Rangers will be more dependent than ever on their youngsters

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Regarding the Rangers, slightly over five weeks out from training camp.

1. Ironic, is it not, that just as the word “rebuild” has disappeared from the vocabulary, the Blueshirts will be more dependent than ever on their youngsters?

This year’s team will carry expectations created by last year’s team’s success. But this year’s team will be without the three rentals up front whose acquisition proximate to the trade deadline completed the 2021-22 Rangers — free agent top-sixers Andrew Copp and Frank Vatrano and fourth-liner Tyler Motte all having departed in the offseason.

Handcuffed by cap considerations now for the foreseeable future, general manager Chris Drury was unable to replace Copp and Vatrano, instead using whatever available capital to sign Vincent Trocheck to replace Ryan Strome, who also exited New York as a free agent.

Without Copp and Vatrano, both of whom played the right side, the Rangers will need Kaapo Kakko to take a full stride forward following an encouraging postseason that came to a screeching halt with the Scratch Heard ’Round Rangerstown.

They will need Vitali Kravtsov to prove that he is a player who is worthy of top-six/top-nine minutes in the NHL. They will need Alexis Lafreniere to build off his promising playoffs. The same applies to Filip Chytil.

Rangers
The Rangers will need more from Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière next season.
NHLI via Getty Images

The Rangers roster accounts for 223 NHL goals from last season. That would have ranked 26th in the league. That is not going to be enough this time around. The kids — lower case, upper case, have it your way — will have to produce.

2. Question 1 regarding line combinations: Will head coach Gerard Gallant, never as enamored with The Kid Line as most of the rest of us, reunite Lafreniere, Chytil and Kakko as the club’s third line, or will Lafreniere make the leap to right wing on the top unit with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider?

If Lafreniere remains on the left, the Rangers’ right side would feature Kakko, Kravtsov, Sammy Blais, Ryan Reaves and Julien Gauthier. They combined to score 15 goals in 175 NHL games last season.

Lafreniere scored 19 goals in 79 matches, seven of which he recorded in his 25 games up with Zibanejad.

3. Let’s say Lafreniere — rather than Blais, who was up with Nos. 20 and 93 for his final three games before going down with a season-ending knee injury on Nov. 14 — does get the assignment.

Rangers
Vitali Kravtsov
Getty Images

That leaves the second-line spot on the right with Trochek and Artemi Panarin for either Kakko or Kravtsov, with the other presumably on the third line with Chytil and … well, maybe Blais, maybe Barclay Goodrow, maybe Will Cuylle if the 20-year-old can make the leap from the World Juniors onto the top nine.

4. By the way, if Kravtsov is unable to make the team, then … Gauthier?

Remember, Gauthier beat out an ailing Kravtsov for a spot on last year’s roster. How could you forget? He then turned back into himself, unable to solve the disconnect that inevitably appears once the winger is within 10 feet of the net with the puck on his stick.

Gauthier was scratched by David Quinn for 24 of the team’s 56 games in 2020-21 before being scratched by Gallant for 30 of last season’s 82. But here he is again, perhaps speaking to the club’s lack of depth on that side.

Drury signed the 24-year-old winger — five goals in 96 career games — to a one-year $800,000 contract whose one-way component might discourage clubs from claiming Gauthier if he is put on waivers.

Yes, Goodrow is always an option for a top-nine spot, and perhaps it would make perfect sense to add both his experience and 200-foot expertise on a third line with Chytil and Kravtsov. The Rangers would benefit, though, if Goodrow anchored the fourth line.

5. You know how the Rangers needed to get bigger after they were unable to get to the inside against Tampa Bay?

The only way they get bigger is if Blais can carve out a meaningful — which means top-nine — role. (And if Cuylle is able to go way beyond reasonable expectations.)

6. If Cuylle is not a top-nine guy, he should be in Hartford on the Wolf Pack’s top unit. If Lafreniere shifts to right wing, Cuylle can remain on the left. Otherwise he needs to make the transformation to his off-side.

Rangers
Will Cuylle
Bill Kostroun

If Brennan Othmann can ride a wave from the World Juniors into a smashing training camp, then by all means the Rangers should use that nine-game probationary period to get a look-see.

But it is wildly unrealistic to expect the teenager to crack the lineup and would be an egregious mistake to rush the 2021, 16th-overall pick into the NHL months ahead of his 20th birthday in January 2023.

7. Gallant likes size, we all know that, and he doubly likes size on the back end, we all sure know that.

Which is why the club’s options for the third-pair left defenseman assignment that appears to be between Zac Jones and Libor Hajek — a healthy scratch 60 times, for goodness sakes — are so intriguing.

Will there be a push to add an $800,000-type veteran during camp if the coach is not enamored with what he sees?

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