“This one will last a lifetime.”
Those turned out to be the prophetic words of longtime play-by-play broadcaster and Hall of Famer Sam Rosen, after the Rangers won the 1994 Stanley Cup and ended a 54-year drought in doing so.
The new drought will reach 30 years in 2024. Can these Rangers end this latest drought? Management thinks they can. After the Rangers’ season ended in an embarrassing seventh game, first round loss to the Devils last spring, GM Chris Drury made changes.
It wasn’t just the fact that a year after going all the way to the Conference finals, the Rangers run lasted all of seven games. It was the way they lost the 7th game and collapsed after taking a 2-0 series lead by winning both games on the road.
During the season, there were subtle signs that things were not right. Gallant had apparently lost the room and reportedly got into a shouting match with Drury during one of the playoff games which sealed his fate.
In comes Stanley Cup winning coach Peter Laviolette and a new coaching staff (goaltending coach Benoit Allaire was smartly retained) along with a new system to try to get the most out of this Rangers team, that on paper is loaded with talent.
The Rangers will open the 2023-2024 season tonight against an improved Buffalo Sabres team as they’ll look to get off to a better start than last season in year one of the Laviolette era. Last season, the Rangers struggled out of the gate and didn’t get their act together until December when they went on a seven game winning streak.
“This a long year and it’s a long progression,” Laviolette said. “Certainly we’d like to get off the mark well and we’d like to win games and get out front. That’s the goal.”
Laviolette runs a tighter ship than Gallant and he employs a more aggressive style which encourages defenseman to join the play. The consensus from the camp is that the Rangers are paying more attention to detail.
The players have taken notice and embraced it. Vincent Trocheck said, “I think last year, it was a little more laid back. I think we were maybe not as prepared as we should’ve been going into the first little bit of the season.”
The Rangers began last season with an 11-10-5 mark before that seven game winning streak got them going.
With defenseman having the freedom to be more aggressive, they will still need to be stout in transition because playing this way could lead to odd man rushes the other way. Adam Fox already plays an aggressive style but look for K’Andre Miller to take some big steps forward offensively.
Captain Jacob Trouba is anxious to get started.
“Up tempo. It’s been skating up and down the ice, kind of the structure that’s been implemented,” he said. “I think we’re ready to go. I think everybody in here has had enough practice, enough pre season games. We’re ready to get this thing rolling.”
Another difference is that the kid line is being broken up, with the idea to hopefully bring the best out in them.
Kappo Kakko will start on the right side of the top line, along with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. Kakko needs to finish his scoring chances. He has the ability to create chances, now he needs to bury the puck.
Filip Chytil will center the second line with Artemi Panarin and Alexis Lafreniere on right wing. Laviolette feels “Bread” and “Fil” can be a combination that clicks. “I think those two guys can be good together,” he said.
Chytil was hurt early in camp but he’s ready to go. The just turned 24-year old has shown flashes of being an elite player but injuries have curtailed his career so far. “Fil, to me, looks really good right now,” Laviolette said. “Just his size, his speed, his ability to make plays. There’s a lot to like about his game.”
Panarin’s play in the loss to the Devils has left some wondering if something is wrong. There were times last season when he was nearly invisible in some games so maybe playing with Chytil will help him to get back to his lofty standards.
“He [Panarin] can find me anywhere, so just be ready,” Chytil said. “Of course, I have to play my game as well and help him. You don’t play with these players every day, so it’s nice to be with him on the line. It’s going to be fun.”
There is pressure on Lafreniere, who is entering his fourth season, because he hasn’t lived up to his status of being a #1 overall pick. The thinking is that making this kid a top six forward may jump start his career and the Rangers could sure use that.
The Rangers added 37-year old veteran Blake Wheeler, who was a second team NHL All Star in 2017-2018, and rugged winger Will Cuylie made the team out of camp to add some size to the lineup. Laviolette compared Cuylie to tough guy Tom Wilson, who he had while he coached Washington. “He [Cuylie] can skate, he can hit, he can fight when needed, and he’s got good hands for scoring goals,” the new coach said.
The Rangers are blessed with one of the best goaltenders in the league in former Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin. The 27-year old took a step back from his Vezina winning season of 2021-2022 as he gave up a few more softies last season. Shesterkin is also looking to rebound from the playoff loss where he dropped four of the last five games.
Laviolette is leaving the defensive pairs intact. Fox, who will be an alternate captain and wear the “A” for the first time, and Ryan Lindgren, Trouba and Miller and Braden Schneider and Erik Gustafsson, who was signed as a free agent and will be playing his 8th NHL season with his 7th team. Those are the combinations but don’t be surprised if Laviolette mixes things up as he showed at times in the pre season.
The Rangers were a better team when they had the lead but they have enough firepower to come from behind. Last season, they should have been better than 6-15-4 in games where they trailed going into the third period and they were also 5-9 (1-5 at home) in one goal games.
The Rangers finished with 107 points last season, five behind the second place Devils and six behind first place Carolina in the tough Metropolitan Division. The missed points from those one goal games probably cost them a shot at the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.
A renewed rivalry with the Devils awaits while the Hurricanes are the other main competitor for the Rangers in the division. The Penguins, Flyers, Capitals, Blue Jackets and of course, the Islanders will still provide a tough test in divisional match ups.
The teams to be concerned with from the Atlantic Division include defending conference champion Florida, a team that is hungry and has the ability to get back to the Final. Tampa Bay is without their stud goalie, Andrew Vasilevsky for the first two months but they’re still dangerous. The Maple Leafs still have goaltending issues while the Bruins can be expected to come down from their record setting 135-point regular season that ended with a stunning, first round, 7-game upset by the Panthers after the “Bs” led three games to one.
Laviolette knows all about the grind of the 82-game season. “There’s no such thing as an easy two points anymore. You gotta fight for everything every night,” he said.
It starts for real tonight.
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