Welcome To A New Era Of Rangers Hockey
12:58 PM EDT on October 7, 2020
What was already one of the youngest and most potential-filled NHL teams got even younger and more promising on Tuesday night, as the New York Rangers added 18-year-old winger Alexis Lafrenière out of Rimouski Océanic with the first pick of the 2020 draft. That expected but momentous choice, coupled with the expected but still kind of sad departure of cornerstone goalie Henrik Lundqvist last week, helps create a clear boundary between an old, somewhat underachieving era of Rangers hockey and this optimism-filled new beginning.
For most of the past decade, with the help of stalwarts like Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan as well as flashy acquisitions like Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik, the Rangers found themselves consistently relevant but never actually covered in glory. From 2006 to 2017, they made the playoffs in all but one season, but the closest they ever got to lifting the Cup was taking one game off the Kings in the 2014 final and then falling in seven to the Lightning in the conference final on their next try. Struggles with injuries in the 2017–18 season prompted a punch of the reset button that sent coach Alain Vigneault and most key players packing. But now, after a couple years on the outskirts of Tank City and an encouraging little run that at least got them invited to the bubble this summer, the Rangers are sincerely worth your attention and excitement.
It starts, of course, with the Artemi Panarin deal. Signed for seven years and $81.5 million last summer, the 28-year-old Russian responded to the shift from Columbus to Manhattan by turning in a career-best year, tallying 95 points in a mere 69 games to lead to the league among skaters not based out of Edmonton. Complimenting that offensive prowess was 27-year-old Mika Zibanejad, who broke out in the shortened season to assert himself as one of the top centers in the league. The former Senator's 41 goals in 57 games—including five in just one night!—were by far a career-high and placed him among the NHL's top five scorers on the year.
But those guys and their companions, in themselves, only got the Rangers to 11th place in the East (though just a small margin separated them from the Hurricanes up in sixth). What makes New York such a compelling team to longingly gaze at while dreaming about the future is the duo of young wingers they've drafted in each of the last two years. Though both were born in 2001, the slightly older of the two is Kaapo Kakko, the magical Finn who dominated at the 2019 IIHF Worlds and got picked second by New York shortly after. Kakko, unfortunately, did not find immediate success in the NHL, scoring just 10 goals and exposing himself as a major liability to his team while on the ice. But still, Kakko has shown the ability to make mesmerizing plays, and until he's at minimum old enough to legally drink everyone is prohibited from mentioning the b-word in the same sentence as the Kakk-man.
The pressure is off Kakko, anyway, because of New York's lottery luck and Lafrenière's arrival. An absolutely dominant force in the QMJHL, Lafrenière put up numbers in that league comparable to stars like Crosby and MacKinnon, and the set of skills on display in his highlight reel make it look like he's playing on easy mode. He's was the consensus number-one pick, and even if he doesn't quite come with the hype of someone like Connor McDavid, it's near-impossible to find any scout who believes he's not destined to be an all-star.
But with these exciting new faces also comes some bittersweet change. Henrik Lundqvist—an iconic, constant, and extraordinarily popular presence in net for the Rangers—will suit up somewhere else (reportedly Washington) for the first time in his NHL career next season. After he played an unfamiliar supporting role in the team this past year, and with 24-year-old Igor Shesterkin anointed as his heir, the Rangers bought out the final year of Lundqvist's contract last week. His talents, while still enough to get him a job in the NHL, are greatly diminished from their peak when Lundqvist was the most dominant (and clutch) goalie in the world.
Negativity towards Lundqvist, anywhere in the league, is non-existent. But amid the retrospectives and remembrances that poured forth following last week's news, there was always a bit of a caveat, almost apologetically muttered amid lists of his accomplishments. For his entire career, despite being dubbed the King, Lundqvist has never actually been crowned champion. And the Rangers, despite splashy spending (remember the summer they signed Chris Drury and Scott Gomez?) and regular postseason runs, still haven't won the Cup since 1994—or, seven years before their new draft pick was born.
But thanks to the attractiveness of their home city, well-timed player development (their top forwards I have yet to mention, like Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich and Filip Chytil, are all homegrown), a promising blue line headed by super-sophomore Adam Fox and the solid Jacob Trouba, and plenty of draft luck, the Rangers have at least on paper assembled all of the pieces they need for a successful top-to-bottom rebuild in barely two years. However, as the franchise must have learned with their top-tier squads of the last decade, icing a group that gets fans excited and draws interested eyeballs from around the league is the easy part. It will take a whole other wave of improvement, savvy moves, and, yeah, luck, to make this new era a true departure from the last.