“We have to make the playoffs,” center Mika Zibanejad said. “We have the team to do it.”
The Rangers haven’t qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2017.
They went into an announced rebuild midway through the following season and have been working through that process ever since, experiencing postseason hockey for three games in August 2020, when they were swept by the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
“It’s definitely something as a group of leaders we’ve discussed and the message has been pretty clear to the team that we’re flipping the page,” defenseman Jacob Trouba said.
That message was first sent late last season, when the Rangers fired president John Davidson and general manager Jeff Gorton on May 5, promoting Chris Drury to take over both roles. Drury was previously the associate GM.
It was a shocking upheaval that fast-forwarded the Rangers out of the patient approach they had been operating under into a win-now mode.
One week later New York fired coach David Quinn and three of his assistants, moves that came four days after the Rangers finished the 2020-21 season fifth in the MassMutual East Division with a 27-23-6 record.
Gerard Gallant, who won the Jack Adams award as NHL coach of the year in 2017-18, when he led the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, was then hired on June 16.
“We’re like any other team,” Gallant said. “We expect to make the playoffs. That’s what our goal is, but you just don’t say it. Talk is cheap. You’ve got to get ready to work hard and play hard.”
The Rangers’ offseason plan was to bring in experienced, gritty players who would make them tougher to play against, especially against some of the bigger and more experienced teams in the Metropolitan Division like the Washington Capitals.
With that in mind, they signed forward Barclay Goodrow to a six-year contract on July 22, five days after he was acquired in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning, signed forward Ryan Reaves to a one-year contract extension on July 31, two days after acquiring him in a trade with Vegas, and acquired forward Sammy Blais in a trade with the St. Louis Blues for forward Pavel Buchnevich on July 23.
Goodrow won the Stanley Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning the past two seasons playing in a third-line role with an emphasis on shutting down the opposition, including on the penalty kill. He has played in 65 NHL playoff games.
Reaves, who’s known for his tough, rugged style, played for Vegas when it reached the Cup Final under Gallant and has played in 84 playoff games.
Blais, an aggressive forechecker with skill, won the Stanley Cup with the Blues in 2019 and has played in 27 playoff games.
New York also signed defensemen Patrik Nemeth (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) to a three-year contract and Jarred Tinordi (6-6, 232) to a two-year contract on July 28.
“They’re guys who have won, who have been on winning teams and saw what a winning culture looks like,” said forward Chris Kreider, the longest tenured Rangers player having been in New York since the 2012 playoffs. “That is invaluable. The experiences I had as a young guy playing on some of those teams, going to the [Eastern] Conference Final (2012, 2015), Stanley Cup Final (2014), that’s invaluable. Those guys have stories and lessons that they’ve taken away from those experiences, things that they can share with the group and share with the young guys, and they can set a tone whether or not it’s their first year, more outspoken or more quiet.”
Goodrow, 28, is expected to start on the third line with 22-year-old center Filip Chytil and 21-year-old right wing Vitali Kravtsov. Reaves and Blais should make up two-thirds of New York’s fourth line, which will be centered by Kevin Rooney, Greg McKegg, or potentially rookie Morgan Barron.
Their additions help give the Rangers a more defined top-six forward group than they’ve had in recent seasons with Zibanejad, Kreider, Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome, Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere.
“It’s going be clearer roles for everybody,” Zibanejad said.
It’s the same concept on defense with Nemeth, 29, expected to play with rookie Nils Lundkvist, 21, and Tinordi the likely seventh defenseman. The top two pairs should feature Adam Fox, who won the Norris Trophy voted as top defenseman in the NHL last season, with Ryan Lindgren, and Trouba with K’Andre Miller.
“That’s when a team is at their best, when guys know what they have to do shift in and shift out so everyone can just be true to themselves in terms of players on the ice and how they play,” Fox said.
The Rangers are also expecting to have a defined leader by naming a captain before their season opener at the Washington Capitals on Oct. 13. They haven’t had a captain since Ryan McDonagh was traded to the Lightning on Feb. 26, 2018. Zibanejad, Panarin, Kreider and Trouba all wore an ‘A’ as alternate captains last season.
“I think it’s an important piece for us moving forward to have a captain,” Drury said. “I’m very confident with the guys we have in the room and the leadership we have and we’ve added.”
Confidence in what the Rangers are capable of this season is pouring out of their training camp. Expectations are high internally and externally. Belief is strong.
“We have pieces and a lot of really good players,” Fox said on the NHL @TheRink podcast earlier this month. “So I think it’s probably playoffs or it’s a disappointing year.”
If not more.
“Stanley Cup,” Reaves said. “I expect nothing less than a push for the Cup here.”