Rangers season preview: Shesterkin, Kakko, Lafreniere boost playoff hopes

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The 2020-21 NHL season is scheduled to begin Jan. 13. With training camps opening this week, NHL.com is taking a look at the three keys, the inside scoop on roster questions, and the projected lines for each of the 31 teams. Today, the New York Rangers, who will play in the East Division.

 

Coach: David Quinn (third season) 

Last season: 37-28-5; (.564 points percentage); 11th place in Eastern Conference, lost to Carolina Hurricanes in Stanley Cup Qualifiers

 

3 KEYS

1. Youth movement

The Rangers will be looking for impact contributions from young players, most notably right wing Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, and left wing Alexis Lafreniere, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. Each is 19 and will likely play in the top-nine forward group. The Rangers could have at least nine skaters who are 23 or younger in the lineup when they start the season against the New York Islanders at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 14.

 

2. Changing of the guard in goal

Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev will be the top two goalies with Keith Kinkaid as the likely No. 3. It’s the first time since 2005 that New York won’t start a season with Henrik Lundqvist as its No. 1 goalie. The Rangers, who bought out the last season of Lundqvist’s contract, loved what they saw from Shesterkin in a 12-game sample size last season. The goalie, who turned 25 on Wednesday, was 10-2-0 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. Georgiev (17-14-2, 3.04 GAA, .913 save percentage) should push Shesterkin for playing time.

 

3. Panarin and Zibanejad, take two

The Rangers had one of the best 1-2 scoring punches in the NHL last season with left wing Artemi Panarin (95 points; 32 goals, 63 assists) and center Mika Zibanejad (75 points; 41 goals, 34 assists). Only the Edmonton Oilers (Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, 207 points) and Boston Bruins (David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, 182 points) had two teammates combine for more points than Panarin and Zibanejad. Panarin was third in the NHL in points per game at 1.38; Zibanejad was eighth at 1.32. Is it asking too much for them do it again?

Video: 31 in 31: New York Rangers 2020-21 season preview

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Making the cut

Fourth-line center looks to be decided in a training camp battle between Brett Howden, Kevin Rooney and rookie Morgan Barron. One could move to the wing. 

The third defense pair and extra defenseman are in flux. Libor Hajek should have the inside track to win one of those jobs. Rookies K’Andre Miller and Tarmo Reunanen could push for roster spots with strong training camps. The Rangers also have veteran defensemen Brendan Smith, Jack Johnson and Anthony Bitetto.

 

Most intriguing addition

It doesn’t get much more intriguing than the No. 1 pick. Lafreniere has been training with several Rangers players, including left wing Chris Kreider, in Connecticut since November. He appears to have a bright future after dominating at the junior level but won’t be afforded the same lead-up entering his rookie season as previous top picks. There was no development camp or prospects tournaments, and now he gets a truncated training camp. The Rangers could shelter him early on by putting him on the third line behind Panarin and Kreider.

 

Biggest potential surprise

The Rangers are excited about Miller’s high-end upside and were impressed with how he handled himself and played during training camp in July before they went to Toronto to play in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. Miller wasn’t eligible to play in Toronto because he agreed to his entry-level contract March 16, after the NHL paused season due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, but he showed the Rangers enough that assistant general manager Chris Drury said he wouldn’t be surprised if the big rookie (6-foot-5, 210 pounds) was ready to make the roster and play a lot this season.

 

Ready to break through

Kakko scored 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists) in 66 games as a rookie last season. But Quinn was excited about Kakko’s development when the Rangers got back together in July, saying he was a different player and a different person. He thinks it was a prelude for what’s to come this season. Kakko, who turns 20 on Feb. 13, is penciled into a top-six role, potentially to play on the opposite wing as Panarin.

 

Fantasy sleeper

Kakko fell short of lofty fantasy expectations as a rookie but will now be available much later in drafts (average draft position: 163.3) ahead of a potential reclamation season. Even with Lafreniere on the Rangers, fantasy managers should not sleep on Kakko, who has a realistic chance to play on the opposite wing of Panarin on the second line after the departure of right wing Jesper Fast (signed with Carolina Hurricanes) in free agency. — Pete Jensen

Video: LAK@NYR: Kakko finishes slick pass in close

 

Projected lineup 

Chris Kreider — Mika Zibanejad — Pavel Buchnevich

Artemi Panarin — Ryan Strome — Kaapo Kakko

Alexis Lafreniere — Filip ChytilJulien Gauthier

Brendan Lemieux — Morgan Barron — Brett Howden

Tony DeAngeloJacob Trouba

Ryan LindgrenAdam Fox

Libor Hajek — Brendan Smith

Igor Shesterkin

Alexandar Georgiev

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