Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Make sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division and eventually our 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today’s article is on the New York Rangers.
Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 New York Rangers
Last summer the New York Rangers were relatively quiet. Not because New York didn’t want to make moves to improve certain areas of their team, but because the state of the Rangers salary cap would not let them. Carl Hagelin winded up being a salary cap casualty last off-season, as he was traded to the Anaheim Ducks (during the season Anaheim traded Hagelin to the Pittsburgh Penguins).
Even though the Rangers basically kept the same team as the year before when there were also a lot of high expectations for New York, these expectations were well deserved. For the most part, New York had the same core that was just one game away from the Stanley Cup Final the previous season. Don’t forget that core was in the Stanley Cup Final the year before that, too.
Last year the regular season for the Rangers was solid but not spectacular, given New York’s status. The Rangers finished third in the Metropolitan Division, finishing with 101 points. However, the 2015-16 season ended on a very sour note as New York were dismissed by the Penguins in five games. Throughout Games 4 and 5 the Rangers were clearly outplayed by the Penguins.
What eluded the Rangers last season, which was a staple of the team the previous seasons when they were one one of the league’s elite clubs, was their defensive play. New York finished 15th in the league last season in goals allowed per game. Also, the Rangers struggled mightily on the penalty kill, as their final ranking was 26th. New York’s offense was solid but if the Rangers want to get back to being considered a top contender in the East, their defensive play most improve immensely.
There were plenty of rumors and speculation this off-season regarding the team that plays in the borough of Manhattan. New York General Manager Jeff Gorton made two significant roster moves this off-season.
First New York sent center Derrick Brassard to the Ottawa Senators for winger Mika Zibanejad and a 2017 second round pick. In acquiring Zibanejad, a former 6th overall pick (2011 draft), New York got younger player with more upside. However New York will miss Brassard, who last year lead the club in goals (27) and was second on the team in points (58).
Surprisingly, it was the Rangers that won the Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes. The top prospect who played his college hockey at Harvard became an unrestricted free agent this past August. New York, which has one of the worst prospect pools in the sport, received a massive jolt with the signing of the 23-year-old Vesey, who has the potential to become a top six forward for the Rangers in the near future.
The other notable moves this off-season for New York had to do with the number of complementary player acquisitions. The Rangers signed free agent forwards Brandon Pirri and Michael Grabner to give the team more depth. The same can be said for the trade with the Colorado Avalanche for defenseman Nick Holden. The Rangers also brought back Antti Raanta to be the team’s backup goalie.
The big loss to the Rangers roster was losing Keith Yandle. Yandle was one of New York’s top four blue liners last season. Once again New York’s salary cap was the cause why New York lost a key player in the off-season two years in a row.
Believe it or not, New York’s offense was seventh in the league (2.84 goals per game) last season. That was made even more impressive when you consider a disappointing season from Rick Nash (15 goals, 36 points) and inconsistent years from Chris Kreider (21 goals, 43 points) and Kevin Hayes (14 goals, 36 points).
The Rangers finished middle of the pack on the power play (14th). Clearly, there is a lot of upside on Broadway in terms of putting the puck in the net. However, the biggest key for New York’s forwards this season is playing much better in the defensive zone, as well as away from the puck.
Going into last season, the Rangers were the envy of most teams with their deep, talented, and experienced blue line. Saying New York had a bad season defensively is a huge understatement.
Given the wear and tear and the miles put on New York’s top defensemen, coupled with the loss of Yandle, there is an opportunity for youngsters Dylan McIlrath and Brady Skjei to grab significant roles with New York.
For the last number of years when you thought of the Rangers, Henrik Lundqvist would immediately come to mind. The Swedish goalie is not coming off his best season (2.48 goals against average, .920 save percentage) and turns 35 in early March. Clearly, the play of the Rangers in front of “King Henrik” was severely lacking at times last season. After this season, Gorton should be assessing whether or not the best move for the franchise is explore the possibility of trading Lundqvist for a package of future assets.
It is vital for Rangers Head Coach Alain Vigneault to manage Lundqvist’s workload next year and beyond, given his age. Raanta needs to continue to be a solid number two goalie and ideally will start at least 25 games next season.
Players to Watch
The 23-year-old Zibanejad is coming off a strong campaign (21 goals, 50 points). He gives New York youth and upside. Can Zibanejad continue to improve his play with and without the puck? The Rangers will need a strong year from the Swedish forward if their 2016-17 season is going to be a special one.
Talk about pressure and dealing with big expectations. Vesey hasn’t played one minute in the NHL, or the AHL for that matter, and the expectations are for him to be a top six forward sometime this season. The insanity of the Massachusetts native’s free agency courtship will put a bulls-eye on the young forward’s back this season.
If New York is going to get back to the Eastern Conference Final this year, the return of their top defensive play is an absolute must. Staal is capable of being a top defender in his own zone. That happened too infrequently last season. For New York to be elite this coming year a bounce-back year by Staal is a necessity.
Players on the Rise
Miller broke through last season with 22 goals and 43 points and the 23-year-old center was a key cog for New York last season. The team will be looking for Miller to improve on those numbers again this year. The 2016-17 season will be crucial for learning just how high Miller’s offensive celing can be.
Players on the Decline
The former Columbus Blue Jacket is coming off his worst season in the NHL, posting offensive numbers even lower than the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. If the 32-year-old Nash doesn’t produce at a high level in the first half of the season, Vigneault could instead turn to one of the Rangers young forwards to replace him on New York’s top line. Nash is under contract for two more years. However, with his $7.8 million cap hit, Nash is highly unlikely to be going anywhere.
2016-17 Season Predictions
The Rangers are on of the most intriguing teams heading into the 2016-17 season. If everything comes together, they could return to the Eastern Conference Final. If certain dangerous trends continue, as well as a key injury or two, it’s possible New York could miss the playoffs this year.
The big key for the Rangers is whether they can they return to their defensive prowess of years past. The Rangers play in their own zone and on the penalty kill has to improve by leaps and bounds for this year to be a special season.
So what will the New York Rangers do in 2016-17? They will be around the 100-point mark in the regular season and land one of the wild card spots. Their first round playoff matchup will be against one of the top teams in the East and unfortunately for Ranger fans it will be another quiet and quick exit.