In order to create a championship around the cadre of talented young men the Rangers have painstakingly assembled since embarking on their rebuild program 20 months ago, the team is going to require more than a paper-mache foundation.
The responsibility in forming a sturdy base for contention falls to the veterans, a group that club president John Davidson fairly extolled after the Blueshirts went through their medicals during Thursday’s opening of training camp.
“You kind of want to take the guys’ temperature. And when you talk to people like Chris Kreider — Chris stopped into my office this morning — you can tell there’s tremendous excitement here,” Davidson said. “I think the veteran players like the fact we have a lot of good young players coming in and they like the fact that we went out and got two real good players [in Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba].
“I think everybody is excited. Everybody is optimistic.”
There is reason to be excited and optimistic about the long-term prospects for the organization. It has been a very long time since the Rangers have had a freshman capable of making the kind of immediate impact as second-overall pick Kaapo Kakko, and they could present a group of upper-echelon kids such as Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, Filip Chytil and Adam Fox. The additions of Panarin via free agency and Trouba via trade will elevate the team’s top-end talent level. Neither is here under a win-now mandate.
Neither, for that matter, are Davidson; general manager Jeff Gorton, who has engineered a stunning transformation of the organizational depth chart; nor coach David Quinn. That said, the goal is to make the playoffs. That in fact is exactly what Davidson said. It won’t be easy, but it is not farfetched to believe that the Rangers could be at least some sort of factor in the race into the trade deadline if all goes well. That would include receiving consistently superior goaltending from the Henrik Lundqvist-Alex Georgiev-Igor Shesterkin conglomerate.
Again, though, if the Rangers are going to be substantially more than they were after Thanksgiving last season (20-28-12), the team is going to need leadership and production from its veterans. That is a group that includes Lundqvist, Mika Zibanejad, Kreider, Marc Staal, Jesper Fast, Ryan Strome and Vlad Namestnikov.
But guess what? Kreider, Fast, Strome and Namestnikov are all pending unrestricted free agents, and given the organization’s MO the past two seasons, will inevitably become trade fodder exchanged for futures at the deadline. The sell-off two years ago developed rather suddenly, the rebuild strategy devised only about a month ahead of the purge of vets, but last year’s was slow-tracked for months.
A year ago, it didn’t matter how well Kevin Hayes played on the final year of his deal. It didn’t matter that Hayes was the best Ranger for the season’s first four months. There was never an attempt to lock him down long term, never a deviation from the internal plan to move No. 13 at the deadline. Hayes went to Winnipeg for a first-rounder and Brendan Lemieux.
The same held true in the approach to Mats Zuccarello, who was almost catatonic the first three-plus months of the season because of his circumstance before putting together perhaps the best six weeks of his career leading into the deadline. His improved play did not create second thoughts in the front office. What it did was allow the Rangers to get more in return for No. 36 — a second and third from Dallas — than would have been possible a month earlier.
Now, there are four in the core that seem destined to be elsewhere by March. And it is not as much about how Kreider handles his situation, or how Fast, the club’s Players’ Player in a vote of his teammates three times running, handles the situation, or how Strome or Namestnikov handles it.
It is how the team responds if, for the second straight season, management is committed to trading pending free agents regardless of their contributions and impact on and off the ice. That would not seem conducive to promoting/maintaining a positive atmosphere within the room, no matter the excitement and optimism of September. Chatter about trades will inevitably dominate the conversation once the calendar flips to 2020, if not before.
The Rangers have swept out most of the old and are beginning again with so much new. But it can’t all be new, all the time. If the Blueshirts are going to build, the foundation must be strong.
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