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New York Rangers: Stanley Cup or Bust?

Oct 5, 2023; New York, New York, USA; New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) makes a save against the Boston Bruins during the second at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Rangers saw their 2022-23 season end in disappointment after losing in Game 7 of the first round vs. the New Jersey Devils, something the team did not expect after initially taking a 2-0 lead heading back to Madison Square Garden. They enter the 2023-24 season with a completely new coaching staff, the core of the team that enabled them to win 47 games and tally 107 points, and some new faces that Chris Drury hopes will be an upgrade over the reinforcements he added at the trade deadline.

We know the Rangers went out in the first round last year, but we also know they were oh so close to taking a 3-0 series lead the year prior against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final. The expectations are high for the Rangers, and when it comes to Peter Laviolette, most of his impact is usually seen in year one. That essentially means it is Stanley Cup Final or bust, and given the roster of players under contract, there’s no reason why the Rangers should think they can’t go all the way.

Key additions/Subtractions

The Rangers were busy in the offseason and made a series of moves early into free agency which included signing Blake Wheeler, Erik Gustafsson, Nick Bonino, Tyler Pitlick, and Jonathan Quick among others. Each of these players is expected to play somewhat of a significant role, with Wheeler and Gustafsson being at the forefront.

Wheeler was bought out by the Winnipeg Jets, and the team’s former captain is in the final years of his career and not quite the same player he once was.

The expectation is for him to be a top-nine forward that can see time in the top six in the case of an emergency and generate around 50 points of offense. He’s a skilled passer and playmaker, and that is something of value the team can benefit from since they have other players who can focus on scoring goals.

Gustafsson played for Laviolette last season in Washington and was a second-pair defenseman who was thrust into top-pairing duty while John Carlson was injured. He averaged 20:22 per game and tallied 38 points in 61 games before he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. He only has to be a third-pair defender for the Rangers, and that should bring some much-needed depth to the back end.

Not much needs to be said about Jonathan Quick who is the backup goaltender for now, and both Bonino and Pitlick are expected to be bottom-six players who can have a defensive impact that complements existing players like Barclay Goodrow and Jimmy Vesey.

In terms of losses, Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane are no longer on the team, and neither is Tyler Motte. Tarasenko was a welcome addition to the Rangers that played a bit of a reduced role, he logged 15:55 per game as opposed to the 17:31 he skated in St. Louis, and had a line of 8-13-21 in 31 games. He also scored 3 goals in 7 playoff games vs. the Devils.

Kane appeared in 19 regular-season games with the Rangers and posted a line of 5-7-12, while also going 1-5-6 in 7 games vs. New Jersey. Despite the seemingly positive surface numbers, Kane’s underlying numbers were horrid, and ultimately, he couldn’t generate enough offense to make up for his less than stellar defense.

When you factor in his offseason hip surgery, it made sense for the Rangers to go in another direction. As for Motte, last year was his second stint with the Rangers.

He wasn’t as effective as he was the year the team went to the conference final, and for that reason it made sense for the team so sign someone like Pitlick who will have a chance to play while also serve as a healthy scratch when needed.

Strengths/weaknesses

Goaltending is the biggest strength of the Rangers. Igor Shesterkin is the best goaltender in the world and is looking to have a bounce back season. He felt he was too negative on himself, and it is understandable given the fact that he entered last season coming of a legendary campaign in 2021-22. That year Shesterkin finished with 37 wins, a .935 save percentage, a 2.07 goals against average, a GSAA of 42.46, a GSAx of 37.18, and a GAR of 50.6 which was the greatest single-season in the analytics era until Juuse Saros finished with a 52.2 GAR this past season. Those numbers resulted in Igor capturing the Vezina Trophy and secured him a 3rd-place Hart Trophy finish.

In 2022-23, Shesterkin appeared in 58 games, 5 more than the year prior, and finished with 37 wins, a .916 save percentage, a 2.48 goals against average, a 19.1 GSAA, and a 27.84 GSAx. He was also worth 32 GAR, which was 7th best among all goalies (Saros, Ilya Sorokin, Linus Ullmark, Connor Hellebuyck, Filip Gustavsson, and Andrei Vasilevskiy finished 1 through 6).

Shesterkin the team’s best player, and the Rangers have usually gone as far as he’s able to take them. The hope is this year things will be different, and the team’s biggest weakness is nullified.

The Rangers’ biggest weakness the last few years has been 5v5 play. Last season they did rank 10th with a 54.25 GF%, but were 17th with a 50.42 CF%, and 19th with a 49.5 xGF%. The Rangers have been able to mitigate this with elite goaltending, and an elite power play which was 7th in efficiency last year at 24.1%.

Some of the struggles are because the Rangers have some high-end offensive players who are quite at strong defensively, and the hope is that bringing in Laviolette will create some structure for the team to learn and follow, and the team will have a better understanding of what to do and how they can have a more balance approach. The Rangers have also been a team that’s been selective with the shots they want to take, and that approach explains why they were a top team in actual goals scored and a middling team in chances generated.

Biggest questions

The biggest question involves the kids, with the primary focus being Alexis Lafrenière, and that question would be: “is this the year Lafrenière can put it all together, and if not will it be his last season in New York?”

There has been a ton of discourse surrounding him and his “disappointing” play given his status as a No. 1 overall pick, and while some of it is warranted, a lot of it isn’t. A few lines back you read about how the Rangers have an elite power play, and how they’ve struggled at 5v5. Lafrenière has spent the bulk of his career playing at 5v5 and has received minimal power play time.

The team’s No. 1 unit has remained pretty much unchanged during his tenure in New York, and routinely will take up 1:30 to 1:45 of the two minutes allotted. It is for this reason that Lafrenière has yet to put up some gaudy point totals. That said, he has made the most of the time given to him at 5v5, and since joining the Rangers been one of the team’s most productive players in the regard.

Since his debut, he ranks 5th in 5v5 points with 76, and 2nd with 5v5 goals with 41. Behind him in goals are names like Artemiy Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko among others.

I think the most succinct way to frame Lafrenière and his tenure as a Ranger is that with two coaches he’s been asked to be a generalist as opposed to a specialist. David Quinn was more focused on making him and Kakko sound defensive players instead of letting them lean into their strengths. That is because the Rangers were trying to contend after winning two lotteries and signing Panarin. Interestingly enough, he’s been spending some time playing with Panarin during the preseason, and something that could be a benefit in the regular season

Instead of looking at Lafrenière as what he is, what his strengths are, and adding support around him, they’ve wanted him to be something else to his detriment. Instead of anchoring him to the ground and moving things around him, the opposite has occurred. The Rangers were in the tough spot of already having two really good left wingers when they drafted Lafrenière, and that created a challenge to give him the minutes he needed. For that reason, the team has previously tried playing him on the right side, but each time they’ve done that the plug has been pulled too early because the primary goal was for the team to win, and not develop a player.

This is not to say that Lafrenière shouldn’t bare any blame, because fellow lottery pick Kaapo Kakko has taken major strides individually and well on his way to being a productive top-six player. He may not reach the expectations that accompanied him in his draft year, but he’s going to be a player.

In any case, this is an important year for Lafrenière. Luckily there’s a new coaching staff in place that includes some coaches like Dan Muse who have experience working with young players and getting good results out of them, and the clean slate could just allow Lafrenière to play. He needs to make the most of the opportunity and put in the requisite effort, and if things don’t go well the team will need to think about moving on from him. The talent is clearly there, I just think he needs to give a consistent effot in a define role with set linemates to get into a groove. We have seen how successful he can be on the “Kid” line with Kakko and Chytil, and here’s to hoping he silences his critics this season.

Star players

The Rangers have a ton of star power, one of which is Shesterkin that was already mentioned. After him the remaining stars of note are Adam Fox, Mika Zibanejad, and Artemiy Panarin.

Fox is a close-second to Cale Makar for being the best defenseman in the league, and the gap between is a lot closer than people want to admit.

He won a Norris Trophy in his second season with the team and should have won the Norris Trophy last year. He is impactful in all three zones, a great facilitator on the power play, and a steady presence at 5v5 that sets the pace like the drummer in a rock band. The Rangers are in really big trouble when they are without Shesterkin and are in slightly less trouble without Fox. He has accomplished a lot as a Ranger in such a short period of time, and well on his way to being one of the best players in franchise history.

Zibanejad has been the Rangers’ top goal scorer in recent history, and his acquisition may very well be one of the best trades the team has ever made. The Rangers’ No. 1 center is coming off a season in which he finished with a career high 91 points. He also tied his career high in assists at 52 which he first established during the 2021-22 season. Since the 2019-20 season, Zibanejad has 133 goals which is 9th overall in the entire NHL. Since joining the Rangers he’s scored 204 goals, and that places him 13th overall. Chris Kreider currently ranks 5th overall with 265, and in 6th place is Vic Hadfield. With Zibanejad under contract for 7 more seasons, it is very possible he goes down as one of the top goal scorers in team history.

The last true star the Rangers have is Artemiy Panarin, quite easily one of the best free agent signings in NHL history. In his first 200 games as a Ranger, Panarin scored 76 goals and added 192 assists for 268 points which surpassed the previous record of 255 points set by Mark Messier. He then went on to set the record for quickest Ranger to reach 300 points, once again besting Messier.

In the 268 games he’s played as a Ranger, Panarin has a line of 100-241-341, and that includes seasons of 95 points in 69 games, 58 points in 42 games, 96 points in 75 games, and 92 points in 82 games. He is a dynamic offensive player who is a skilled playmaker that also can score goals, and a key part of the team’s offense.

Under the radar player who could have an impact

This may be pushing the definition of under the radar since they are an established player, but I am picking Filip Chytil because I don’t think he’s expected to have as big of an impact given the other stars on the roster.

Chytil looks like he will be centering the 2nd line this season, and is coming off a season in which he tallied 45 points in 74 games while skating 14:41 a night. An increase in ice time and better linemates could be just the environment he needs to hit 60 points or more, and that would be a welcome development for him in his age 24 season, and his 6th overall as an NHL player. He made his NHL debut at 18, didn’t make the opening night roster for the 2018-19 season, but was later called up and appeared in 75 games that year as a 19-year-old. He’s still a young player that has gained valuable experience, and he profiles as a player read to take that next jump.

Key rookie/young player

Right now the key rookie and youngster of note worth mentioning is Will Cuylle. Cuylle was a 2nd round draft pick in 2020, and has the prototypical build of an NHL power forward at 6’3” and 212 pounds. He made the team roster out of training camp and is coming off a season in which he posted a line of 25-20-45 in 69 games played with the Harford Wolf Pack. The year prior he was the captain of the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL and tallied 43 goals and 80 points in 59 games. He will have an opportunity to play in a third-line role with the Rangers, and the hope is that he brings a spark, some energy, and can make some tertiary offensive contributions.


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