Rangers’ young talent is only thing that will make rebuild a success

The New York Rangers underwent some pretty drastic changes this offseason in an effort to turn their ongoing rebuild into a success.

General manager Jeff Gorton was fired and replaced by Chris Drury. Head coach David Quinn, the man hired to usher in the young talent of this rebuilding phase, was replaced by Gerard Gallant. They also made a little bit of a philosophical shift to the roster by targeting toughness — and a lot of it — by bringing in Ryan Reaves, Barclay Goodrow, Jarred Tinordi, and Patric Nemeth to fill out the bottom of the lineup.

When it comes to the latter point, it is really easy to connect the dots back to that late season game against the Washington Capitals when they had their run-in with Tom Wilson that resulted in Wilson being fined, the Rangers blasting the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, and the league fining them $250,000 for said criticism. It was a wild sequence of events.

The Rangers can say the Wilson incident — or the mere presence of Wilson in their division — was not the inspiration for those moves all they want, but it is too much of a coincidence that they decided to take that direction at this point in time.

[Related: NHL Rink Wrap: Begin the Kraken; Tom Wilson vs. Rangers]

They would also not be the first team in the Metropolitan Division to have that sequence of events play out where Wilson angers them, they criticize the league’s inaction, and then try to take matters into their own hands by changing the roster. Heck, the Pittsburgh Penguins tried the exact same thing with the exact same Wilson nemesis (Reaves) a couple of years ago. It is the exact same playbook Wilson pushes teams to follow for some reason.

So with all of that in mind it is kind of fitting that the Rangers open their 2021-22 season by playing Wilson and the Capitals so all of this chaos can play out right from the start.

But for all of the bluster about Reaves’ addition, and all of the changes they made behind the bench and the front office, there is only one thing that is going to make the Rangers’ rebuild a success. And it has absolutely nothing to do with any of those offseason changes.

The success or failure of the Rangers’ rebuild depends entirely on the development of their recent top draft picks and prospects, and them becoming franchise cornerstones.

Without that, everything else is simply window dressing and focus on a particular secondary narrative.

Having established stars in Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad certainly helps a rebuild. As does lucking your way into an Adam Fox that only wants to play for your team. But when you get the opportunity to pick in the top-10 (and top-two!) as often as the Rangers have over the past few years you can not miss on them. Because if you get them right, you are probably going to have a Stanley Cup in your future.

So far, the early returns for the Rangers have been less than encouraging. And that might be the most concerning element of the team’s current trajectory.

Between 2017 and 2020 the Rangers had eight first round draft picks, including four picks in the top-10. The early returns so far have been mixed.

[Related: Rangers extend Zibanejad]

The Rangers already jettisoned one of those top-10 picks (Lias Andersson) last year for a second-round draft pick, while another, Vitali Kravtsov, might soon be on his way out the door after he failed to make the opening day roster and did not report to the American Hockey League. He has reportedly been given permission to seek a trade with other clubs. To this point, the Rangers received five goals in 86 man games from those two players. Not great.

The jury is still very much out on the other late first-round picks. Filip Chytil and K’Andre Miller have shown flashes of impact potential in the NHL, but are not consistently there yet.

All of that is just part of what makes the most recent top picks, No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko and No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafrenière, so important.

They are ultimately going to be the players that dictate where this thing goes and if it works.

Kakko is entering what might be a pivotal year in his development and if he is going to become a star player you would want to think it would start to happen this season. He took a significant step forward in a lot of ways last year, becoming one of the Rangers’ best possession drivers and scoring chance creators. It did not always translate into offense, though, or make a noticeable difference in his individual production. Some of that could have been how he was used and the talent he had around him, not to mention the number of minutes he received. He is slated to start Wednesday’s game on the second line next to Panarin and Ryan Strome, which should put him in a position to succeed.

Then there is Lafrenière. After an extremely slow start to his rookie season he started to flash some of the talent and potential that made him the No. 1 overall pick later in the season and finished strong, perhaps setting the stage for a big sophomore year. He is opening Wednesday night on the top line alongside Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. Like Kakko, it is an ideal situation for him to thrive in.

If you look at pretty much every Stanley Cup winning team in the modern era almost all of them have at least one top-two pick on their roster that became a superstar. In some cases, more than one. Those players, if you get them right, are franchise changers and championship building blocks.

So much focus this offseason has been spent on the Rangers’ changes and what they might mean for the culture and attitude around the team’s mindset. But if the potential young impact players do not become actual impact players, none of it is going to matter.

Rangers extend Zibanejad, likely out of Eichel sweepstakes

Consider the Rangers basically out of the Jack Eichel trade market, and Mika Zibanejad definitively not headed toward free agency. The Rangers confirmed they signed Zibanejad to a contract extension on Sunday.

While the Rangers didn’t confirm the actual details, multiple reporters indicate that Zibanejad signed an eight-year extension. The cap hit is reportedly $8.5 million.

For the 2021-22 season, Zibanejad carries a bargain $5.35M cap hit. Zibanejad’s extension then kicks his cap hit to $8.5M from 2022-23 on. It’s an interesting investment in Zibanejad, being that he’s 28.

With Adam Fox entering a contract year, the Rangers still have some salary cap challenges ahead. But any squeeze apparently won’t cost the Rangers the ultra-skilled Zibanejad.

[Rangers among teams facing the most pressure this season]

More to come …

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the New York Rangers.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 27-23-6 (60 points); fifth place in East Division
• Postseason: Missed playoffs. Drafted Brennan Othmann with the 16th pick.
• Offensive leader: Artemi Panarin (42 games, 17 goals, 41 assists).

• Free Agent Additions: Barclay Goodrow (trade from Lightning), Ryan Reaves (trade from Golden Knights), Patrik Nemeth, Dryden Hunt, Sammy Blais (trade from Blues), Jarred Tinordi.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Pavel Buchnevich (trade to Blues), Tony DeAngelo (buyout), Colin Blackwell (Kraken expansion draft), Phillip Di Giuseppe (Canucks), Brendan Smith (Hurricanes), Brett Howden (trade to Golden Knights).

Biggest question for Rangers

• Did they lose their wits chasing grit?

Did the Rangers abruptly fire Jeff Gorton and make other key front office changes because of the Tom Wilson – Artemi Panarin incident? Was countering Wilson the guiding light during Chris Drury’s first offseason as Rangers GM?

Ryan Reaves said that he wasn’t acquired because of Tom Wilson — at least not directly. Even Tom Wilson himself insisted it wasn’t all about him.

Sometimes people want to ignore the elephant in the room. Sometimes they’re stubborn, or in denial, about obvious truths. Especially when one person seems to leave you wildly flustered, and possibly overreacting.

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Wilson-related or not, the Rangers sacrificed skill for grit before the 2021-22 season. Maybe losing Pavel Buchnevich will make sense in the long run. But next season? It sure feels like a painful subtraction, and maybe even an unforced error.

When the Lightning traded for Barclay Goodrow, it was part of a series of moves to go over the top. That was already a stacked team, one that forged a historic regular season. The Rangers, meanwhile, haven’t truly made the playoffs since 2016-17.

(No, you should not count getting squashed like a bug during the 2019-20 Qualifying Round.)

So, was this team already skilled enough to focus so much on sandpaper? It seems dubious. Then again, Gerard Gallant worked wonders in Vegas, and sometimes that team got a bit fixated on ferocity.

What’s the salary cap situation?

Even during a genuine rebuild, the Rangers weren’t shy to spend big money on big names. They’re still the Rangers, after all.

Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba combine for about $19.6M in cap hits through 2025-26. Maybe the Rangers should have traded Chris Kreider. Instead, they kept him on a deal that could get scary ($6.5M AAV through 2026-27). Igor Shesterkin could end up being better than a $5.67M goalie. With just 47 games of NHL experience, Shesterkin still counts as a leap of faith.

That’s already a lot of money for a team that hasn’t delivered yet. And things could get even more expensive for the Rangers after the 2021-22 season. (Or there could be some agonizing losses.)

Ryan Strome ($4.5M) and most importantly, Mika Zibanejad ($5.35M) are both 28-year-old centers entering contract years. Two different players, sure, but both present the Rangers with riddles to solve.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Adam Fox was already surging toward a big payday. He’s 23, a right-handed defenseman, and just won a Norris Trophy. Mix in a sometimes-outrageous offseason of spending on defensemen, and ominous music plays for the Rangers’ salary cap. Fox merely being an RFA gives the Rangers a key advantage, but Cale Makar‘s $9M seems like a reasonable placeholder. If maybe an optimistic one.

Fox isn’t the only young player the Rangers need to leave room for.

Kaapo Kakko enters a contract year, while Alexis Lafreniere has two years left on his rookie contract.

Overall, the Rangers need to get the balance right. If they sign both assuming too much growth, they could get burned. If they wait too long, Kakko and Lafreniere could drive up their value. There are worse problems to have, but these are challenges nonetheless.

The Rangers approach the tougher stages of a rebuild. Will they turn young prospects into stars, ideally on team-friendly contracts? Can they support that young talent with savvy additions? Chris Drury has his work cut out for him.

Breakout Candidate

• Kakko/Lafreniere

All but the most patient observers would admit that there have been some disappointments with both prospects so far.

In the cases of both Kakko and Lafreniere, they were hyped as very NHL-ready prospects. Instead, each player has struggled with immediate jumps to the big time.

Those stumbles aren’t the end of the world. Thanks to having two seasons in the NHL, Kakko serves as the best reminder to be patient.

Consider his Evolving Hockey Player Card from 2019-20, which was concerning even with caveats for young players:

Kakko Evo Player Card 2019-20 New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
via Evolving Hockey

Yikes, right? Then, in 2020-21, Kakko looked like a player who could really gain steam.

Kakko player card Evo New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
via Evolving Hockey

Frankly, if I were running the Rangers, I’d be tempted to extent Kakko before he surges to another level. (If he’d listen to offers right now, of course.)

With some prospects, people picture too much growth. They assume a 25-year-old player has more runway than maybe they actually do. But Kakko (20) and Lafreniere (19) are both indeed in the age ranges where players can take big leaps.

Don’t be surprised if both do so. Maybe the Rangers are assuming too much, but betting in young players is better than hoping aging veterans can hold on.

Bonus points if other young players come through for the Rangers in 2021-22, too. Ideally, Vitali Kravstov isn’t just learning from Ryan Reaves …

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Rangers

Gallant represents a huge coaching upgrade. Panarin – Zibanejad tear it up, and stay healthy. Their defense improves, and Shesterkin cleans up the rest. Kakko, Lafreniere, and others flourish. The Rangers become dangerous, and in a hurry.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Rangers

That fixation on feistiness leaves the Rangers with more fights and hits, but the same middling standings results. Kakko and Lafreniere stagnate. Gallant’s system can’t overcome limitations on defense beyond Fox and a few others. Things fall apart, and management takes all the wrong lessons from that collapse.

PointsbetNew York Rangers’ Stanley Cup odds

+2200 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.