Looking to the Future
Written by Pac Pobric • Illustrated by Keenan Wells
Up and down: there’s no other way to describe the New York Rangers this season, and for much of the past seven weeks, we’ve been on a down-swing with little to cheer for.
Since the beginning of December, the team—in desperate need of direction, lacking real cohesion, lost in a seemingly endless morass—has been been mostly useless. Last month, they lost nine of 12 games; to begin 2019, they dropped another five straight, losing the first three by a combined score of 18–3.
“We’re fragile mentally and physically right now, the ways things are going,” Rangers head coach David Quinn said earlier this month. And despite an impressive three-game win streak to enter the team’s bye week, it looks unlikely that New York will make a playoff run of any kind.
So let’s leave the current season behind for the time being and look ahead, to the young prospects who may one day stock this Rangers team.
New York had a good draft last June; it’s one the team had been preparing for a long time. For months beforehand, Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton had been shipping off solid, proven, but aging players in exchange for younger assets and draft picks, culminating with the trade of J. T. Miller and Ryan McDonagh to Tampa Bay on the day of the 2018 trade deadline, which sent to New York three players under the age of 30 and two draft picks. The idea was long-term reinvestment: to look to the future at the expense of the immediate present, no matter how good players like Miller and McDonagh were. (They’re now part of a team that has a league-leading 76 points, 7 more than the second-place Calgary Flames, over whom Tampa Bay has a game in hand.)
Based on early returns, this strategy is largely paying off; the World Junior Championship, which ended this month in Vancouver, is so far the best indication. The three players New York selected in the first round of the 2018 draft—winger Vitali Kravtsov (ninth overall); and defensemen K'Andre Miller (22nd) and Nils Lundkvist (28th)—each played for their countries and recorded a total of nine points across 18 games. Kravtsov was especially productive, scoring two goals and four assists through seven games. His team Russia took home the bronze medal and Miller’s team USA grabbed silver. (Nico Gross, a fourth-round Rangers selection, picked up two points on the fourth-place Swiss team.)
These are auspicious displays—especially on the international stage, which brings a new kind of pressure to a newly drafted player. To be sure, each of these guys already skates in an elite bracket: Kravtsov plays in the Russia Kontinental Hockey League (he has 17 points this season) and Lundkvist is in the Swedish Hockey League (recording around 12 minutes of ice time on average pergame), the highest levels of play in each country. Miller works the blueline for the University of Wisconsin’s Badgers alongside seven other NHL draft picks.
But the World Juniors are a different kind of test: wearing your country’s colors on live television; facing the best players alive under the age of 20; skating on Canadian ice in front of a knowledgeable and passionate fanbase; working to impress general managers and prove your worth to an NHL team—these are the kinds of conditions in which players need to thrive to earn a spot in the best league in the world. On top of that, Kravtsov played through a torn tricep and Miller was nursing an undisclosed illness throughout. Those aren’t inconsequential facts: they prove each player’s grit—an essential but immeasurable quality.
Predicting a prospect’s future is an inexact science. That’s especially true once you move further down the list, into the second, third, and fourth rounds of a draft, looking for gems in the rough who, in most scenarios, will never play a single NHL game. But those gems do exist, and the Rangers have one of the best players ever to be selected from the lower depths of a draft pool: Henrik Lundqvist, the Vezina-winning goaltender who also holds the record for most games played by a goalie for the Rangers franchise. He was picked 205th overall in the final round of the 2000 draft. (Even his twin brother, Joel, who only played parts of three seasons in Dallas, was a higher pick, at 68th overall.)
Spotting those underrated prospects and nurturing their talents is one of the team’s priorities. “Obviously, a first-round pick is important, and we all need to do well there and get good players,” Gorton, the general manager, told a reporter a few days before the 2018 trade deadline. “But if you look over time at the teams that have success, those second- and third-round picks are really essential in building a team. Having as many as you can is going to increase our odds of doing that quicker.”
Gorton’s big gamble is on defense, which the Rangers are desperately in need of. Their best blueliners, Marc Staal and Kevin Shattenkirk, are still dependable, but they’re aging; the team’s strongest younger defensemen—Brady Skjei and Neal Pionk—need seasoning; and overall, the Rangers have allowed 162 goals this year (sixth worst in the league) and have a lackluster penalty kill, which only quashes 77% of penalties. So it makes sense that four of the 10 players Gorton picked in the draft are defensemen. (Another pick, from the second round, is Olof Lindbom, an inconsistent goaltender who nevertheless excited Rangers goaltending coach Benoit Allaire.)
It’ll take some time—years, really—before we see the full results of this year’s rebuild. But in the meantime, there are some bright spots. After last night’s win against the Boston Bruins, Henrik Lundqvist officially surpassed legendary netminder Terry Sawchuck to become the 6th winningest goaltender of all time; Filip Chytil scored his tenth goal as a teenagers (he’s still 19); Mats Zuccarello is on a five-game point streak; Mika Zibanejad has five goals in three games; and the team now has five goals off of face-off draws—that’s best in the NHL.
So now we’re on an up-swing. But how long will it last? Is there enough gas in the tank to do something special with the final 34 games of the season?