The New York Rangers are confident they’re entering training camp with the blueprint for how they need to look and play to be a Stanley Cup Playoff contender.
“We found that balance toward the end of last season, the last two months, from playing with a defensive conscience and also being productive offensively,” Quinn said. “That’s what we have to be. We found some continuity with lines and [defenseman] pairings, and that was really the first time that had happened in the last two years. I think for the first time going into training camp we have a little bit of a clearer picture of what we’re going to look like.”
[Rangers 31 IN 31: 3 Questions | Top prospects | Behind the Numbers | Fantasy breakdown]
The disappointment of the Rangers’ quick exit from the Stanley Cup Qualifiers last season — they were the first team eliminated, swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in three games — hasn’t stolen from their belief that they’ve grown into a contender to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It starts with familiarity with who they have returning, a list that doesn’t include Henrik Lundqvist. They bought out the final year of the goalie’s seven-year contract, making the Rangers’ leader in wins (459) an unrestricted free agent to solve the three-goalie issue they dealt with last season and pave the way for Igor Shesterkin to be their new No. 1.
Shesterkin was 10-2-0 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in 12 starts last season after being recalled from Hartford of the American Hockey League on Jan. 6. New York also re-signed goalie Alexandar Georgiev to a two-year contract Oct. 15.
“I just love his demeanor,” Quinn said of Shesterkin. “I just love how confident he is.”
Artemi Panarin proved last season, when the left wing had 95 points (32 goals, 63 assists) in 69 games (1.38 points per game), that he’s comfortable in the New York spotlight, solving one of the questions the Rangers had going into last season.
Video: Top 10 Artemi Panarin plays from 2019-20
Panarin, entering the second year of his seven-year contract, is expected to start camp playing with center Ryan Strome, who re-signed with a two-year contract Nov. 5.
Quinn is eyeing 19-year-old Kaapo Kakko to be the right wing with Panarin and Strome, replacing Jesper Fast, who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes as a free agent. Kakko, the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, scored 23 points (10 goals, 13 assists) in 66 games last season.
Mika Zibanejad delivered as a No. 1 center last season, scoring 41 goals in 57 games, including an NHL-high 23 in 22 games from Jan. 30 to the end of the regular season. He is again expected to have Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich on his line, giving the Rangers continuity in their top six forwards.
“No final decisions have been made, but certainly you want to start that way and hit the ground running,” Quinn said.
Video: WSH@NYR: Zibanejad scores five goals, OT winner
The Rangers expect Alexis Lafreniere, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, will be an impact player in his rookie season. Lafreniere is penciled in as the left wing on the third line, likely playing with 21-year-old center Filip Chytil.
Lafreniere arrived in the New York area from his home in Saint-Eustache, Quebec, in November and is training and living with a billet family in Connecticut.
“He has the whole package,” Rangers assistant general manager Chris Drury said. “His skating, his sense, his shot, his passing, you name it, it’s all very elite. His internal drive is exceptional.”
The Rangers are comfortable with their returning defensemen, even if there are issues to iron out, namely filling an opening on the left side they created by trading Marc Staal to the Detroit Red Wings.
Quinn said the Rangers could move a right-handed defenseman (Jacob Trouba, Tony DeAngelo or Adam Fox) to the left side.
DeAngelo, who led New York defensemen with 53 points (15 goals, 38 assists) last season, is the most likely candidate, but Quinn said he knows Fox would be comfortable too. It’s unlikely they ask Trouba to switch.
K’Andre Miller and/or Tarmo Reunanen, two of New York’s top defenseman prospects and each a left-handed shot, could play well enough in training camp to win a job and remove the need to move a righty to the left side.
“That probably is the one position that we’re going to have to really let it play out,” Quinn said.
The Rangers have far fewer uncertainties than they’ve had entering the past two seasons, fueling their optimism.
“We feel real good about where we are,” New York president John Davidson said. “We’ve come a long way. There’s been some very difficult decisions, but to get to that end, to the championship, this is what you have to do.”