Forecheck, Backcheck, Crosscheck: The New Look New York Rangers

by Deb Seymour

Much has already been written about the moves — and hotly contested non-moves — made by the NY Rangers this offseason, with a new front office in place and a clearly set vision by the team owner: “Make the playoffs, or else.” Of course, we don’t yet know what the “or else” is, but we can pretty well guess. And a new head coach and some turnover in the coaching staff are going to be factors in the team’s system and style of play, no matter what. There’s also the wealth of new, young prospects and players joining preseason camp, some of whom undoubtedly will make the starting roster. From past experience, we also know that Hartford is just a metaphorical few train stops from the city; so we definitely expect to see some season starting AHL’ers join the team during the season, as well.

So much for what we already know. Oh, and one more thing we already know: NHL Player Safety has clearly stated that this year they’ll crack down on the crosscheck like never before. What exactly that means and how heavily it’ll be enforced — those are the aspects we don’t exactly know. But why that’s relevant to this year’s Rangers? Definitely known. 2021-2022 is the season of the “grit Rangers;” the Rangers team that’s not going to be pushed around; the Rangers team whose forecheck is going to be so improved over the previous few seasons that you’ll no longer recognize them in the offensive zone.

And indeed, if the preseason so far is any indication, the Rangers are going to be a grittier team than in the past couple of years. In the second game of the preseason, the Rangers collectively delivered 37 hits. To give you some sense of comparison, Artemiy Panarin and Mika Zibanejad combined for 88 hits all of last season. Highest in hits for the Rangers all of last season? Some of these may surprise you, but they were: Chris Kreider, at 115 hits; Ryan Lindgren, at 98 hits; Kevin Rooney, at 110 hits; and Jacob Trouba, at 111 hits (https://www.tsn.ca/nhl/team/new-york-rangers/statistics).

Here are the hit numbers from last season for some of the newer Rangers: Barclay Goodrow, 111 hits; Sammy Blais, 103 hits; Patrik Nemeth, 87 hits; Dryden Hunt, 94 hits; and Ryan Reaves, 141 hits (https://www.tsn.ca/nhl/team/new-york-rangers/statistics). Definitely a factor in their selection as Rangers over the offseason. That’s not to say these players don’t bring other important game qualities to the team — it’s merely to point out that collectively, this group of players is more aggressive on the ice than what we’ve seen from the past few years’ Rangers, and that’s already making its presence known in the preseason.

What else can we surmise about the coming season for the Rangers, given early preseason showings? We’re definitely already seeing a more mature Kappo Kaako on the ice. There are those who would complain that for a number two overall draft pick, it’s taken “sooo long” for Kaako to show us what he’s really capable of; and, as such, it was no surprise that he didn’t play as significant minutes in the top six last season as should’ve been expected from such a high draft pick player. In fact, however, it was pretty clear that (rumors aside as to the reason) Colin Blackwell was, so to speak, stealing minutes on the second line from Kaako last season — and there were fans who voiced concern that this was cutting into Kaako’s development as a talented winger. Well, Colin Blackwell is no longer a Ranger. Unprotected by the Rangers from the Seattle Kraken draft, Blackwell was, indeed, selected by the Kraken and is in Seattle even as I write this. Blackwell is a versatile player who can play both center and wing; but that’s likely not why Kaako was given less playing time than we might have expected. Kaako is already looking more like the strong, versatile, two-way winger we had been hoping for, this preseason. There’s much to look forward to, there.

Alexis Lafreniere has been placed, at least in preseason so far, on the top line; flanking Mika Zibanejad. As a sophomore player who’s likely to get much more ice time this year than last year, it’ll be interesting and potentially exciting to see what the 2020 first overall draft pick can bring to the table for the Rangers this season.

But what’s impressed me so far, especially given just the second preseason game of the year a couple of nights ago, is the Blais — Rooney — Reaves line: the Rangers’ fourth line, which if it stays as effective as it looked the other night, will be a fourth line to contend with this coming season. Call me bloodthirsty, but I loved what I saw from that line. Kevin Rooney looked more confident at center than in any game I watched last year (and I watched 59 of the 60). The line was aggressive in the neutral zone, it was even more aggressive in the offensive zone, and it was taking no prisoners as far as the opposition was concerned. Gerard Gallant, the Rangers’ new head coach, is known to actually get some utility from his fourth line — and not to just send them onto the ice to give the top three lines a breather. The hope is that we’ll see scoring from all the lines this season. And thus, Rangers’ fans, we might actually see utility out of all four lines this season, which would be a welcome change from recent seasons. That, along with having this year’s Norris Trophy winner in Adam Fox and a veritable wealth of defensive resources (who’ll hopefully get plenty of scoring chances, as well) to go along with him, should give us all hope for the future.

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