2017-18 NHL Team Preview: New York Rangers

New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist stops a shot on the goal by Los Angeles Kings' Jeff Carter in a game on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in New York. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

The New York Rangers have made seven consecutive Stanley Cup Playoffs appearances — the third-longest active streak behind Pittsburgh and Chicago. But despite being in that echelon of consistency, the Rangers, unlike those other two, haven’t won a Cup. They’ve made it to one final, where they were outmatched by the Los Angeles Kings in five games.

As long as the Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist, they figure to at least be challengers for a playoff spot. But as he enters his 35-year-old season and the Metropolitan Division builds up around them, we might be running close to the day when the window closes.

One thing the Rangers will always have going for them, though, is that players will always want to play in New York. We saw that again this off-season as Kevin Shattenkirk, the most highly coveted player on the UFA market, signed on for a very reasonable four years and $6.65 million cap hit. The blue line specifically was starting to become an area of concern, but adding a top-pair player with consistent 42-45-point production is a huge boost.

There is still a lot to like on the Rangers, although their path to the playoffs isn’t as clear as it has been in the recent past.

UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH

The Rangers made a significant trade at the draft sending Derek Stepan and backup Antti Raanta to Arizona for the ninth overall pick (Lias Andersson) and 21-year-old defenceman Anthony DeAngelo. He immediately will be a player to keep an eye on in training camp.

The 19th overall pick in 2014, DeAngelo has already been traded twice in his career — the Lightning drafted him and shipped him to Arizona a couple years later. He brings offensive upside and was more than a point-per-game player in his last two years of junior.

DeAngelo played 39 games for the Coyotes last season, scoring 14 points and averaging 17:05 per game, which was effectively a bottom pair role at even strength. He was, however, the second-highest average minutes defender on Arizona’s power play and could slide into a spot on New York’s man advantage.

More than anything, though, DeAngelo is a nice young piece coming into a team that is doing a minor re-tool on the fly.

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WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE

At the very least, we’re talking about a playoff appearance, but given Lundqvist’s place in his career, a truly successful season would be a long post-season run.

That, however, is getting harder to envision. Last year, New York was fourth in the tough Metro and the teams above them will continue to be a threat. Meanwhile, teams below them have the potential to bounce back in a big way: Philadelphia has a good base, Carolina has an exciting young defence and the Islanders should be motivated to do something in John Tavares’ contract year.

Lundqvist is coming off the worst statistical season (.910 save percentage, 2.74 GAA) of his career and for any of this to be possible he needs to recover. He finished with a .906 save percentage in the last two months of the regular season, so this isn’t a guarantee. Ideally, Lundqvist would see his workload lighten so he stays healthy and rested late in the season, but with Raanta out of the picture, Ondrej Pavelec is now the backup and his save percentage has been .905 or lower in four of the past five seasons.

BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION

When the Rangers shipped out Stepan they lost their No. 1 centre and a consistent mid-50s point producer. Stepan played a role on both special teams units as well, so there is some question now if they have centre depth that’s good enough.

Stepping up into that role this year will be Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes, who have two 20-goal seasons and one 50-point season between them. Granted both are in their mid-20s so their career years could still be in the future — and that’s something the Rangers need. Last year, Zibanejad started strong before an injury and didn’t produce at the same clip when he came back in the regular season, but then put up nine points in 12 playoff games. Hayes has the size you’d like in at least one of your top two centres and bounced back from a disappointing 2015-16 season with a career-best 49 points.

J.T. Miller could also end up finding his way back to centre and the 24-year-old has the best offensive track record of them all.

What’s interesting is the Rangers were the fourth-highest scoring team in the NHL last season despite not having a 60-point player, so they’ve done it by committee. Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello are big producers on the wings and with Rick Nash entering a contract year, the Rangers would like him to find some of that lost goal-scoring ability.