On the inside, as on the outside, the Rangers will certainly enter the season with high expectations. That’s the natural order after going to the conference finals.
But Gerard Gallant said: ‘If you think that’s going to happen, you don’t know the club’s second-year head coach very well, do you?
“Last spring is over,” Gallant said during Wednesday’s induction press conference on the practice field, a day before his team opened training camp. “I think we’re all sitting here asking each other if we had those expectations last year and the answer is probably no.
“I can’t lie to you – I didn’t. We had a great run. We played good hockey. I knew we were a good team, but we beat some great teams and we deserved to beat those teams in the playoffs. It was a good experience for our players but that doesn’t mean anything.
“There are a lot of better teams in our division, so your goal from Day 1 is to try and make the playoffs,” he said. “It’s not like we’ve won 52 games, so we’re going to win 60 games this year. I wish that was the case, but I don’t see it that way.
“It’s going to be a war.”
Three of the Rangers’ top six forwards in the playoffs — Ryan Strome, Andrew Cope and Frank Vatrano — were released as free agents. Free agent acquisition Vincent Trocheck will slot into the Storm’s No. 16 jersey, a position and role as both center for Artemi Panarin and on the first power-play unit, but the other two spots are up for grabs.
Sami Blais will get the first crack on the right, lining up with Mika Zibanejad and Kreider, while Vitaly Kravtsov will start with Panarin and Trocheck. At least for these opening scrimmage dates, the Alexis Lafrenere-Philippe Chitil-Capo Caco unit remains intact. They’re still cousins, but now, after a 20-game hitting streak (19 for Kako, cough, cough), they lack postseason experience.
It took the Rangers a while to adjust to the Gallant system last season. After a few weeks of evolving from strong man-to-man to more zone coverage, the club never looked back, essentially shutting down the playoffs at Christmas. Maybe this time the ride won’t be smooth.
Gallant said he doesn’t anticipate changes to the system or the team’s approach. So the Rangers won’t be a high-risk, high-reward team coming out of their own goal and through the neutral zone. And there will definitely be an emphasis on early detection to be more effective.
Because while the Rangers rolled to 110 points, good for seventh in the NHL overall, they were too reliant on Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin, who posted a .935 save percentage, after spending most of the season flirting with Jack Plant’s record .944. The Blueshirts were 28-3-1 when Shesterkin posted at least a .925 save percentage. But when he didn’t, just 7-10-3.
That’s mostly a stand-up five-on-five attack action. Rangers have scored two goals or fewer 28 times, more than a quarter of the season. He also ranks 31st (this is second to last) in shot attempts with 2.35 five-on-five goals per 60 minutes. They will need to improve in these areas to take some of the load off star netminder and incoming backup Jaro Halak.
They need more solid production from Zibanejad, who scored 19 goals in 57 games in 2019-20. And they will need a significant contribution from Kravtsov to secure a top-six spot a year after he said before returning to Russia that there was no way for him to do so.
Gallant joked (I think) when asked if he could count on Shesterkin to put up similar numbers this season. Now that I think about it, I never asked then-head coaches Tom Rennie, John Tortorella, or Alain Vigqvist if they trusted Henrik Lundqvist to duplicate his previous feat in any given season. Of course, the Blueshirts were very dependent on the king.
“Yeah, because I expect Kreider to get 52 goals…” he answered the question with a smile. I expect the team to be better in all areas.
you know? That’s an expectation the Rangers will have to live up to.