Rangers are one of NHL’s biggest mysteries going into camp
Henrik Lundqvist wants training camp to begin with an honest conversation.
The longtime face of the New York Rangers sees this as an important time to define expectations for this season after watching the team fast-track a rebuild by signing winger Artemi Panarin, trading for defensemen Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox, and drafting Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko.
“What type of pressure can we put on this team now? Where are we?” Lundqvist said. “What you want and what the reality is is sometimes very different. I want to win games. I want to play playoff hockey. And I hope within the group and coaching staff, we talk about it before camp starts. ‘OK, this is what we’ve got?’ What’s realistic? You set the goal and then you work toward that.”
The Rangers will be watched closely as NHL training camps begin this week, a curiosity amid the traditional Eastern Conference powers in Boston, Tampa Bay, Washington and Pittsburgh. Across the river from New York, the New Jersey Devils look similarly primed to turn things around, but New York seems a threat to contend again after missing the playoffs the past two seasons.
“It was exciting to see the big steps we’re taking in the right direction,” Lundqvist said. “We should be able to take that next step now with the additions and the younger guys need to take another step here in their development. But there’s so many teams I feel like in similar situations where if they do really well, they can get in.”
Signing Panarin to an $81.5 million, seven-year contract is the biggest reason to think the Rangers can get in. Now it’s a question of how the Russian point-a-game producer jells with center Mika Zibanejad and the rest of the forwards within coach David Quinn’s system. Kakko, the second overall pick, dazzled in a prospects tournament and New York’s blue line got a major boost with the trade for Trouba.
“There’s no question that we improved a lot over the summer,” Lundqvist said. “Changes, big and small, can turn things around pretty quickly.”
Connor McDavid is five months removed from tearing the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which might now be the most scrutinized body part in the league. The Edmonton captain has surpassed 100 points each of the past three seasons, seems to skate at a different gear than his peers and is widely considered the best hockey player in the world.
There are plenty of questions about how the injury will affect all that.
“It’s tough to see anyone get hurt, especially a player of his caliber,” said Chicago forward Alex DeBrincat, who played junior hockey with McDavid. “He said it’s getting better. Hope he’s ready for camp and would love to see him back on the ice.”
The Oilers said they won’t rush McDavid back. That’s a common refrain but easier said than done after missing the playoffs in back-to-back years and knowing what McDavid can do.
“He’s our leader; he’s our engine,” Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins said. “But at the same time, he’s a young hockey player who you want to make sure he’s healthy and confident in his body. Whenever he’s ready to go, we’re going to be happy to have him back.”
Six teams go into camp with a new coach: Joel Quenneville in Florida, Alain Vigneault in Philadelphia, Ralph Krueger in Buffalo, Todd McLellan in Los Angeles, Dallas Eakins in Anaheim and Dave Tippett in Edmonton. All of them have previous NHL experience, most notably Quenneville winning the Stanley Cup three times with Chicago. Vigneault took the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 and the Rangers in 2014 to the Cup Final. Now he’s in charge of a head-scratching Philadelphia team that has alternated missing and making the playoffs the past eight seasons.
“He’s had success with two different teams,” Flyers center Sean Couturier said of Vigneault. “I think he’s a coach that knows what it takes to go far in the playoffs and win.”
A handful of prominent restricted free agents are signing new contracts on the eve of camp, but a handful of situations might drag on into the regular season. Toronto’s Mitch Marner and Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor don’t have deals.
“Obviously Mitch is a big part of our team,” Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews said. “We want him there and we want him there as soon as possible.”
Kakko isn’t even the biggest rookie to watch in the New York area thanks to Devils No. 1 pick Jack Hughes . New Jersey has depth at center with 2017 top pick Nico Hischer and veteran Travis Zajac that should allow coach John Hynes to protect Hughes from tough matchups as he adjusts to the NHL.
“I think the focus needs to be on his development as a player,” new Devils defenseman P.K. Subban said. “He’s got a lot of time, and there’s going to be a learning curve. But he’s a tremendous talent, and you’re going to see that when the puck drops.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno