeed, players like Ryan Strome and Tony DeAngelo could be moved prior to the start of this season. Each of these players will only have one year remaining on their contracts at that point, and the Rangers will need to improve their salary cap management moving forward (they have nearly $13 million in dead cap space for 2020-2021 alone).
More importantly, the Rangers do not seem to have much faith in Strome as their long-term number two center. Should 2017 first round draft pick Filip Chytil take a significant step forward in his development, Strome will likely find himself out of a job with the Rangers. He could be trade bait or exposed in the Seattle Kraken expansion draft in 2021.
The controversial but offensively gifted DeAngelo has an already high price tag with Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox ahead of him on the defense’s right side. Not to mention Lundkvist and Schneider are both RD that will be close to banging on the door at that point. It is unlikely that DeAngelo will remain a Ranger through the 2021-2022 season.
Georgiev will also have one year left on his contract. With talented goaltending prospects such as Tyler Wall and Dylan Garand in the pipeline, Georgiev could become the subject of trade rumors once again. And although popular with his teammates and coaches, Pavel Buchnevich might prove too expensive to re-sign following the 2020-2021 season. Unfortunately, his presence on the roster is also impeding the arrival of highly touted – and less costly – RW prospect Vitali Kravstov.
What will the New York Rangers do?
So what can be done given these parameters? In the interest of fun, let’s make some predictions here. This article will predict that the talented Chytil will have taken enough steps forward in his development to earn the second line center role for the 2021-2022 season. It will also predict that Lundkvist will sign his entry-level contract with the Rangers and make his NHL debut.
Then there is the matter of what other teams will do following the 2020-2021 season. Buffalo Sabres star, Jack Eichel, was recently rumored to want out of Buffalo due to the team’s struggles. Following these rumors, the Sabres acquired Taylor Hall and Eric Staal. Will these players be enough to get the Sabres into the playoffs anytime soon?
My crystal ball does not see that happening. In response, Eichel might push for a trade again. Particularly if the Sabres are not able to re-sign either Hall or Staal (they both become UFA in 2021). Fortunately for the Rangers, head coach David Quinn has history with Eichel as he coached him in college.
What would it take to acquire Eichel then? The Sabres would want a king’s ransom, and who could blame them? There are also salary cap considerations to be taken into account as Eichel makes $10 million per season. If Eichel is really pushing the Sabres for a trade, an offer of Zibanejad, DeAngelo, Georgiev, and a 2021 first round draft pick might be enough to get a deal done. Buchnevich could also be traded in the 2021 offseason for draft picks to help clear roster and salary cap space; and this article predicts that Strome will be claimed by the Seattle Kraken in their expansion draft.
With Eichel and the right mix of veterans and youth, the Rangers should make the postseason in 2022. They will still not be ready to compete for the Cup quite yet though.
Recommended (not projected) lines:
Stanley Cup Contenders
The 2022-2023 season should mark the end of the Rangers’ rebuild… and the beginning of their Stanley Cup contention window. At this point of the Blueshirts’ blueprint, Lafrenière and Kakko should be ready to take over games. Eichel and Panarin will still be dominant. The talented Barron might overtake Howden as the third line center which could make for a more physically imposing line along with Kreider and Gauthier. Patrick Khodorenko could be in the mix for a center position with the big club this season as well (if not beforehand).
On defense, Fox should have already well-established himself as the number one defenseman in the organization by now. Miller and Lundkvist could make for a formidable and well-balanced second defensive pairing, with Schneider making his rookie debut on the third defensive pairing. Don’t overlook talented prospect Matthew Robertson on the left side of defense either at this point. Meanwhile, Shesterkin should be entering his prime at just the right time for the Rangers. Wall could be just hitting his stride as his backup too.
On the business side of things, Trouba could be persuaded to waive his NMC clause this season for the right team. He carries a heavy salary space cap hit at $8 million per season.
If the Rangers are willing to include a 2023 first round draft pick – which should be a low pick that year – in a trade, they can perhaps convince the Red Wings to accept the Michigan native in a deal (ala the Marc Staal trade in 2020). Unfortunately, such a move may be deemed necessary as Lafrenière will need to be re-signed for the 2022-2023 season (not to mention Kakko, Fox, and Kravstov in the preceding season). Miller will also need a new contract, which could prove quite costly if he realizes his potential as well.
Recommended (not projected) lines:
Wrapping up the Rangers Rebuild
No rebuild is perfect – not even one with two draft lottery wins. The Blueshirts still have a ways to go to complete their rebuild, but the light at the end of the tunnel is beginning to shine now. And with the right combination of youth, veteran leadership, skill, and grit in the organization, that light is looking very bright. Perhaps even Stanley Silver.