A new NHL season is on the horizon.
The New York Rangers will officially start their 2023-24 campaign this week, with training camp set to open at the MSG Training Center.
With that, they’ll take aim at erasing the sting from last season’s disappointing first-round exit.
The Blueshirts established themselves as a contender under previous head coach Gerard Gallant, compiling an impressive .662 points percentage in the regular season while twice punching their ticket to the playoffs, including a run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2022. But expectations are clearly higher than that, with the pressure on to end a championship drought that’s about to hit 30 years.
In comes veteran coach Peter Laviolette, who was hired this summer to turn the Rangers into a harder working bunch that can succeed when the ice gets tighter in the playoffs. He’s scheduled to speak Wednesday and address how he plans to get this talented roster over the hump.
Chris Drury:Rangers GM weighs in on all topics entering training camp
Expect plenty of adjustments and adversity along the way, but these eight questions are a good starting point.
1. How much of a difference will Peter Laviolette make?
Team president and general manager Chris Drury was able to work around a difficult salary cap situation by executing 10 low-cost signings, but his most important additions may have come behind the bench.
The Rangers’ core of players is largely intact, which means they’re banking on Laviolette − along with a revamped coaching staff that Drury expects to bring “a fresh look” − to be a difference-maker.
The 58-year-old has certainly been around the block − this will be his sixth NHL head-coaching gig − which raises questions about how fresh his perspective really will be. But his approach should differ in areas where the hands-off Gallant may have fallen short, specifically when it comes to motivating and building relationships.
Connecting with both veteran and young players will be critical, but the biggest test will be how Laviolette’s aggressive, puck-possession system fits the current personnel.
The message he sent at his introductory press conference was clear, with the well-traveled coach calling on his new team to turn up the intensity.
“It’s about the battle level, the compete level, the grit,” he said. “It’s that grind in the game that makes teams great.”
Drury echoed those sentiments last week, saying he believes the Rangers need to play with more “jam” in order to accomplish their Stanley Cup goals. But can a group that’s led by skill players who don’t play an overly physical game excel in that kind of environment?
Time will tell, but Laviolette is expected to set the tone from the jump with demanding practices and a tough-love leadership style. The hope is that will translate to a team that plays harder and faster in all three zones, better preparing them to succeed in the playoffs.
The lack of speed was particularly glaring against the young-and-dynamic New Jersey Devils, who were responsible for ending the Rangers’ season early last spring. It wasn’t addressed by bringing in an influx of high-end skaters, rather by hiring a coach who will emphasize quicker movements and decision-making as part of a gritter overall approach.
2. Can Artemi Panarin exorcise his playoff demons?
Don’t be surprised when a much different-looking Artemi Panarin shows up to camp.
Photos floating around social media reveal that the star forward traded in his curly locks this summer for a shaved head. One can only assume he’s hoping it will lead to better results on the ice.
To be fair, the 31-year-old is coming off another highly productive regular season in which he led the team with 92 points (29 goals and 63 assists) while appearing in all 82 games. He remains, undoubtedly, one of the best free-agent signings in franchise history. But there’s no hiding from the reality that his impact has been lacking the past two postseasons.
Panarin himself was very open about that at breakup day in May.
“I, for sure, did not play well,” he said. “I didn’t get the results and got frustrated too early. After that, it snowballed.”
After notching a pair of assists in Game 1 against Jersey, Panarin failed to record a point in the final six games. His creative, perimeter style and penchant for high-risk passes has led to disappearing acts in the playoffs.
As opposing teams apply increased forechecking pressure, clog passing lanes and ramp up the physicality, No. 10 has been rendered ineffective for long stretches. Those doubts have crept into his head, with Panarin admitting he feels “double the pressure” to perform.
Laviolette will be tasked with finding ways to free up space for him to operate, but it will ultimately fall on the team’s highest-paid player to quiet the critics. Otherwise, it will be difficult for the Rangers to accomplish their lofty goals.
3. Will Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad stay together?
Beyond wondering how players will take to Laviolette’s system, there’s also curiosity about he’ll choose to deploy the weapons at his disposal.
Will he stick with the lineup norms we grew accustomed to under Gallant? Or will he shake things up?
The first order of business is determining how to arrange his top-six forwards, with no duo logging as much time together over the years as the Rangers’ two longest-tenured players − Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad.
They’ve been on ice at the same time for over 1,984 minutes at five-on-five the past three seasons, plus another 663-plus minutes on the power play and 225-plus minutes on the penalty kill, according to Natural Stat Trick. They’ve largely been effective in that span, too, producing a 52% xGF at 5v5 while outscoring opponents, 90-65.
Why mess with a good thing? Odds are that Laviolette won’t. But no one can say for sure until we hear from the coach and see how they practice.
It’s not like there aren’t compelling arguments to try something different, either. Some coaches prefer to group their best players together, with Panarin clearly the top left winger on the depth chart. He’s played brief, underwhelming stints with Zibanejad in the past, but perhaps Laviolette will give them a longer leash to see if his leading assist man (Panarin) and best shooter (Zibanejad) can finally click.
It’s also possible Laviolette will prioritize putting the Rangers’ highly drafted young forwards in position to succeed − and there’s no better spot to do that than playing alongside the team’s No. 1 center. Kaapo Kakko is the leading candidate to play right wing on the top line, but could Alexis Lafrenière also work his way up and supplant Kreider on the left side?
4. How will the kids be used?
Speaking of the kids, it will be fascinating to see how Laviolette decides to use them − specifically Kakko, Lafrenière and Filip Chytil.
Chytil had the best season of the three last year while registering a career-high 45 points (22 goals and 23 assists), but the overall production from the trio of former first-round picks has not matched expectations.
There are valid concerns about the development for all three − skating and durability for Kakko, skating and consistency for Lafrenière, defense and faceoffs for Chytil − but their opportunities to play prominent roles have objectively been lacking.
Just compare Lafrenière’s average of 15:13 time on ice per game in his third NHL season to the three forwards picked No. 1 overall before him − Auston Matthews (2016), Nico Hischier (2017) and Jack Hughes (2019). Each averaged at least 18:04 TOI in Year 3.
Chytil, Kakko and Lafrenière were mostly relegated to the third line under Gallant, with extremely limited usage on special teams. Part of that was circumstantial, with the Rangers clearly in win-now mode and inclined to lean on veterans. But in order to build a championship roster, they’re going to need their premium draft picks to blossom into impact players.
It’s time to take off the training wheels, which means at least two of them − if not all three − should be playing in the top six.
That might require switching Lafrenière to RW so that he’s no longer blocked by Kreider and Panarin, with Drury “anticipating” they’ll at least consider it during camp. It could necessitate opening the season with Chytil ahead of Vincent Trocheck as the second-line center. And it should most certainly lead to one of them joining Kreider, Panarin, Zibanejad and Adam Fox on the top power-play unit.
5. Will the D pairs remain the same?
The best guess here is that, yes, they will. But, again, we won’t know until we know.
The staples for the Rangers under Gallant were Fox and Ryan Lindgren on one pair, with K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba on the other. The former duo is coming off another strong season, ranking 12th among 54 pairs who logged at least 500 minutes together with a 54.6% xGF, according to moneypuck.com, with Fox finishing as the runner-up in Norris Trophy voting. But the latter had their share of struggles, particularly early in the season. The Miller-Trouba duo was on ice for 55 goals against at 5v5, which ranked second-to-last among all D pairs.
Will Laviolette consider a new look? If so, we could see a potentially dynamic top pair of Fox and Miller, with Lindgren and Trouba relied on as a hard-hitting, defensive-minded No. 2.
6. Can the Rangers be better at 5v5?
Here’s the hard truth about the Rangers under Gallant: Despite their impressive 99-46-19 record, they were a mediocre team at five-on-five.
In fact, the advanced stats place them closer to the bottom-third of the league. Their combined 48.11% xGF the past two seasons ranks 22nd out of 32 teams, while their 47.68% rate of scoring chances sits at No. 24.
They’ve largely been carried by strong special teams and the superb goaltending of Igor Shesterkin, but they took a step back last season when chinks appeared in that armor.
Shesterkin remains the backbone and one of the best netminders in the world, inspiring confidence that the Rangers have a chance in any playoff series. But to increase those odds, the guys in front of him need to elevate their game in even-strength situations.
This nugget stood out to me: Of the eight teams that won at least one round in the 2022-23 postseason, six finished in the top 10 in xGF, with none worse than 16th.
The Rangers don’t have to be perfect at 5v5, but they certainly need to be better.
7. Will any rookies make the roster?
The odds are against it, but that could change in the coming weeks.
The leading candidates are forwards Will Cuylle and Brennan Othmann. The former is a year older and closer to being ready after a full AHL season during which he led Hartford with 25 goals, but the latter is the higher upside prospect.
The loose plan is for both to start with Hartford and be on the short list of call-up candidates during the season. That’s evident based on this summer’s signings, with veterans Nick Bonino, Tyler Pitlick and Blake Wheeler brought in to round out the forward group. Additionally, Alex Belzile and Riley Nash were signed to compete for depth roles.
There’s little chance the Rangers would keep Cuylle or Othmann as the 13th forward, mainly because both would be better served playing regularly in the AHL. Their only realistic chance of sticking around − besides injury to an NHL regular − would be forcing their way into the lineup with a stellar camp.
Even that scenario could require changing positions. Both are natural left wings, but Othmann has indicated an openness to making the switch to right side. If he were to win the RW job on the third line − or if Lafrenière makes the move − the Rangers could conceivably build a fourth line of Bonino, Barclay Goodrow and Jimmy Vesey while keeping Pitlick as the 13th forward.
So, there is a path. But it looks like a long shot.
8. Are the Rangers done adding players?
Drury indicated they don’t have any plans to sign a veteran on a professional tryout contract (PTO), saying, “I just felt like we were good with where we’re at.”
The plan − at least for now − seems to be moving ahead with the roster he’s assembled, and it’s pretty easy to envision what that will look like. But there is one player who lingers in the minds of Rangers’ fans.
Patrick Kane, the future Hall of Famer who Drury jumped through hoops to acquire at last season’s trade deadline, remains unsigned. He’s coming off hip surgery and won’t be ready to start the season, but recently told the Associated Press that he’s already feeling “a lot better than I was last year.” A return to action before the end of the calendar year seems realistic.
At breakup day, the 34-year-old (he’ll turn 35 on Nov. 19) said he “would love that chance” to come back to New York and show what he can do when he’s 100% healthy. But the team’s tight salary cap situation would dictate accepting a massive discount from the $10.5 million average annual value he made the past eight seasons.
Whether Kane would be open to that − or whether the Rangers would even want to go down that road − remains to be seen. But until he decides his next move, the door can’t be considered completely closed.
The other option is to roll with what they’ve got and accrue as much cap space as possible in the coming months. Based on our current 22-man roster projection, that number could land above $3 million by the trade deadline and enable Drury to make an impact addition or two for the playoff push.
Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.