Welcome back to the latest entry in THN.com’s ‘Three Important Questions’ series. In this feature, we ask three big questions for every NHL team ahead of the start of the 2022-23 regular season. In this dossier, we ask three important questions about the New York Rangers.
Three burning questions for Rangers in 2022-23:
1. What can the Rangers do to ease the burden of star goalkeeper Igor Shesterkin? No goalkeeper did more for his team in the regular season last year than Shesterkin, who took home the first Vezina Cup as the best goalkeeper of the match. The 26-year-old Russian stole several games for the Blues in 2021-22, often overcoming a lackluster defensive scheme to propel Rangers into the often winning column. However, Rangers GM Chris Drury opted for a different look for the Shesterkin backup – parting ways with Alexandar Georgiev, and instead going with veteran Jaroslav Halak.
Shesterkin played 53 games last season, but the Rangers will likely require Halak to play 30-35 games to keep Shesterkin in top shape when the playoffs begin. Hulk has played no more than 19 games since the 2019-20 season, when he played 31 games for the Boston Bruins. But if he stays healthy, he’ll be a more dependable option than Georgiev (now the starting goalkeeper for Stanley Cup champions, Colorado Avalanches). Regardless, Chesterkin’s play will likely determine how far the Rangers go in the regular seasons and beyond once again. Their challenge, both in terms of attack and in terms of defensive corps, is to make Shesterkin’s life easier.
2. Can the Blues’ young strikers develop into frontline contributors? Rangers netted an impressive 52 goals from first-line winger Chris Kreider, and highest-paid winger Artemi Panarin once again halted the end of the deal with a 96-point season. However, Rangers’ future depends in large part on the progression of a slew of young strikers, including 22-year-old winger Vitaly Kravtsov, 20-year-old winger Alexis Lavrinier and 21-year-old winger Kabu Kaku. 23-year-old striker Philippe Shettel. Cap Friendly plans the last three to form the Rangers’ third line of attackers, while Kravtsov is expected to skate the second line along with Panarin and the free acquisition of Vincent Trochek.
Lafreniere has shown the most development at this point, scoring 19 goals and 31 points in the 2021-22 season, his second season in the NHL. Both Chytil and Kakko’s production were at attack level, with Chytil averaging only 13:10 ice time, and Kakko averaging 15:26. To take some of the pressure off the veteran point producers, Junior Rangers need to step up and develop their games this year. Three of the aforementioned four players will be restricted from free agents next summer, and Kakko is set to be an agent for RFA in 2024. They are motivated to earn bigger paydays in short order, but Drury won’t hand out long-term deals if he doesn’t see any improvement in their production.
That’s not to say it’s a hit or a break season for Kakko, Lafreniere, Chytil or Kravtsov, the latter who has just 20 games (all in the 2020-21 campaign) of NHL experience to his name. However, Drury and coach Gerard Gallant are clearly interested in winning now, which means there is a lot of pressure on the kids to deal with more of the burden on attack.
3. Do the Rangers have an elite defense corps, or is there still work to be done? Yes, the Rangers have a legitimate all-star D-man in former Norris Award winner Adam Fox. And yes, they also have above-average strikers in new captain Jacob Tropa, third year NHLer K’Andre Miller, and 24-year-old defender Ryan Lindgren. But there is a major dip in their recent defensive confrontation between 24-year-old Lebor Hayek and 21-year-old Braden Schneider, who met in just 60 matches last year.
Drury has just over $1 million in space to provide depth at the back end, but he also has cap issues in the 2023-24 campaign, with $18.3 million in space, and only 11 players on contract. That means they need Hag, Schneider, and 21-year-old Zachary Jones to give them a good time, as well as continuous improvement from 24-year-old Fox, 22-year-old Miller and 24-year-old Lindgren.
Otherwise, they’ll lean too much on Shesterkin to save them from matches, and no Rangers fan will want to see Shesterkin overworked and heading into the post-season. Galant will try to keep the Manhattan dressing room relaxed, but there is no hiding the fact that the Rangers will need better years than many young players, and the defense team needs to step up efforts.