The Rangers enter the new season with a new coach, a fresh approach, a slew of new faces and a collection of youngsters looking to take the next step.
Injuries to former captain Ryan McDonagh, Chris Kreider and Kevin Shattenkirk curtailed the chances of last year’s Blueshirts making the playoffs. The franchise soon turned to a future-minded overhaul, as McDonagh, Rick Nash, J.T. Miller, Nick Holden and Michael Grabner were traded away for players and picks designed to aid the youth movement.
Veteran-leaning head coach Alain Vigneault was fired at season’s end. His replacement, David Quinn, offers a clean slate for talented youngsters to prove themselves. His development of current NHL stars Jack Eichel, Clayton Keller and Charlie McAvoy at Boston University offers fans hope that he can summon the best out of Pavel Buchnevich, Filip Chytil, Tony DeAngelo and company.
Now that the reset button has been pressed, Quinn isn’t under the win-now pressure that Vigneault and John Tortorella faced. While the Rangers, who open their season at home Thursday against Nashville, aren’t ruling out playoff contention, organizational goals are geared toward long-term gains.
Expect Quinn’s Rangers to be faster at moving the puck up ice and to play with more of an in-your-face edge. Quinn described his leanings in an open letter to fans following his hiring:
“We want to be in the opposition's faces and make them uncomfortable every shift,” he said. “We want them to know when they see the Rangers on the schedule, it's going to be a long night. We're going to be a team that's built around defense, and not only in our own zone. We're going to play with the puck, and the minute we don't have it, we're going to work to get it back. Whether in our zone, their zone or the neutral zone, our job is to make things as difficult as they can be for the 20 guys in the other uniform.”
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Quinn will look to remold a Rangers team that was too passive and lax when defending their own net during Vigneault’s final seasons in charge.
Those who covered Quinn at the collegiate level describe him as a relationship builder who desires up-tempo, puck-possession hockey and his team playing with attitude and purpose. There are going to be growing pains, especially when young players learn a new system, but the Rangers are being rebuilt in Quinn’s image.
Veteran defenseman Adam McQuaid was acquired from the Boston Bruins to add experience to a youth-trending Rangers blue line. McQuaid earned a reputation in Boston as a dependable, team-first defenseman who keeps it simple, uses his strength advantage to win his share of battles and willingly drops the gloves in defense of any teammate.
It’s important to remember that McQuaid will turn 32 on Oct. 12 and he was deemed expendable by the Bruins. He’s logged a lot of hard miles through his aggressive style of play, and defensemen of that nature over the age of 30 tend to struggle to keep up.
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The Rangers plan to play McQuaid in a top-six role. We’ll soon find out if he can stay ahead of Father Time and handle heavy workloads.
Brett Howden beat out the competition to earn the fourth-line center role. He recorded impressive numbers for the Moose Jaw Warriors of the WHL. The demands of the NHL and its blistering fast pace is a challenge to any youngster, but Quinn is patient with youth and the 20-year-old will be given a fair chance to prove himself.
Fredrik Claesson made the 23-man opening night roster after agreeing to a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Blueshirts. The left-handed defenseman can play either side and will likely start the season as a spare defenseman.
Brendan Smith has a fresh opportunity to re-establish himself at the NHL level after a disappointing season that saw him relegated to AHL Hartford for 11 games last season. Rangers fans hope that Smith will get back to the level that earned him a four-year contract in the summer of 2017.
With injuries behind him, it’s very possible that Shattenkirk returns to the point-getting, power-play dominant force that he has been throughout his career. A torn meniscus in his left knee played havoc with his first season on Broadway, but a healthy Shattenkirk is All-Star caliber.
DeAngelo struggled with consistency and failed to produce in even-strength situations in his first year at the Garden. We’ll see if Quinn can unlock the talented 22-year-old’s full potential. DeAngelo possesses explosive speed and the qualities to be a difference-maker on the power play. He will turn 23 on Oct. 24, and time is running out for him to prove his worth.
Vladislav Namestnikov recorded four points in 19 games after being acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2018 trade deadline. He’s clearly a more productive forward than this small, underwhelming sample suggests.
2018-19 SEASON PREDICTION
After finishing the 2017-18 season in the Metropolitan Division cellar, this season is all about forward strides. The Metro is a deep and challenging division. This will be a learning year for the Rangers under their new coach. It’s about finding out which pieces fit with Quinn, which players will be a part of the long-term core and gearing up to be buyers in the 2019 offseason.
ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Penguins, 2. Capitals, 3. Flyers, 4. Blue Jackets, 5. Hurricanes, 6. Devils, 7. Rangers, 8. Islanders
HART TROPHY WINNER: Auston Matthews, Maple Leafs
STANLEY CUP PREDICTION: Lightning over Sharks