The New York Rangers – Will they Finally be Playoff Contenders?

The New York Rangers entered this season as the youngest team in the National Hockey League with an average age of 25.6 years old. But do they have what it takes to make it to the Stanley Cup? The Rangers are one of the most well-known and respected organizations, not only in the NHL but also in all U.S. sports. With that, comes an expectation to perform.

The Rangers have not been to the Stanley Cup quarterfinals since 2017, which is unacceptable in the eyes of New Yorkers. The Rangers clinched their third Presidents Trophy and eighth division title in the 2014-15 season. Since then, the Rangers have not been able to perform and even released a letter to fans from President Glen Sather and General Manager Jeff Gorton announcing a full-fledged rebuild was in process as of February 2018. The letter asks fans to be patient through the process, Our promise to you is that our plans will be guided by our singular commitment: ensuring we are building the foundation for our next Stanley Cup contender”.

Following that letter, the New York Rangers were making trades left and right, even some that didn’t quite make sense to fans such as trading fan favorite and captain Ryan McDonagh to the Tampa Bay Lightning. As the 2018 trade deadline approached, the Rangers went crazy and dealt several of their roster players in return for prospects and draft picks, looking to take the team in a new direction. And like the letter warned, they would in fact “lose some familiar faces, guys we all care about and respect. While this is part of the game, it’s never easy”. In the following weeks, they would trade away many fan favorites such as Rick Nash, Mats Zuccarello, and Kevin Hayes.

The team began prioritizing young players in hopes of developing them in the coming seasons. That also meant firing head coach Alain Vigneault and assistant Scott Arniel, who were more suited for veteran players, not the new direction the team was headed. In May 2018, David Quinn was hired as the new head coach. He was the head coach at Boston University and has experience in developing young players, exactly what the Rangers were looking for. While he didn’t have any experience in the NHL before, The Rangers were confident he would help take them to where they wanted to go.

The Rangers started making big moves in the offseason by adding top NHL forward and free agent Artemi Panarin to the roster. The most sought-after free agent had one team in mind, and it was the Rangers. Signed to a seven-year, $81.5 million contract, Panarin was sure to help the Rangers get back into the playoffs. Along with the singing of elite defenseman Jacob Trouba to a seven-year $56 million contract, the expectations for the New York Rangers entering that season was high.

The NHL draft operates like no other. It has a very unique style but one that has been working in the Rangers’ favor these past few years. Each of the 15 teams that missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs gets to participate in the lottery ball drawing that determines the order of the first 15 draft picks. The first drawing determines the first overall selection, the second drawing determines the second overall selection, and the third drawing determines the third overall selection. The remaining 12 teams will be assigned selections 4-15 based on inverse order of regular-season points.

The Rangers have been lucky enough to snag the second overall pick in 2019 and the first overall pick in the 2020 draft, perfect timing to secure young players to aid in the rebuild. In 2019, the Rangers drafted top-ranked European player Kappo Kakko, who signed a three-year entry-level contract at age 18. As big and physical as Kakko is, he was poised to make a huge impact on the Rangers and in the NHL. However, Kakko’s rookie season in the NHL did not live up to the expectations. His stats and overall performance proved he was not ready for the NHL.

Kakko’s second season has been more successful. As his confidence improves and the intense expectations to perform as a top draft pick lightens, Kakko seems more at ease out on the ice. “I think I’m getting so much better than last season,” Kakko told The New York Post, “Not that many points of course…but I think my game is getting much better.” His plus-minus from last season (minus-26) to this season (plus-four) is a clear indicator that progress is being made, just not at the speed some people were expecting.

In the 2020, NHL draft lottery the Rangers got even luckier by securing the No. 1 overall draft pick. Just five days short of his 19th birthday, the team selected Canadian forward Alexis Lafrenière. Lafrenière is one of the most accomplished number one picks with two Canadian Hockey League MVPs and an IIHF World Junior Championship MVP under his belt.

Like Kakko, Lafrenière did not have a spectacular rookie season, but despite his lack of points he shows promise and doesn’t look lost out on the ice which was more than people could say about Kakko last season. The expectation that top-round draft picks will easily transition to the NHL and become star-studded rookies is unrealistic. Developing players as young as 18 years old might take a few years to adjust. Kakko and Lafrenière are far from being NHL busts.

The Metropolitan Division has always been ultra competitive. With top players such as Alex Ovechkin on the Washington Capitals and Sydney Crosby on the Pittsburg Penguins, the fight to the top of the division has always been a battle. Especially this season with the redesigned divisions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Rangers became part of the East Division, which included former Metropolitan division teams, the Capitals, Flyers, Penguins, Devils, Islanders, and new division teams, the Bruins and Sabers. According to The Score, this has arguably become the most difficult division to be a part of since it is home to five of the NHL’s top 11 teams from a season ago, and one of those clubs is guaranteed to miss the playoffs this season.

While the fight for a playoff spot didn’t work out too well for the New York Rangers this season, it was an entertaining fight until the end. Yet finishing nine points behind the Islanders and one spot out of playoff contention, Ranger’s owner John Dolan was not happy. With hopes so high surrounding the start of the season, missing the playoffs was unacceptable. The Rangers didn’t wait long to take action, firing President Glen Sather and General Manager Jeff Gorton. The goal is to win a Stanley Cup and things were not moving fast enough for Dolan. The rebuild, now more than three years ago has finally been said to be over and Chris Drury the new Rangers interim President and General Manager has one goal in mind and that is to bring a Cup to MSG. Dolan talked about the need for a culture change in management and has continued to do so as of today when the Rangers head coach who showed so much promise, David Quinn and most of the assistants have also been released of their duties. It will be interesting to see who Drury has in mind to help take this team all the way.

The Rangers have always had a loyal fan base, but it goes without saying, times have been frustrating for New Yorkers. What fans did not expect this season was Dolan to clear house and replace not only behind the bench but top front office positions as well. Most people saw the firing of head coach Quinn coming but what was a total surprise to fans was the firing of Rangers President and General Manager. Most fans are surprised and shocked and a little unsure why it all happened as it did but nonetheless optimistic and eager to see where what direction the Rangers take for the coming season.

While it wasn’t the season people hoped for, Trouba speaks to the media about the obstacles they faced along the way, “I thought as a team we went through a lot of adversity, but I thought we bonded pretty well and made it through all of the stuff we went through. At the end of the year, we were right there playing for a spot.” Going forward, it might help for the Rangers to finally name a captain. Whether it is Chris Kreider or Mika Zibanejad, someone needs to step up. The Rangers have been captain less since the 2017-18 season and could benefit from some leadership both on and off the ice.

The Rangers also need more size and toughness if they want to stay competitive in this division. That was a lesson the Rangers learned the hard way during the Tom Wilson incidents that took place last week. Six fights broke out in the first five minutes of the game and the Rangers clearly lost all of them. While the situation was more about standing up for a teammate, it was still embarrassing to watch as all the Rangers players were clearly beaten down without a fighting chance.

As of now, the Rangers are still very green. Young talent takes time to develop, and this season had a lot of new players stepping into roles and positions they’ve never been in before. Despite what seemed like never-ending off-ice drama, the entire year was a learning experience for many. Ranger fans have been patient thus far and just need to hold on for a little while longer as there are high hopes for the coming season. “The message has been sent and received,” forward Ryan Strome told USA TODAY “We’ve just got to get into the playoffs.”