Blake Wheeler gets a look on the top line in the latest Rangers preseason lines

The Rangers will hit the ice for training camp and preseason in about a month or so. They still have to re-sign Alexis Lafreniere, something that will get done at some point, but for all intents and purposes, the Rangers are done this offseason. Everything was about addressing the bottom half of the roster, a major weakness the last two seasons. Chris Drury did not make a big splash, so the question that we are all asking is whether the 2023 offseason made the Rangers better.

It’s easy to look at the Devils and be wowed by what they did, and they deserve credit. They managed their cap well and locked up a bunch of important pieces to team friendly deals. When you take a step back, however, they only added Tyler Toffoli and Colin Miller. Everything else was just locking up guys they had already. And yes, they did a good job with the contracts and deserve credit for keeping things manageable. But to anoint them the winners of the offseason for getting two guys is a bit overboard, no?

The Metro Division is a slaughterhouse this year. The Devils and Hurricanes are favorites to go 1-2 in the division, with the Rangers coming in behind them. That’s basically how last season played out, with the Rangers finishing third with 107 points, six points behind the Canes and five behind the Devils.

For what it’s worth, this was written before the Penguins added Erik Karlsson.

Again. The Rangers finished with 107 points. They are returning the entire top half of the roster from last season, save for the trade deadline acquisitions. They addressed big holes in the bottom half of the lineup by adding Blake Wheeler, Erik Gustafsson, and Nick Bonino. Instead of waiting for the trade deadline to address these depth issues, the Rangers have them all sorted before training camp. This matters, even if it may not be enough to overtake Carolina or New Jersey.

But that’s not the question. The question isn’t about what other teams did. It’s about what the Rangers did. The Rangers had a hole at 2/3RW, and they addressed it efficiently by adding Wheeler. They had a hole at 4C, and added Bonino. They needed insurance on Zac Jones (6D) and Will Cuylle (12F), so they added Gustafsson and Tyler Pitlick.

The Rangers needed to put space between Ben Harpur, Jake Leschyshyn, and getting regular minutes. Harpur is now projected to be the 8/9D, behind both Jones and Gustafsson, and in a competition with Connor Mackey. Leschyshyn was projected to be the 13F at worst, now he’s in a competition with Alex Belzile for the 14/15F spot. The Rangers have the ability to manage an injury or two now.

But did the 2023 offseason make the Rangers better?

And that leads us to the $64,000 question. Did the 2023 offseason make the Rangers better?

Forwards are better to start the season

To answer, let’s look at last year’s lines to start the season against last year’s lines in the playoffs and this year’s lines to start the season.

Oct-22 Apr-23 (G1 vs. NJD) Aug-23 (projected)
L1 Kreider-Zibanejad-Kakko Kreider-Zibanejad-Kane Kreider-Zibanejad-Kakko
L2 Panarin-Trocheck-Kravtsov Panarin-Trocheck-Tarasenko Panarin-Trocheck-Lafreniere
L3 Lafreniere-Chytil-Goodrow Lafreniere-Chytil-Kakko Vesey-Chytil-Wheeler
L4 Vesey-Carpenter-Reaves Motte-Goodrow-Vesey Cuylle-Bonino-Goodrow

Today’s lines are immediately better than the October 2022 lines, and it doesn’t look like there should be much debate. L1 is the same, L2 got a boost with Lafreniere over Kravtsov, L3 has a much clearer role as an offensive line, and L4 is simply better. There are cases for nitpicking here and there, but in the grand scheme of things, October 2023 > October 2022.

The playoff roster vs. the projected roster is a different story with much more room for debate. Patrick Kane had one hip and was pedestrian at best in the regular season and for most of the playoffs. But he took over Game 2, which is what stars do. I do believe that Kaapo Kakko will be great on the top line, so I give the edge to today’s lines. This could have been different if Kane had 2 hips last season.

L2 is, as of now, weaker because Lafreniere simply isn’t Vladimir Tarasenko, who was great as a Ranger. If Lafreniere puts it together, this line could be deadly. That’s a big IF though. Hopefully this becomes a wash, which is a win for the Rangers.

It’s also easy to say L3 is weaker because the Kid Line was so good. Lest we forget Wheeler had 55 points last season, 40 at even strength. Chytil and Wheeler could put up 80 points combined at 5v5, which is in line with last year’s numbers. At worst, this is a wash. Assuming it’s deployed correctly as a sheltered offensive line, this again has potential.

L4 is definitely better as well, since Goodrow is back at wing where he belongs. Bonino stabilizes the 4C spot as well, with a battle between Cuylle and Pitlick to round out what should be a shutdown line.

The defense is easily better

Last year the Rangers started with Zac Jones as the 6D. It was pretty clear from deployment that the pairing wasn’t trusted, and Jones was unceremoniously returned to Hartford after 16 games. Libor Hajek and Ben Harpur eventually got the spot until the Rangers traded for Niko Mikkola.

Mikkola was fine as a Ranger, and perhaps overrated because of who he was replacing. But make no mistake, Gustafsson is far, far better then all of Harpur, Mikkola, and Hajek. The question, of course, is whether he will be better than Jones.

Both Jones (requires waivers now) and Gustafsson will break camp with the Rangers and will likely rotate in the 6D spot. Gustafsson is a clear upgrade, and the jury is out on Jones. But based solely on Gustafsson, it’s an improvement for the Rangers.

So, did the 2023 offseason make the Rangers better?

To me, the answer is yes. On paper, the Rangers are better. There’s also the influence of the new coaching staff and an actual structure to play by. The Rangers may not be as fast and loose on offense, but they will be much more controlled in their own zone and in the neutral zone, especially without the puck. That’s difficult to quantify, unfortunately. Same with the Devils losing Andrew Brunette. It’s just tough to quantify the impact.

So the Rangers got better. On paper. Now it’s up to the team to perform.


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