The term “accelerated rebuild” has become a popular one in sports lately.
In short, while no organization—or their fanbase, for that matter—wants to go through a period in which, for all intents and purposes, they aren’t competitive on a consistent basis, there’s seemingly been an increase in teams who are looking to speed up the process of returning to relevance.
Whether it be through maximizing the return for your existing assets through trades or the work of the scouting department, either through the draft or free agent signings, there are several options for just how a franchise can quickly overhaul the roster.
But, there’s a difference between an “accelerated rebuild” and simply putting your foot on the gas and going for it as soon as possible.
Enter the New York Rangers.
The window to win for what had been a very successful core group had seemingly closed last season, with a successful first month serving as something of a mirage for what was to come in a mostly abysmal season under first-year head coach David Quinn in which they floundered to a 32-36-14 record that was good for 26th “best” in a 31-team league.
With the writing firmly on the wall by the trade deadline, GM Jeff Gorton shipped out key pieces Mats Zuccarello (to Dallas) and Kevin Hayes (Winnipeg) and also got a return from Columbus for depth defefenseman Adam McQuaid.
The overall haul? Two conditional picks from Dallas that could both escalate to first-rounders, a first-rounder from Winnipeg along with feisty winger Brendan Lemieux, and a fourth- and seventh-round pick from the Blue Jackets.
Lemieux, just 23, posted a meager 3-3—6 line in 19 games on what was left of the Rangers last season, but is part of a youth movement that started at the end of the previous season; stalwarts Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller were moved to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for 26-year-old Vlad Namestnikov, as well as prospects-at-the-time Brett Howden and Libor Hajek and two draft picks; they acquired a first-rounder in 2018 and conditional pick that turned into a second-rounder in the upcoming draft.
While Namestnikov underachieved and the jury’s still out on Howden, Hajek has positioned himself to compete for a spot on the Rangers D core for years to come, while that first-rounder in 2018 turned into another blueliner, Nils Lundkvist, who has yet to play in North America.
In all, 19 of the 34 players that the Rangers used in the 2018-19 season were 25 or younger, highlighted by 2017 seventh overall pick Lias Andersson and that year’s 21st overall selection, Filip Chytil.
Andersson and Chytil, both of whom were standouts at the 2018 World Junior Championships, developed to varying degrees last year; Andersson split the year between Manhattan and Hartford and posted disappointing NHL numbers while averaging just 10:43 of ice time, while Chytil spent the majority of his first full pro season at Madison Square Garden and tallied 11 goals and 12 assists in 75 NHL games.
Alexandar Georgiev, just 22 years old, was quickly thrust into the fire as a backup for aging franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, and performed admirably despite getting the most action out of any of the league’s 15 netminders who were 23 or younger; Georgiev went 14-13-4 with a 2.91 goals against average and very-respectable .914 save percentage.
From the outside looking in, perhaps all of that set the foundation for what the Blueshirts hope is to come. But it’s what’s yet to come that has the Original Six franchise poised to potentially get back to the playoffs as early as the 2019-20 season.
While Georgiev and Lundqvist made a fine tandem last year, Rangers fans have been clamoring for the arrival of prized goalie prospect Igor Shesterkin for years. They finally got their wish.
The 23-year-old Russian has stood out in the Kontinental Hockey League for the past six seasons, but perhaps never more so than this year; he appeared in 28 games with SKA St. Petersburg and posted a 24-3-1 record, 1.11 GAA, .953 SV%, and 10 shutouts en route to historic campaign.
Both his goals-against average and save-percentage were the second-best single season marks in league history. Not bad for a goaltender the Rangers “stole” in the late rounds of the 2014 draft, similar to what they did with Lundqvist in 2000, also five years before he was ever set to play in North America.
But that’s not all. Not even close, really.
The buzz around Vitali Kravtsov has only grown ever since the Rangers took him ninth overall in last year’s draft, and while the wait to get him to North America certainly wasn’t as long as it was for Shesterkin, the 19-year-old winger signed his entry-level contract and is expected to make an impact on Broadway immediately.
While he scored just eight goals and 13 assists in 50 games with Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL, it’s very much so worth noting that he led all KHL players younger than 20 in goals, assists, and points. But it was during the postseason, the Gagarin Cup Playoffs, where he really began to break out.
He tallied 11 points (six goals, five assists) in 16 games, recording more playoff points in one year than any other teenager has in their career in the league’s history.
Kravtsov joins the elite company of Vladimir Tarasenko and Evgeny Kuznetsov as one of only three players in KHL history younger than 21 to register at least 11 points in one playoff year and figures to potentially see top-six minutes with the Rangers if he’s able to earn a spot after the 2019-20 preseason.
While the additions of Kravtsov and Shesterkin were somewhat expected, a big piece of the puzzle on the blueline getting filled was not. The Rangers acquired D-prospect Adam Fox from the Carolina Hurricanes at the end of April in exchange for a second-round pick and conditional third, a price that isn’t so hefty considering the stockpile of picks the organization has added over the past few seasons.
Fox, a Hobey Baker Award finalist with Harvard who was said to be unwilling to sign with the Hurricanes, who acquired his rights in a 2018 trade, is a First Team All-American who is believed to be NHL-ready. He set new collegiate career-highs in several categories during this past season, including goals, assists, points, and plus/minus rating. He led all of college hockey in assists (39) and was second in points among defensemen only to current Colorado Avalanche standout Cale Makar, who ended up winning the Hobey Baker
Barring something unforeseen, Fox should slot into the backend of the Rangers D-pairs right way for the 2019-20 season.
Last, but certainly not least, is the projected addition of Kaapo Kakko, who is expected by most to be selected by the Rangers with the second overall pick in this year’s draft thanks to a little luck at the draft lottery. Kakko, an 18-year-old Finnish forward, is considered to be the second-best available player behind only American-wunderkind Jack Hughes, but has the advantage over Hughes in that he’s played against older competition in the Finnish Liiga.
Kakko has drawn comparisons to Winnipeg Jets sniper Patrik Laine, and is expected to be franchise cornerstone for the Rangers for years to come. Although he may be brought along slowly, he’ll likely see significant ice time at the NHL level sooner rather than later.
Eventually, that’ll all lead to the Rangers being competitive far, far sooner than expected, too.