The Rangers’ battalion of players under 25 years old will dominate the conversation for much of training camp this week, and the entire 2022-23 season for that matter.
Can Alexis Lafreniere, the Blueshirts’ prized first-overall pick from two short years ago, seize a bigger role? Will Kaapo Kakko, who was the No. 2 pick in 2019, be able to stay healthy and have an impact year? And with restricted free agency looming over his season, can Filip Chytil carry over his effective play from the postseason? The continued upward trajectory of defensemen K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider will be important, too. As will Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren, who it’s easy to forget are both still only 24.
“It was exciting to see what they did last year,” president and general manager Chris Drury said during rookie camp last week. “Basically, for most of them post-All Star Game, I think they all came back with a little different mindset. Playing some good hockey down the stretch and then we all saw what they did in the playoffs. I think they’re excited about the opportunity.
“I think the opportunity is there for all of them to have more impactful roles day-to-day in the lineup. Whether that’s [power play], top nine, top six. I think they’re itching to try and grab it and it’ll be fun to watch.”
Before their six-game preseason slate begins on Monday against the Islanders, however, management will have an evaluative period during training camp. These are the top storylines, in no particular order, to follow as the weeklong camp unfolds:
Filling the right-wing spot on the first line and Lafreniere switching to his off-side to seize the job
Of all the wingers vying for spots in the top six, Lafreniere has logged the most time (25 games) on the first unit alongside Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. The 20-year-old should get the first look there, but it’ll take more than just a commitment to the off-side switch for him to stay there.
The reason why Frank Vatrano, who is now with the Ducks after helping the Rangers to the conference final as a trade-deadline acquisition last season, worked so well with Kreider and Zibanejad was because of his shoot-first mentality. As a developing player, Lafreniere may have to add a little bit more of that to his game to fit the role.
Vitali Kravtsov back in Rangers locker room for first time since bailing last season
The full scope of the dynamic between the Rangers and Kravtsov may never be crystal clear, but how the Russian winger handles his reintegration into the club will speak volumes. When he didn’t make the Rangers’ opening-night roster last season, Kravtsov refused an AHL assignment and went home to play in the Kontinental Hockey League, where he had already spent parts of six seasons.
Had Kravtsov reported to Hartford, there’s no doubt he would’ve seen NHL ice sooner rather than later amid injuries and COVID-19 cases. Still, he opted to play elsewhere. Being accountable is part of being a professional and there will be questions about his decisions. Kravtsov, who did arrive early to New York this summer to begin training, is in line for a key role on a Rangers team he hasn’t always acted like he wants to be a part of.
The competition for the sixth defenseman job
There aren’t many spots completely up for grabs on the Rangers, but rounding out the defense corps is the most notable wide-open job. To the Rangers’ benefit, it is also the one with the most competition. Zac Jones, Libor Hajek and Matt Robertson are considered the front-runners, but the recent signing of veteran defenseman Matt Bartkowski to a professional tryout contract gives head coach Gerard Gallant another option.
First look at Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck
The loss of Ryan Strome will no doubt be felt in the locker room, but the hope is that the addition of Vincent Trocheck will make it unnoticeable on the ice. Artemi Panarin has proven time and time again that he can develop chemistry with anyone he flanks. The No. 2 center is an important role on every team and the Rangers are no different, but with such a top-heavy lineup it’ll be all the more crucial to the team’s success. Following up a duo whose nickname was Bread-and-Butter will be tough for Trocheck, but the veteran center has the potential to change the look of the top six.
Personnel decisions will dictate identity of fourth line
We saw several different combinations on the bottom unit throughout last season. Each variation could bring a different style of play and it helped give the Rangers a different look at times. From the physical group of Greg McKegg (now with Oilers)-Kevin Rooney (now with Flames)-Ryan Reaves to the speedier Tyler Motte (now with Senators)-Jonny Brodzinski-Dryden Hunt, they all displayed a different approach. The Rangers still have options for the fourth line, but it’ll be important to be strategic. Reaves, Brodzinski and Hunt are still in the mix, as are Sammy Blais, Ryan Carpenter, Julien Gauthier, Gustav Rydahl and maybe even Will Cuylle.