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.

NHL Power Rankings: Stanley Cup contender tiers as 2021-22 season begins

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we take a preseason look at the top Stanley Cup contenders for the 2021-22 season.

We put all 32 teams into different tiers based on what the level of expectation should be for this season.

Where does your team sit at the start of the season?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

The Top Contenders

1. Tampa Bay Lightning. They lost a lot this offseason but they still have the same core in place. And that core has been the best team in the league for the past seven years and has won back-to-back Stanley Cups. You can not count them out from winning a third in a row.

2. Colorado Avalanche. Perhaps the most talented team in the NHL on paper. They have to break through the Second Round, but if they stick with it and trust the talent they will get there. Talent eventually wins.

3. Vegas Golden Knights. The big question will be center depth and if Robin Lehner plays at a Stanley Cup level all season as the No. 1 goalie. Great team with huge expectations and a ton of pressure.

4. Carolina Hurricanes. Losing Dougie Hamilton hurts and they have some questions in goal but they should absolutely be one of the best teams in the league. Their time has arrived.

5. New York Islanders. Here is how this is going to go: They will win 10 games in a row at some point, probably as part of a 15-or 16-game point streak, stumble along for the rest of the season, everybody will question how good they actually are, and then they will shut everybody down in the playoffs and be playing in the Eastern Conference Final. Just accept it.

It is possible if some things go right

6. Florida Panthers. This might be the first time this team has entered the season with real expectations. The game-changer here could be Spencer Knight. If he overtakes Sergei Bobrovsky and plays to his potential, this team will be tough to beat.

7. Boston Bruins. The goalies are a question right now (maybe Tuukka Rask comes back?) and the second-line center spot is a concern, but that top line and Charlie McAvoy will take them far.

8. Toronto Maple Leafs. They should be in this tier. Whether or not they do anything to validate that preseason belief remains to be seen. At some point they have to actually, you know, do something.

9. Minnesota Wild. They have some questions at center, but Marco Rossi could be a game-changer there. They were one of the most exciting teams in the league last year. That is a sentence that has never been said about the Minnesota Wild.

10. St. Louis Blues. A lot of this depends on if the good version of Jordan Binnington makes an appearance and if the defense is a little better.

11. Washington Capitals. A lot of this depends on if Evgeny Kuznetsov and Ilya Samsonov bounce back. Not going to bet against them or this core making one more run.

12. Pittsburgh Penguins. They need Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to be healthy come playoff time and for Tristan Jarry to not self destruct. But like the Capitals, am not going to bet against this core making one more run.

13. Dallas Stars. With a healthy Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov they make the playoffs a year ago. They should both be healthy this season.

14. Winnipeg Jets. They gave one of the best goalies in the league a little more help defensively. Combined with their top line forwards this could be an interesting team.

The complete wild cards

15. Philadelphia Flyers. If Carter Hart is good this team will be very tough to beat. If Carter Hart is not good this team will struggle again.

16. New York Rangers. You will hear a lot about their offseason moves but the deciding factor in this team will be the progress and development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterin. The pressure is on. But the upside is immense.

17. Edmonton Oilers. With Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in their primes and as good as they are they should be in the top tier. But the rest of the team is, quite honestly, not great. That defense and goaltending are problems.

18. Calgary Flames. They are not contenders, they are not a clear lottery team. They just exist in a perpetual state of mediocrity.

The mystery teams

19. Seattle Kraken. They should have good goaltending and play in a weak division. Those two things should keep them in it.

20. Chicago Blackhawks. They spent a ton of money this offseason and are getting Jonathan Toews back, but nearly every addition carries some risk and the team itself is still not that great on paper.

21. Montreal Canadiens. They lost a lot from last year’s team, Shea Weber is not going to play, and Carey Price‘s situation is unknown. They also do not get to play in the North Division.

22. New Jersey Devils. They made all of the right moves this offseason and Jack Hughes is ready to become a superstar but they play in the wrong division to make a big jump.

23. Vancouver Canucks. They have a great young core of talent, but can their defensive play be trusted? Or their depth? Feels like a team that should be better.

24. Los Angeles Kings. Do not count them out as a potential playoff team. Great center depth and a weak division could help them arrive a year early.

Likely lottery teams

25. Nashville Predators. They will go as far as Juuse Saros can take them. Losing Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson from an already flawed team is not going to help.

26. Ottawa Senators. The only concern right now is getting the Brady Tkachuk contract situation resolved. There is talent here, but can you trust ownership to take advantage of it and build something? Probably not.

27. Detroit Red Wings. Losing Jakub Vrana for more than half of the season is a loss they could not afford.

28. San Jose Sharks. An aging core, some bad contracts, the Evander Kane situation, and questionable goaltending is going to make for a long season.

29. Anaheim Ducks. The good news is Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale might be real long-term building blocks to offer some real hope for the future.

30. Columbus Blue Jackets. On paper they look like the worst team in a tough Metropolitan Division. Elvis Merzlikins might be able to keep them competitive on most nights, and Patrik Laine could bounce back, but there are a lot of questions here.

31. Arizona Coyotes. They are clearly building for the future and trying to stockpile as many draft picks and future assets as they can. This will not be a good team this season.

32. Buffalo Sabres. These fans deserve better than this lousy product being thrown at them every year.

NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines for 2021-22 NHL season (Part 2)

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we continue counting down the 30 biggest storylines to watch across the league for the 2021-22 season.

We are looking at 10 storylines each Monday until the start of the season. We continue today with storylines 20-11, including looks at the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, the top rookies, pending free agents, the salary cap, and new Stanley Cup contenders.

[You can read Part 1 here]

What stories make the list this week?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

20. The Philadelphia Flyers offseason. Now this is the type of offseason you expect from the Flyers. Big moves! Bold moves! Maybe even crazy moves! The trades for Ryan Ellis and Cam Atkinson have the potential to be huge additions, but the Rasmus Ristolainen trade is a little difficult to figure. Do they think they can turn his career around? Of course, all of these moves will be rendered pointless if Carter Hart does not play better in goal this season.

19. What do the Montreal Canadiens do for a repeat? The Canadiens shocked the NHL by making a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final. Carey Price found the fountain of youth and helped lead them to upsets over Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vegas before running into the Tampa Bay Lightning buzzsaw.

They are bringing back a very different roster, however. Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are gone, Tomas Tatar left in free agency, Shea Weber will not play this season, while Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, and David Savard join the team. They are also getting Jonathan Drouin back after he missed most of the 2020-21 season and all of the playoffs. They also have potential breakout seasons for Nick Suzuki and Cole Caulfield to look forward to. But is this roster good enough to even get back in the playoffs in a tough division?

18. The salary cap situation in the NHL. We are still looking at a situation in the league where salary cap increases are going to be minimal in the coming years. There are obvious ramifications for contending teams close to the cap and with pending free agents to sign. It could also make more players available in trades and allow teams with excess salary cap space to utilize that in trades.

17. Potential unrestricted free agents. A lot of significant players are entering the final year of their contracts this season with Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alexander Barkov, Filip Forsberg, Tomas Hertl, John Klingberg, Johnny Gaudreau, Morgan Rielly, Ryan Pulock, Patrice Bergeron, Claude Giroux, Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Marc-Andre Fleury, Darcy Kuemper, and Mika Zibanejad leading the way. Many of those players will re-sign with their current teams. Some might even retire (Fleury? Bergeron?). But there are a few players that they could end up changing teams, including Forsberg, Hertl, Gaudreau, and maybe even Rielly.

16. The rookie of the year race. Always one of the more intriguing individual award races because it highlights new stars coming into the league. This year’s favorites have to include Caufield in Montreal, Spencer Knight in Florida, Moritz Seider in Detroit, Quinton Byfield in Los Angeles, and Vasili Podkolzin in Vancouver.

[NHL Power Rankings: Calder Trophy candidates for 2021-22 season]

15. Can Islanders break through to the Stanley Cup Final? It has been three decades since the New York Islanders played in a Cup Final, but they are getting closer every year. They just can not seem to get over the final hurdle that is the Lightning, having lost to them two years in a row in the Eastern Conference Final/Semifinal round. They are bringing back mostly the same roster, but will have a full season of Kyle Palmieri, a returning Anders Lee, and the offseason additions of Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara. Not to mention one of the league’s best coaches and a sensational goalie duo with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin.

Their regular season performances never look impressive. But they are probably one of the last teams you want to see in a best-of-seven series in the playoffs.

14. New York Rangers changes. The Rangers’ rebuild was not going fast enough for ownership, so a lot of changes were made this offseason in the front office, coaching staff, and even on the roster. Chris Drury takes over for Jeff Gorton in the GM chair, Gerard Gallant replaces David Quinn behind the bench, and the team attempted to get tougher this offseason by trading Pavel Buchnevich, while also acquiring Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth, and Barclay Goodrow. It is the Tom Wilson impact. The Rangers can say it is not all about Wilson all they want, but it is pretty clear that is what this is about. Is that the right step for a team that has a Hart Trophy candidate (Artemi Panarin), a Norris Trophy-winning defender (Adam Fox), and an impressive collection of young talent? We are about to find out.

In the end, though, the success or failure of this season will depend on the development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterkin. If that quartet becomes impact players, the Rangers will be very good. If they do not, the Rangers’ rebuild will remain stuck in neutral.

13. Panthers becoming a Cup contender. This might be the first time ever that the Florida Panthers are entering a season with real, championship level expectations. This is a really good roster with a couple of All-Stars at the top of it (Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau) coming off the best regular season in franchise history They also added Sam Reinhart to the mix this offseason. If Spencer Knight can take over the goaltending job and play to his potential this could be a sleeper Cup team.

12. Can Avalanche get through Second Round ceiling. On paper the Colorado Avalanche might have the best team in the NHL. They are loaded from top to bottom with a deep, talented group of forwards, an excellent defense with young stars, and a strong goalie with the offseason addition of Kuemper. They have been Cup contenders and favorites for a couple of years now. But they remain stuck in the Second Round, having lost their three years in a row.

When a team like this can’t get through a particular round, or can’t take that next step, it is easy to get frustrated and think that some kind of change needs to happen. We heard it constantly with the Washington Capitals and how they needed to change and who they needed to trade. We heard it all the time with the Lightning. Eventually talent breaks through and wins. The Avalanche have the talent to get there. They just need to be patient and stick with the process and talent they have. It is championship caliber, and still has its best days ahead of it.

11. Can the Oilers finally take advantage of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid and Draisaitl are the two best offensive players in the world. They are both league MVPs, winning the award in three of the past five seasons. Most teams will go decades, maybe even their entire existence to this point, without getting one player like this, let alone two of them together at the exact same time. You can not waste that luck. The Oilers are wasting it. Badly.

They made some significant changes this offseason with the additions of Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, Duncan Keith, and Cody Ceci. But even with that depth still looks suspect, as does this defense (largely due to the changes there with an aging Keith and Ceci replacing Ethan Bear and Adam Larsson), and they are counting on a 39-year-old Mike Smith to have another strong year when he has only had one good season in the past three seasons. Still a lot that can go wrong here, even with two megastars at the top of the lineup.

NHL Power Rankings: 2021-22 Calder Trophy candidates

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we are going to take a look at some of the top contenders for the NHL’s 2021-22 Calder Trophy as rookie of the year.

When we talk rookies here, we are not just necessarily talking first year players. We are looking at anybody that still has Calder eligibility.

A reminder, to be eligible for the Calder “a player cannot have played more than 25 games in any single preceding season, nor in six or more games in each of any two preceding seasons, in any major professional league.”

Normally the top pick in the draft (in this case Sabres defenseman Owen Power) would very much be in the discussion, but Power has decided to return to the University of Michigan for one more season. Even without him in the mix this has the look of an extremely strong rookie class.

Who all makes the initial list?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

1. Cole Caufield, Montreal Canadiens. We were able to get our first look at Caufield at the end of last season and throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs and he looks like he has a chance to be special. An electrifying talent with natural finishing ability, Caufield’s initial cup of coffee in the NHL as well as his talent level has to make him the leading 2022 Calder favorite. The development of him and Nick Suzuki will go a long way toward determining what the Canadiens’ long-term future looks like.

2. Spencer Knight, Florida Panthers. The NHL’s top goalie prospect, Knight figures to get significant playing time this season and will soon be the main guy in Florida’s crease. Playing behind what should be a playoff team and maybe a sneaky contender could really boost him in the race, especially if he builds on what he showed at the end of this past season.

3. Moritz Seider, Detroit Red Wings. It is amazing how quickly the perception of this pick has changed for the Red Wings. When they took Seider with the No. 6 overall pick in 2019 it was not a popular choice. But in just two years he has quickly developed into one of the top defense prospects in the league and is coming off an incredible 2020-21 season in Sweden.

4. Quinton Byfield, Los Angeles Kings. The Kings have the best farm system in hockey and Byfield is the best prospect in it. With Anze Kopitar and Phillip Danault leading the way, Byfield won’t have to take on a top role, so hopefully the Kings can get him into positions to succeed early on.

5. Vasili Podkolzin, Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks always seem to have a Calder candidate on their roster, from Brock Boeser, to Elias Pettersson, to Quinn Hughes, to Thatcher Demko, and now Podkolzin. They have patiently waited a couple of years for him to make his debut and he has the potential to be another core building block.

6. Trevor Zegras, Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks need something positive and a young cornerstone building block. Zegras and Jamie Drysdale (more on him in a minute) are the two best chances for that. He was great in the AHL last season and showed some really positive signs in his brief NHL action.

[Related: Every free agent signing by all 32 NHL teams]

7. Alex Newhook, Colorado Avalanche. The Avalanche roster is an embarrassment of riches, and it is almost unfair to have a prospect like Newhook ready to crack the lineup when they already have so many stars.

8. Marco Rossi, Minnesota Wild. Rossi’s entire 2020-21 season was wiped out due to some serious COVID-19 complications but he seems to be healthy now and should have a chance to make an impact for the Wild. The fact the Wild have major weaknesses at center and will be counting on young players to step forward the next few years should give him plenty of opportunity this season.

9. Bowen Byram, Colorado Avalanche. We just mentioned the embarrassment of riches the Avs have at forward with Newhook arriving, and the same thing is true on defense with the arrival of Byram. They selected him in 2019 with the No. 4 overall pick they received from Ottawa as a result of the Matt Duchene trade, and he is ready to join an already stacked defense that features Cale Makar, Sam Girard, and Devon Toews.

10. Vitali Kravtsov, New York Rangers. Kravtsov is one of the many young prospects that gives the Rangers such a promising future. He appeared in 20 games a year ago and now that he has some North American hockey experience under his belt should be poised to take a step forward.

11. Jamie Drysdale, Anaheim Ducks. One of the Ducks’ other key young building blocks, Drysdale just barely qualifies for Calder eligibility this season (he played in 24 games this past season; if he played in 25 he would not be eligible) but figures to play a big role for a Ducks team that has to at some point start looking toward the future.

12. Alex Nedeljkovic, Detroit Red Wings. Even though he finished in third place in the Calder voting last season with the Hurricanes he is still technically Calder eligible this season. But can he repeat his 2020-21 performance? Especially when playing behind a weaker team?

13. Jeremy Swayman, Boston Bruins. A lot of this could depend on what happens with Tuukka Rask. If Rask is back, Swayman’s role obviously gets dramatically reduced. But if Rask does not return the Bruins are going to rely on him along with Linus Ullmark to handle the goaltending spot. Swayman was very impressive a year ago when the Bruins needed him.

14. Connor McMichael, Washington Capitals. The Capitals have one of the oldest rosters in the league and at some point need to start working in some fresh talent. McMichael is their best hope for that in the short-term and he is a great prospect. He had a strong 2020-21 season in the AHL, but how much of a chance will he get to make an impact on a Cup contender?

15. Peyton Krebs, Vegas Golden Knights. Like McMichael in Washington, Krebs is an excellent prospect with a bright future but is going to struggle to get playing time on a stacked roster that is looking to win right now.