Rookie camps are being primed for the new blood around the league and pre-season hockey is just two weeks away as the 32 clubs of the NHL prepare for the 2022-2023 campaign. In Midtown Manhattan, a New York Rangers team with a tweaked identity are looking to build on a season that exceeded expectations, ending in a six game defeat to the defending back to back champions, The Tampa Bay Lightning. They’re coming off a Summer that saw key players come and go, particularly at the center position, and they’re now staring down the barrel of a cap crunch awaiting them the following summer. GM Chris Drury, Gerard Gallant and all of the boys in the room are certainly feeling an urgency to strike while the iron is hot and capitalize on the momentum of last years postseason crusade, before a slew of potential roster changes alter the lineup even further in the Summer of 2023.
Free agency was a success for the front office, but fans may find themselves missing some familiar faces. Casualties of the salary cap include Ryan Strome and Frank Vatrano, who both landed in Orange County to start their career as Anaheim Ducks, an organization with much more cap space to spare than the Rangers. Andrew Copp also packed his bags and headed to Detroit, reuniting with former Winnipeg Jets teammate Ben Chiarot, who also inked a deal with the Red Wings in free agency. The loss of these three pieces largely enabled Drury to pursue one of the top centers available this off-season in Vincent Trocheck. Trocheck held down a top six center role in Carolina, who were dispatched from the playoffs in seven games by the Rangers. He signed in New York on day one of the free agent frenzy, checking in at $5.625 million over the next seven years. Not only does Trocheck fill the void left by Strome on the second line, he’s entirely an upgrade in the sense that he brings a similar level of offensive production alongside an elite two way game and face off percentage. With him on the ice, the second line will have the puck more, therefore creating more chances for top winger Artemi Panarin and his new center to create magical moments.
On paper there isn’t much more in the way of additions. There are two new goalies on the depth chart in Jaroslav Halak and Louis Domingue, who are set to become the backup and third string goalie, respectively. Ryan Carpenter signed on with his childhood team on a league minimum $750,000 deal for one year. He’ll contend for a spot on the fourth line, but his career best season was only good for five goals and thirteen assists in 68 games. The philosophy that became apparent this off-season, addition by subtraction. With Vatrano and Copp gone, the opportunity level for young Rangers, such as Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil, and Kaapo Kakko, has significantly increased. Lafreniere will build on a 2021-2022 campaign that saw him take strides as an offensive producer. Kakko will look to live up to his offensive potential as a second overall pick while retaining his possession and defensive numbers that earned him praise from the analytics community. The majority of the uncertainty around these three is attached to Chytil, who really came to life in the playoffs, but needs to bring that same energy in the regular season. If he does, however, it could spell trouble as he is due to become a restricted free agent following this year. He could very well play himself out of the affordability ranger of a Rangers team that is strapped for cash as it is.
A lot of things have to go right to improve on last seasons result, but the pieces are all still in place, they just look a little different. The options should be open for this years trade deadline as well, and if Russian winger Vitali Kravtsov doesn’t end up in the lineup I’d expect him to be moved out for assets before April. Defense prospect Nils Lundkvist has recognized the log jam on the right side of the point will keep him in the AHL and has requested a trade.
Could some combination of those two players and a bundle of picks bring in a veteran forward to help chase the first cup since 1994? Perhaps a player that has already won a cup (or three) before? You know who I’m talking about. That’s all just speculation we’ll likely revisit a few months from now. For now, in just about two weeks time, the Garden ice will be back, and come October, it’s show time.