Evan is a new online sports writer and long-time co-host of the Big Apple Sports Podcast.
The New York Rangers have done an excellent job of becoming one of the premier franchises in the NHL over the last seven years. From consistently making the playoffs and advancing, to making it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2014, to several Eastern Conference Finals appearances, the Rangers have shed the lowly status of the mid 2000s and returned to their former glory. However, for Rangers fans such as myself, who haven’t seen a Stanley Cup win for the Broadway Blueshirts since 1994, simply being in the discussion isn’t enough. For this team to take the next step, I believe there are 5 players that need to have big improvements from last season.
5 Rangers That Need to Take the Next Step
- Mika Zibanejad
- Pavel Buchnevich
- Jimmy Vesey
- Brady Skjei
- Henrik Lundqvist
1. Mika Zibanejad—Strong Up The Middle
There is one thing that most championship teams have in common, and that is strong center play down all four lines. Which brings me to the first Rangers’ player who needs to step up and show big improvement from last season; Mika Zibanejad. While Zibanejad did have 37 points in just 56 games, he only was able to put in 14 goals. With 11 of those coming on the powerplay, the Rangers will need him on the ice to be contenders. Now don’t get me wrong, if he had played the whole year I believe he would have had 20-25 goals easily, but he didn’t. Zibanejad was the 6th overall pick by the Senators in 2011 and at 24 years old is coming up on his prime. The Rangers have not had a true top line center on their team since maybe Mark Messier, so for them to compete in the Eastern Conference the Z-man will need to stay healthy and put up some career numbers in the points department.
2. Pavel Buchnevich—From Russia with Love
Long did we wait for the much-anticipated Pavel Buchnevich to leave the KHL and come join the New York Rangers. He was touted as a fast and offensively skilled winger who could help fill the net in New York. While what we did see from Buch this past year gave us hope, he couldn’t stay on the ice in the beginning of the season and ended up only playing half of the season with the Rangers. Expanding his 8 goals to a full healthy season puts him around 20, but that’s just my own opinion. Having a 22-year-old at 6’3” that can score and pass the way Buchnevich showed as a pro in Russia and in half a season last year, would make the Rangers a force in the Metropolitan Division.
3. Jimmy Vesey—Harvard on Ice
The Rangers have done an excellent job acquiring high round draft picks while not actually possessing any high round picks at the time of the draft. Essentially by signing players who decided to forgo the NHL and go to college until their rookie deals ran out, they were able to get players such as Kevin Hayes and Jimmy Vesey. Vesey, a Hobey Baker Award winner from Harvard was highly sought after by many teams last summer, including the New York Islanders. While Vesey did play almost a full season missing only 2 games, his 16 goals and 11 assists were disappointing considering his 8 goals in the first 20 games of the season. With only slight improvement Vesey could be a 20-25 goal scorer this year and hopefully see consistent playing time on the second line.
4. Brady Skjei—Home Grown Defense
Brady Skjei, the man whose name no one really thinks is spelled correctly, finally saw some time with the big-league club last season. While he put up decent numbers with 5 goals and 34 assists, he was a liability at times on defense. Bad turnovers, poor pinching and looking like a 5-year-old lost at Macy’s left much room for improvement in the 23-year-old defenseman’s game. With the retirement of the stalwart Kevin Klein and the fan favorite Dan Girardi, there will be plenty of chances for Skjei to make a name for himself as a top-4 defenseman in the NHL.
5. Henrik Lundqvist—King of the Castle
The last name on this list isn’t a new Ranger or even a young one, its Henrik Lundqvist. The King has been accused of slowing down in recent years, yet for the first month of last season he was the best player in the NHL. His play in the playoffs also looked like the Henrik of old. Is it true that Hank might have slowed a bit after 30? Absolutely. However, if you look at how the team has played in front of him that is more likely the reason for the downswing. While his GAA (goals against average) was a half goal more than his career average, this team was notoriously bad in the defensive zone, providing Hank with much less support than in years past. With the addition of Kevin Shattenkirk, the removal of Dan Girardi, and hopefully improvements from Brendan Smith and Brady Skjei, I believe Henrik will have a bounce back season and once again have a 30 win season. If the King can stay healthy, especially come playoff time, look for the Rangers to be able to make a run in the playoffs.