7 Thoughts from 7 Days: Kids to play a big role for the Rangers

alexis lafreniere

For all intents and purposes, the Rangers roster is set for the start of this season. The only major moves were trading Pavel Buchnevich and bringing in Barclay Goodrow. The Rangers, for the most part, will be trotting out the same lineup as last season, just with some lineup tweaks. Those tweaks will be getting the kids into bigger roles. For better or for worse, the kids will play a big role for the Rangers this season, and their success will hinge on their development and success.

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1. The obvious tweaks to the lineup is filling the hole(s) in the top six with Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko. Both will need to take big steps forward in terms of scoring production, as they will need to replace Buchnevich’s production in the aggregate. They should be up to the task, as both are tremendously talented. Kakko pulled a complete 180 last season and was one of the better defensive forwards in the league, which isn’t an easy accomplishment to pull off. Lafreniere, without the benefit of a camp or preseason, started looking like the #1 overall pick about halfway through the short season. Having both consistently play with the top six at even strength, given the expected lineup roles, will put them in a position to score at even strength. That’s just step one.

2. Step two, as mentioned a few times in other posts, is getting both some real powerplay time. David Quinn, whether you agree with the approach or not, relied heavily on PP1 during his tenure. That unit was mostly automatic before COVID shut everything down, but was not as efficient at putting the puck in the net last season. Part of the problem was the lack of a one-timer from the right circle, which is where likely Lafreniere comes to mind. The other piece is getting PP2 into a much more reliable unit, as they were nowhere near as effective as the top unit. The lack of true one-timer options carried over to this unit as well, but the lack of movement and creativity was a concern as well. A powerplay is easy to defend when they don’t move, and that is part of the learning process at the NHL level. PP2 will have Kakko, probably Vitali Kravtsov, and one or both of K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist. The Rangers’ kids are going to be put in key roles with the man advantage.

3. Speaking of Kravtsov, he is often lost in this conversation. Kakko and Lafreniere get the most attention, but it is Kravtsov who will likely split time in 2RW/3RW spot with Barclay Goodrow. His scoring expectations aren’t nearly as high, but he’s still a critical piece. His limited sample last year was promising, as he showed poise in the offensive and neutral zones, applying the right pressure on the forecheck. That bodes well for a Gerard Gallant system that is expected to be far more aggressive. If Kakko and Lafreniere are expected to replace Buchnevich in the aggregate, then Kravtsov will need to be a part of replacing Kakko and Lafreniere in the middle of the lineup. A strong rookie campaign and more progression from Filip Chytil will be a big piece of rounding out the lineup.

4. As for Chytil, assuming he is with the team for the full season, he will need to show that he is ready to fully take over the 2C duties from Ryan Strome. Like it or not, this is probably Strome’s final season in New York, be it by trade or by pricing himself out of New York as a free agent. Chytil is the easy replacement. His P/60 and puck possession metrics show he should be capable of producing if put into a more prominent role. It’s just a matter of being put in that situation and seeing what happens. Chytil will likely be a key cog in the success of PP2. This, along with expected roles for Kakko, Lafreniere, and Kravtsov, is a lot to put on four kids under the age of 23 years old, but all four have the skill set to succeed in these roles. The Rangers will live or die by their draft picks, which is what many wanted. Sometimes, you just need to hand them the reins and see how it goes.

5. Don’t discount the roles the kids will have on the Rangers blue line as well. Adam Fox is the clear 1D on this team, and that won’t change. His game isn’t likely to disappear either. Including Fox, the Rangers will trot out four defensemen at 23 years of age or younger. All four will likely have big roles as well. Fox, Lindgren, and Miller are expected to be in the top-four, with Lundkvist rounding out the bottom pair and likely the second powerplay unit. That’s likely 18 minutes or more a night for this quartet by the time the season is ending. Again, that is a lot of time for the kids. But, much like at forward, the Rangers will live and die by how their draft picks produce. That’s the purpose of the rebuild, and the Rangers are truly handing over the team to this core group of kids for the foreseeable future.

6. These eight kids represent the future of the team. As of today, it looks like the Rangers hit on all eight of these picks (Fox wasn’t a pick, I know). The jury is still out on what their ceilings are, and if they will hit them at the NHL level. It is hard to fault the Rangers for banking their future on these kids, as that’s the point of a rebuild after all. Lafreniere, Kakko, and Fox will handle the heavy lifting when it comes to expectations and production, but depth is what wins championships. In addition to the big contracts up front, it’s the cheaper middle of the lineup contracts, the Chytil’s, Kravtsov’s, and Miller’s of the world, that truly bring a team from playoff contender to Cup contender. The Rangers, right now, are playoff contenders. But if each player in this octet hits their ceiling, which is highly unlikely, this is a Cup contending team. They are likely a Cup contending team if only half of these guys hit their ceiling. The approach and shock of handing the reins to the kids may not have been the best, but this was always the direction the Rangers were going to take.

7. There are also kids waiting in the minors. The Rangers have Morgan Barron, who will likely be competing with Kevin Rooney for that 4C role this season. Lauri Pajuniemi is a dark horse for a spot in the bottom six as well. There’s Braden Schneider and Zac Jones on defense, where there is a considerable log jam. This quartet is likely your closest to NHL ready, at least for this season. They represent decent injury depth and, if needed, trade depth. I would expect at least three of these four to get a game at the NHL level this season, be it with the Rangers or another team. If you wanted dark horses to have key roles with the Rangers, I’d focus your money on these four. However that will depend on the injury bug and how the season plays out. The kids on the Rangers will have big roles this year, for better or for worse.