Fsk Forsvarets - T-shirt Spesialkommando

*This post was written by guest contributor Lee Borden. You can follow Lee on his brand new Twitter account @LeeDawg4, or interact with him on Reddit at u/LeeDawg24*

It’s that time of year again. August is the quiet time for the NHL season. The chaos of the draft and free agency are in the rearview, and with training camp over a month away, hockey fans have two options: focus on another sport, or constant non-stop speculation. Since this isn’t the space for me to rave about our lord and savior Sam Darnold, today we will be concentrating on what the Rangers roster will look like in the coming season. Not only as they break camp, but which players will make appearances in relief roles throughout the season. Shawn Taggart gave his “really premature look at the Rangers opening night roster” about a month back, and you can consider this a follow-up to that, now that the RFAs have all been signed and we have a better idea of who at least will be on the team for the pre-season.

But first, some ground rules. I am operating under the assumption that all players currently under contract will at least remain within the organization through training camp. There’s no sense in speculating on every possible replacement for possible trade pieces, such as Kevin Hayes or Mats Zuccarello. That alone could be a lengthy article which deserves its own space, and that space is not here. However, I will be splitting up the players likely to be traded at some point this year, from the players who are likely to stay through the end of the season. This will help produce a better idea of what the roster may look like in October vs. March.

Forwards

Not Going Anywhere
  • Mika Zibanejad
  • Chris Kreider
  • Pavel Buchnevich

The Rangers’ top line will not be in another team’s colors any time soon. Zibanejad was locked up long term last offseason, and the Rangers see him as an important piece going forward. Similarly, Kreider has two years left on a team-friendly deal and recent reports indicate he will be a candidate for the vacant captain position. Buchnevich is on the last year of his ELC, and with plenty of untapped potential, plus several years of team control remaining, it makes little sense for Jeff Gorton and company to sell low on the Russian winger.

Probably Sticking Around
  • Vladislav Namestnikov
  • Ryan Spooner
  • Jesper Fast
  • Jimmy Vesey

All of these players have two years remaining on their current contracts, meaning there is no urgent need for the Rangers to move them, at least not this season. Spooner and Namestnikov are worth mentioning together, as both were acquired at the last trade deadline, and after plenty of offseason speculation, both re-signed in New York. They are talented forwards with the ability to play center, so there will likely be a market for both, but the Rangers do not need to force a trade unless the price is right.

Fast is the epitome of an effort player, who does all the little things at both ends of the ice and has arguably been the most consistent player on the team for at least 2 years. Defensively sound forwards with scoring upside are an important commodity for playoff teams each season; just consider the role Devante Smith-Pelly had in the Capitals’ cup victory this year. However, his cap hit is low and he is an excellent penalty killer, so unless he’s a piece in a bigger trade, he should remain in blue.

Vesey will get a chance to prove that he was worth the hype with his new contract that will take him to his UFA year. He always seemed to be a very square peg in a very round hole in Alain Vigneault’s system, so perhaps with David Quinn, he can take the next step forward. Otherwise, it may be tough to find a team willing to give up much for the former Hobey Baker award winner.

Don’t Buy Their Jersey
  • Kevin Hayes
  • Mats Zuccarello

Fixtures of the lineup for several years now, both Hayes and Zucc are likely gone by the trade deadline. Hayes is a victim of the organizational logjam at center. The front office sees star prospects Filip Chytil and Lias Andersson as centers, and with Zibanejad under contract until 2022, either someone plays on the fourth line, or someone has to go. Hayes is now on a one year deal with a reasonable cap hit. The Rangers can trade him to a Cup contender in need of a shutdown center with offensive upside (San Jose?), retain salary if needed, and acquire futures to continue the rebuild. A year ago, Hayes was seen as a future core piece of the team, but times change quickly in the NHL.

Zuccarello is much the same, but at 30 years old, he is beginning to slow down. The hobbit will always be a fan favorite on Broadway, but being in the last year of his contract, the Rangers are unlikely to keep him around past this year. Expect the Rangers to attempt a similar deal as with Hayes, but with a lesser return.

Fighting for a Spot in Camp
  • Filip Chytil
  • Lias Andersson
  • Peter Holland
  • Cody McLeod
  • Matt Beleskey
  • Vinni Lettieri
  • Boo Nieves
  • Michael Lindqvist
  • Ville Meskanen

Fsk Forsvarets - T-shirt Chytil and Andersson are the gems of the Rangers prospect pool at the moment. Both played well in a handful of games a year ago and are seen as the future of the team. Still teenagers, neither are assured a spot, but considering the draft capital spent on acquiring them, they will likely be given every opportunity to play at MSG this fall.

Holland, McLeod, and Beleskey are NHL vets who bring grit and energy, but very little production. All three have spent their careers bouncing around the NHL and AHL, and should continue to do so this year. Unless the Rangers go hard into “Lose for Hughes”, there will not be space for all three on the roster at any point. However, ‘trusted hockey men’ like Jeff Gorton tend to keep at least one such player on the active roster in case of emergency, so it is likely we will occasionally be seeing these names during the regular season.

Lettieri flashed in limited time a year ago, but had a nasty habit of hitting goalposts when scoring chances appeared. There is optimism he can harness his raw skill as a shooter and turn himself into a decent NHL sniper. Similarly, Nieves demonstrated that he is capable of being a decent fourth line center in the NHL. However, he disappeared for stretches, and by mid-January was relegated to Hartford for the remainder of the year. At 23 and 24 years old respectively, time is running out for both players. If either is going to make the leap, it needs to be now.

Meskanen and Lindqvist are largely unknown at this point. Both were signed to ELC’s as European free agents and will be given every chance to make the team. There is hope that one or both will turn into the scoring depth the Rangers need, but only time will tell.

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  • Brett Howden
  • Ty Ronning
  • Ryan Gropp

Howden, acquired in the Ryan McDonagh deal, is seen as a valuable, skilled prospect for the future. He will likely spend the majority of the year in Hartford, but if he impresses, he may get an extended tryout the way Chytil and Andersson did a year ago.

Ronning and Gropp are fringe prospects with a shot of turning into NHL scoring wingers. They will likely be in Hartford to start, but may make an NHL appearance in 2018-19 if everything works out for them. Otherwise, they will be organizational depth with upside.

Defense

Not Going Anywhere
  • Kevin Shattenkirk
  • Brady Skjei
  • Marc Staal
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Last season’s free agent prize, one has to hope that Shattenkirk doesn’t resent taking a hometown discount for a team that ended up rebuilding. One of the best power play quarterbacks in the NHL, Shattenkirk will get a chance to rebound from his disappointing, injury-marred, premier in New York.

Skjei was the sole Rangers RFA to receive a long-term deal this year. Now under contract until 2024, the Rangers clearly view Skjei as a key contributor to their future success. Time will tell if their trust is placed correctly, but this is a contract that Blueshirts fans were mostly very excited about.

Staal has been the subject of buyout speculation seemingly each offseason since he signed his current contract. However, with plenty of cap space, and a new coaching system, there is no need to buy him out for now. He will likely be bought out before the Seattle expansion draft, but that is at least 2 years away. Also, in the same way that Dan Girardi improved after leaving Alain Vigneault’s system, Staal also may experience a bit of a rebound with David Quinn at the helm.

Fighting for a Spot in Camp
  • Neal Pionk
  • Brendan Smith
  • Tony DeAngelo
  • Fredrik Claesson
  • Steve Kampfer
  • Rob O’Gara
  • John Gilmour

I struggled mightily with where to place Pionk. He dazzled at times in his rookie year, and the general consensus is that his spot in the lineup is assured. However, 28 games is not enough to prove that he will remain worthy of a roster spot long term. He will be given every opportunity to prove that he is a legitimate NHL piece, and not just a flash in the pan.

After being acquired at the 2017 trade deadline, Smith was excellent in the playoffs and was rewarded with a four-year contract. He then showed up to training camp out of shape, and was absolutely putrid on the ice, before management decided they had seen enough and he was assigned to the minors. His performance and attitude did not improve once there; his season ended when he broke his hand in a fight during practice. Reports have come out that he has been working hard this offseason and is in the best shape of his life, eager to prove that he belongs in the NHL. Given their investment in him, the Rangers will give him every opportunity to prove he belongs. He must demonstrate that last year was an abomination, else the team will have no choice but to move on.

Similar to Smith, Tony DeAngelo was acquired at a premium, from the Arizona Coyotes in the Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta package. He has great skating and puck skills, and has flashed playmaking ability at the top level. However, he is a known locker room problem, having been suspended multiple times in his young career for clashing with teammates and officials. He’s still young and should be given plenty of opportunity in New York, but he must improve his play in his own zone and ability to play nice with others.

Claesson and Kampfer are both NHL veterans with one-year on their deals. Claesson is a superior defender to Kampfer, as is still only 25 years old, but neither player is blessed with much offensive ability. Both will be battling for the seventh spot on the roster. However, it is likely that the inside track will belong to Claesson, who will be an arbitration-eligible RFA after this season, while Kampfer will likely walk as a UFA.

Gilmour and O’Gara are youngsters who had ups and downs in their first seasons on Broadway. Gilmour is blessed with exceptional skating ability, but his positional play and size leave plenty to be desired. O’Gara is a more traditional stay-at-home player who struggled in Alain Vigneault’s demanding system. Both will be arbitration-eligible RFA after this season, so it would be surprising if they did not see at least some NHL ice time.

Possible Cameo Appearances
  • Ryan Lindgren
  • Libor Hajek
  • Sean Day

Lindgren and Hajek were both acquired at the trade deadline, and are viewed as quality long-term assets. They will likely both see time in Hartford, and if the Rangers are out of it in late March, will see time on the big stage while sliding the first year of their ELC.

Day is an exceptionally talented prospect who, due to family issues, regressed dramatically. Once one of the top teenage prospects in Canada, but his play suffered greatly after a DUI by his brother turned his life off the ice upside down. He has improved tremendously since then, but still he has a lot to prove. Only 20 years old, this will be a critical year for him as he seeks to prove himself, playing against grown men for the first time in his career.

Projected Opening Night Roster

Fsk Forsvarets - T-shirt The Rangers’ top-9 is more or less set. As long as no trades happen before the start of the season, the established names will be on the Rangers on opening night against Nashville. It would be a major disappointment if Chytil and Andersson don’t establish themselves top-9 players early in the season as well. I anticipate they will start the season out on the third line, to get them accustomed to the NHL. Their responsibilities should grow as the year goes along, especially once Hayes and Zuccarello are traded as expected.

The 4th line is difficult to project, however. Meskanen, Lindqvist, Lettieri and Nieves are true wild cards. Any of them is capable of impressing in preseason and obtaining a spot, while at the same time, there are only so many roster spots. Meskanen and Lindqvist are unknowns at this point, who will need time to adjust to North America’s smaller ice surface, hence their projection as members of the Wolfpack. At least one of the McLeod/Holland/Beleskey group will make the roster as a veteran 13th forward. Considering his recent contract, McLeod gets the inside track, but any of the three will make emergency appearances in case of injuries.

The Rangers have a luxury on defense they have not had for several years: options. The front office will certainly push for Smith and DeAngelo to make the team, eager to prove that the investments in them were not in vain. Pionk appears head and shoulders above the other youngsters in the mix for roster spots as well. The seventh spot is interesting. Claesson seems to be the logical choice there; he is more polished than Gilmour or O’Gara, and more talented than Greg Kaplan’s all-time favorite Ranger, Steven Kampfer. However, any of these players could surprise in preseason and take that spot.

Regular Season Possibilities

Best Case Scenario

Jack Adams winner David Quinn pushes all the right buttons early on, the Rangers’ forward talent comes out blazing, and the defense is unrecognizable from last year’s mess. Turning lead into gold the way Gerard Gallant did in Vegas, Quinn’s system showcases his teams’ talents while hiding their weaknesses. From mid-November to seasons end, debates rage as to whether Chytil or Andersson is more deserving of the Calder Trophy. In February, the Rangers flip Selke candidate Kevin Hayes, and 60-point scorer Mats Zuccarello for a first, a good prospect and a roster player each, but do not miss a beat. Hajek, Lindgren and Howden impress in late season appearances.

Entering the playoffs as the three seed in the Metro, the Rangers bounce Sidney Crosby and the downward trending Penguins in the first round before pushing Alex Ovechkin and the defending champs to the brink in round two, falling in a tightly contested game 7. Following Tampa Bay’s cup victory, the Rangers enter the offseason with plenty of talent in the pipeline, four first round picks, and Henrik Lundqvist declaring that this is the most exciting time he’s ever seen for the organization.

Worst Case Scenario

Quinn looks lost from day one of training camp. Chytil and Andersson are clearly not ready and spend the majority of the season in Hartford, but only after burning the first year of their ELC. The defense never gels, and a locker room fight between the second and third periods of a mid-December game at the Garden results in Tony DeAngelo being released from the organization entirely and Brendan Smith sent to Hartford for good.

Hayes and Zuccarello’s value plummets due to terrible performances, and the Rangers are forced to settle for a third and an AHL player as returns for each. Calls for Jeff Gorton’s job reach a fever pitch when Larry Brooks gets into a shouting match with him at the trade deadline presser. Finishing dead last in the entire league, the Rangers season bottoms out when Henrik Lundqvist decides to retire after the season ends. The draft lottery results in the Rangers receiving the fourth spot when they are leapfrogged by the Islanders, Colorado, and Buffalo. (this paragraph hurt to write). 

Realistic Scenario

Early growing pains from a rookie head coach and young roster have the Rangers looking dominant for short stretches, but slightly out of tune most of the time. Forward skill and goaltending keep the Rangers competitive, and Chytil is the subject of early season talk for the Calder trophy. The defense is more cohesive, but lacking talent, and the team hovers just outside the playoff picture most of the season. Just after Christmas, with the team in fifth place in the division, Henrik Lundqvist makes headlines when he says that he couldn’t be happier with the rebuild.

The team begins to turn the corner in January and puts up back to back wins against the Islanders, starting a five-game win streak that puts them back in the thick of the playoff chase. After a strong February, the team is three points out of a playoff spot on trade deadline day, when Jeff Gorton sticks to his guns and flips Hayes, Zuccarello, and Brendan Smith for a total return first, two seconds, a third and three quality prospects. This is, unfortunately, too much of a subtraction for the Rangers to finish their push, and they finish the season with 85 points, 10 points out of the last wild card. The Rangers hit the offseason with plenty of ammunition to continue the rebuild, with a playoff spot on the horizon for the 2019-20 season.

Author: Lee Borden

Lee will never know true happiness until the Rangers win the Stanley Cup. He will never find peace until the Jets win the Super Bowl. And he will never sleep soundly until Jonathan Quick and Tom Brady stop haunting his dreams.

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