With the 2021 preseason debut in the books, many questions still loom large over the heads of Rangers fans. One being the long vacant captaincy and who will be selected to fill that role. It’s unclear whether or not the decision has been made by new head coach Gerard Gallant, but the top candidates have emerged in the media as: Chris Kreider, the longest tenured Ranger; Jacob Trouba, the heartbeat of the Rangers defense; and Mika Zibanejad, the Rangers number one center and arguably their most lucrative goal scorer. Some dark horse candidates come from the youth movement, including Adam Fox and, even less likely but not out of the question for me, Alexis Lafreniere. There is a wealth of talent and different leadership styles on the roster, and the player chosen to wear the C on his chest can indicate the direction in which Gallant wants the team to go. Kreider could lead the team into a style that focuses on getting pucks deep, winning battles along the boards and getting pucks to the opposition goalie. Zibanejad would mostly lead the boys to a strong two way game with a focus on playmaking and defensive responsibility for forwards. Trouba embodies the shutdown defense reminiscent of a Dan Girardi or Marc Staal and would lead with an example of sacrificing the body and keeping the play to the outside in the Rangers end. All three of them would likely be successful as the face of the franchise, however I personally lean towards Trouba out of the three. If it was really up to me, I’d love to see Fox with the C, but I doubt Gallant is ready to give the responsibility to a third year player, despite his incredible sophomore season which saw him capture the Norris trophy.
Another player entering his third year is Kaapo Kakko, though he has much more to prove than Fox. Kakko has gotten inexplicably bigger and tougher to play against since he came into the league in 2019, but the killer instinct in the offensive zone hasn’t quite rounded itself out yet. He’s coming off of a somewhat disappointing campaign that saw him post 9 goals and 8 assists in 48 games, although his possession numbers are some of the best on the team and his playmaking ability has visibly matured. It’s gonna be about finishing for Kakko this year, and opportunity should be readily available. With the departure of Pavel Buchnevich, a top six spot on the wing has opened up and it’s ripe for the taking. If Kakko can replicate some of the magic from his draft year with TPS Turku, where he had 22 goals and 38 points in 45 games, that spot should very well be his. I can also see him turning into a strong penalty killer based off of his defensive play last year, and would love to see him form good chemistry with Zibanejad on special teams.
Kakko will have to earn his spot in the top six, however, and his biggest competition for the rights will be Lafreniere and Kreider. Lafreniere had a slow start to the shortened season in his rookie campaign, but finished strong last year with 12 goals and 9 assists. The 2020 first overall pick didn’t quite get the offensive juices flowing in last night’s preseason contest, but he did have an impressive look on the penalty kill that shows a new dimension to his game that can justify more playing time. Kreider, on the other hand, is a streaky veteran that doesn’t need much of an introduction. He does tend to go on cold streaks where the bounces never fall his way and nothing seems to go in, but when he’s hot, it’s almost like his shots go in from anywhere. I’ve seen this guy snipe some of the best goalies in the league with a quick shot from the blue line. I’d really like to see him find his magic on the powerplay again this year, working the front of the net making unreal plays with Zibanejad, but if it doesn’t come to fruition fast, a guy like Lafreniere or Kakko needs an honest shot at PP1.
While we’re here talking about top 6 minutes, I’d be remiss to forget about Vitali Kravtsov. While he only has an outside chance at cracking the top 6 early on in this upcoming campaign, he’s shown flashes of offensive brilliance as well as respectable defensive prowess. He only had 2 goals and 2 assists in 20 appearances last season, but hasn’t been playing with great offensive talent and already had a disgusting spinning backhand pass that Goodrow couldn’t finish in the preseason. If he can grind his way to the top six throughout this year, watch for him to breakout playing with the likes of Zibanejad or Panarin.
With that all said, I’m beyond excited for this 2021-2022 season to get underway. We’re finally back to 82 games and cross conference play, and the Rangers are flush with young talent and strong veteran presence, not to mention the overhauled bottom six which will bring a new element of toughness and excitement. Keep an eye out for the aforementioned Kravtsov and Nils Lundkvist to make an impact, and watch for Barclay Goodrow, Sammy Blais and Ryan Reaves to bring a new dynamic to the forward group. It’s playoffs or bust this year for the boys. I hope I didn’t just jinx it.