Internally, just as externally, surely the Rangers will enter the season with great expectations. That is the natural order following a trip to the conference finals.
But if you think Gerard Gallant would ’fess up to that, well, you don’t know the club’s second-year head coach all that well, do you?
“Last spring is over,” Gallant said in Wednesday’s introductory press conference at the practice rink, a day before his team opens training camp. “I think we can all sit here and ask each other if we had those expectations last year and the answer would be probably not.
“I can’t lie to you — I didn’t. We had a great run. We played great 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 great experience for our players, but that means nothing.
“There are a lot of teams that are going to be better in our division, so from Day 1 your goal is to try and make the playoffs,” he said. “It’s not like we won 52 games so we’re going to win 60 this year. I wish that were the case, but that’s not how I’m looking at it.
“It’s going to be a battle.”
Three of the Rangers’ top six forwards in the playoffs — Ryan Strome, Andrew Copp and Frank Vatrano — departed as free agents. Free-agent acquisition Vincent Trocheck will step into Strome’s jersey No. 16, spot and role as both Artemi Panarin’s center and on the first power-play unit, but the other two spots are up for grabs.
Sammy Blais will get the first crack to line up on the right with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider while Vitali Kravtsov will start with Panarin and Trocheck. At least for these opening scrimmage days, the Alexis Lafreniere-Filip Chytil-Kaapo Kakko unit will remain intact. They’re still relative kids but now they’re no longer inexperienced after the 20-game run (19 for Kakko, cough, cough) in the tournament
It took a while for the Rangers to adapt to Gallant’s system last season. After modifications from a strict man-to-man to more of a zone coverage a few weeks into the season, the club never looked back, essentially locking down a playoff spot by Christmas. The ride probably won’t be as smooth this time around.
Gallant said he does not anticipate changes in the system or the team’s approach. Hence, the Rangers will not be a high risk-high reward team coming out of their own end and through the neutral zone. And there certainly will be an emphasis on becoming more effective on the forecheck.
Because though the Rangers rolled to 110 points, good for seventh-overall in the NHL, they were too dependent on Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin, who recorded a .935 save percentage, after flirting much of the season with Jacques Plante’s record .944. The Blueshirts were 28-3-1 when Shesterkin posted at least a .925 save percentage., but just 7-10-3 when he did not.
That was largely a function of a stalled five-on-five attack. The Rangers scored a sum of two goals or fewer 28 times, more than a quarter of the season. They ranked 20th in five-on-five goals per 60 minutes at 2.35 per while 31st (that’s next to last) in shot attempts and 30th in shots on net. They will have to improve in these areas to take some of the burden off their all-star netminder and incoming backup Jaro Halak.
They’ll need more even-strength production from Zibanejad, who registered only 12 goals, as compared to his 19 in 57 games in 2019-20. And they will require a meaningful contribution from Kravtsov, getting the opportunity for a top-six slot a year after the winger had said that he foresaw no path to that before skedaddling back to Russia.
Gallant joked (I think) when asked if the Rangers could rely on Shesterkin putting up similar numbers this season. Now that I think of it, I never had asked then-head coaches Tom Renney, John Tortorella or Alain Vigneault whether any could count on Henrik Lundqvist to duplicate his previous work any given season. Of course, the Blueshirts were too reliant on the King.
“Yes, because I expect Kreider to get 52 goals …,” he answered the question with a smile. “I do expect the team to be better in all areas.”
You know what? That is an expectation the Rangers should be able to meet.