Arriving at one’s destination ahead of schedule does not necessarily mean that shortcuts were taken. The Rangers have remained resolute in their commitment to the February 2018 rebuild that was so famously announced. The organization doesn’t owe anyone any apologies for the strategy that has been implemented along the way.
And the finish line is still a long way in the distance. The Stanley Cup drought, now going on a halfway-to-54, 27 years, is not likely to end this season. But the playoffs are not only within reach, but should be a realistic goal for the organization.
This deadline should be about cost-effectively filling holes in the lineup, not creating them. The Rangers may not have arrived yet, and they may not be in the express lane to the top, but they have an abundance of upper-echelon talent, both developed and developing, that should keep them on the fast track.
There may be stutter steps through this uncommon season. There may be backward steps. But there should be the anticipation of progress. Expecting this team to build off last season should not be interpreted as putting too much pressure on the operation.
Come to think of it, maybe there were too few expectations placed on the team before what became the Embarrassment in the Bubble. Let’s not trip over ourselves giving the Rangers a participation trophy this time around.
The Post’s Rangers podcast, “Up In The Blue Seats,” returns with its season premiere on Thursday.
For the first time since 2004, someone other than Henrik Lundqvist will get the opening night start and someone other than the recuperating King will bear the burden of taking the team through the playoffs. The transition away from Lundqvist began more than a calendar year ago and in effect was complete by the end of last February. The natural order has prevailed.
Igor Shesterkin, who presumably will be in nets for the opener on Thursday despite Alex Georgiev’s mastery over the Islanders, came as advertised. He’s lightning fast, leaves few rebounds and is a Brodeur-like weapon in moving the puck out of harm’s way and out of the zone. He has an unmistakable aura. But Shesterkin never started more than three games in a row, and apart from the auto accident that sidelined him for a spell, he missed time twice because of on-ice injuries. So durability may be a question.
Georgiev, who has many of the same attributes as Shesterkin, is likely to mount a challenge for ice time. Entering his fourth season, Georgiev, too, has never started more than three straight NHL games.
Listen, if this left wing stack that has Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider and Alexis Lafreniere operating on distinct units actually works, the Blueshirts should be an offensive force while rolling their top three lines. But this presumes that Ryan Strome will be able to duplicate his career year while building on his partnership with Panarin, it presumes that Kaapo Kakko will be able to take a significant step while filling Jesper Fast’s abandoned spot on the unit, and it presumes that Filip Chytil will be a productive partner for Lafreniere. It presumes with good reason that the Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich line continues its mastery.
If the stack fails for any reason, the Rangers likely will overload their top six, leaving an undefined bottom six. It remains to be seen how David Quinn will use a fourth line that will be comprised of some sort of Brendan Lemieux-Kevin Rooney-Brett Howden-Colin Blackwell-Phil Di Giuseppe permutation.
And the Rangers’ success will be dependent on them relying on more of a possession, forechecking, straight-line, drive-the-net approach rather than relying on skill and repeated one-and-done forays into the offensive zone that leave the defense backtracking.
Maybe the Rangers will be able to outscore their defensive deficiencies, but better that the structure improves under incoming defensive coordinator Jacques Martin. The burden can’t just be on the six on the blue line, who were left far too often on their own against counterattacks. The five-man unit must be disciplined in being on the right side of the puck and in not turning the puck over in vulnerable areas of the ice.
The Ryan Lindgren-Adam Fox tandem enters the season as it completed the last one, as the club’s most reliable at both ends of the ice. But each of the components is a sophomore, a year in which regression is more of a norm than an outlier. K’Andre Miller had an excellent camp and has apparently played his way onto Jacob Trouba’s left side. There is no overstating the challenge that the freshman pro will face in matchup situations. Tony DeAngelo has returned to his natural right side to bolster the third pair that presumably will include either Jack Johnson or Brendan Smith following an aborted experiment in which No. 77 played the left with Trouba on a matchup pair.
There is offensive talent overflowing here, the team can skate it and move it. But structure — that indeed improved the second half of the season after Shesterkin and Georgiev supplanted Lundqvist — is the first and foremost responsibility.
David Quinn has been a development coach for two seasons who has never countenanced losing as a means for advancement. He has gotten the best out of his marquee athletes by riding his horses while refusing to allow the name on the back of the jersey to dictate playing time or assignments. Again: the relatively seamless transition away from Lundqvist could not have been handled more professionally and productively by any coach.
Most important offensive player
Well, listen, of course the Rangers will need production from Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider commensurate with last season, and of course they will need the same from Strome. But Filip Chytil is the key here. If the 21-year-old blossoms with Alexis Lafreniere on his wing, the Rangers may be able to abandon pursuit of a long-term second-line center. If Chytil stumbles, the search will be on and the club’s third line could descend into disarray.
Most important defensive player
Jacob Trouba will have the responsibility of playing matchup minutes with a rookie on his left, at least out of the gate while he attempts to put his own game in order after a transitional year in New York. The Rangers need Trouba to build off his late-season and bubble performances, when he was paired with Brendan Smith.
Most important rookie
Alexis Lafreniere will be under the spotlight as the first-overall pick, but by sheer dint of his position, Igor Shesterkin is the team’s most important freshman even if it seems as if he’s been here forever. How did that happen?
Key coaching decision
Monitoring the three-line approach, deciding on whether Kaapo Kakko belongs in a top-six role and whether it’s best to keep Lafreniere on a third unit will line up as critical decisions. Also: for how long does Lafreniere remain on the second power-play unit?
The goaltending should be more reliably consistent, the defense should be better, and there is more depth everywhere, even if unproven. Their mentality will be tested and while this could be a Simon Says type of season, with one step forward here, an umbrella step backward there, the Rangers should compete for a playoff spot. And yes, even earn one.