Rangers, Devils poised to take over Metropolitan Division By Luke Garrison (Friday July 12th, 2019)
PICTURED—ARTEMI PANARIN AS A MEMBER OF THE COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS // Original Photo—Complete Hockey News on Twitter
It’s been an offseason full of bold moves for both the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils.
The northeastern neighbours finished in the bottom two spots of the Metropolitan Division last season with records below .500, but a flurry of transactions featuring big names should change fortunes dramatically for both clubs.
The Rangers have especially bolstered their depth on the wing. The additions of Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko are a welcomed upgrade as their highest scoring wingers last season were Chris Kreider (52 points), Pavel Buchnevich (38 points), and Mats Zuccarello (37 points).
Zuccarello probably would have led the way if he had managed to play more than 46 games (this number excludes the handful of games he played for Dallas), but that’s neither here nor there as he’s now on the Minnesota Wild and the Rangers needed to address their top-six scoring depth anyways.
The loss of Kevin Hayes leaves a pretty big hole at centre behind Mika Zibanejad; however, Lias Andersson could potentially fix that problem if he develops quickly enough.
The 20-year-old Swede was the Rangers’ first-round pick (7th overall) at the 2017 NHL Draft and although his skill, offensive upside, and potential ceiling are apparent, his overall game is still rather raw due to his age.
The young centre played 42 games with the big club last season racking up just six points (two goals) while winning faceoffs at roughly a 44% clip. Those numbers are obviously pretty underwhelming however not surprising when you consider the circumstances.
Andersson was a rookie averaging fewer than 11 minutes per game while mostly playing with underachieving forwards such as Vladislav Namestnikov and Ryan Strome. He also wasn’t apart of either power play unit and started 55.3% of his shifts in the defensive zone.
Things should look a lot different this year as Andersson could potentially see time playing on a line with at least one of Panarin, Kreider, or Kakko.
Filip Chytil, the Rangers’ other first-round selection from 2017 (21st overall), will also be vying for a top-six spot down the middle.
Chytil had his own struggles last season posting 11 goals and 23 points through 75 games, but those numbers aren’t so bad when you consider that he’s still a teenager.
PICTURED—RANGERS' FORWARD FILIP CHYTIL CELEBRATES WITH TEAMMATES // Original Photo—NHL Public Relations on Twitter
The Devils look quite promising up front as well which is encouraging given their own offensive woes during the 2018-19 campaign.
Kyle Palmieri was the only forward on New Jersey’s roster to score at least 50 points last season (earning exactly 50) although Nico Hischier (47 points) and Travis Zajac (46 points) came close.
Taylor Hall only played 33 games due to injury but still managed to rack up 37 points over that span. The Devils will certainly be counting on Hall to produce at that rate over the course of a full season.
Things truly get tricky up the middle. New Jersey drafted Jack Hughes first overall last month despite already having three potential top-six centres in the mix including Hischier, Zajac, and Pavel Zacha (their 6th overall pick from 2015).
Hughes is a can’t miss prospect with all of the tools to become a star centre; therefore, his spot in the top-six is all but solidified barring something unexpected.
Hischier seems like the most logical number two as Travis Zajac’s age and defensive prowess make him a prime candidate to handle third line duties.
So where does that leave Zacha? He’s racked up just 74 points through 200 games over his first three NHL seasons and certainly hasn’t earned anything despite his pedigree.
Perhaps we’ll see him shift to the wing within the middle-six as his talents would surely be wasted playing fourth line minutes. The Czech Republic native is currently an RFA who will most likely accept his qualifying offer instead of filing for arbitration given his less-than-modest production.
The path to top-nine minutes isn’t a clear one for Zacha, regardless of the position he ends up playing.
The addition of Wayne Simmonds to a top-nine featuring Hall, Palmieri, Jesper Bratt, and Blake Coleman has really given the Devils some enviable depth on the wings.
Zacha’s best hope is to take over the void on left wing created by the departure of Marcus Johansson although given the aforementioned depth, he’s still guaranteed to have linemates who are more than offensively competent.
PICTURED—DEVILS' CENTRE PAVEL ZACHA CELEBRATES // Original Photo—Pavel Zacha on Twitter
The Rangers have bulked up their defence but some question marks still remain.
The additions of Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox certainly add strength; however, it’s hard to feel confident about a backend featuring Kevin Shattenkirk as a focal point these days.
Youngsters Anthony DeAngelo and Brady Skjei have shown promise from an offensive standpoint, but they both still leave a lot to be desired in their own end.
Veteran Marc Staal continues to shoulder the bulk of the team’s defensive zone starts (61.4%) despite the fact that his game in his own zone has been kind of lackluster for quite some time.
Shattenkirk was the only Rangers defenceman to post a Corsi% over 50 (50.4%) last season and that simply has to change if New York hopes to keep pucks out of their own net.
Given the age and regression of legendary netminder Henrik Lundqvist, improving defensively is paramount if the Rangers hope to reach the playoffs for the first time in three years.
Their success will also heavily rely on another solid campaign from backup goaltender Alexandar Georgiev. Through 33 games (30 starts) last season, the 23-year-old Bulgarian amassed a 14-13-4-2 record to go along with a 2.91 GAA and a .914 SV%.
Lundqvist hasn’t played more than 65 games in a season since 2010-11 and only played 52 last year. As such, Georgiev is on pace to see a lot of time in the crease and his play will truly be an x-factor in regards to the Rangers’ postseason hopes.
PICTURED—ALEXANDAR GEORGIEV SHARES A MOMENT WITH HENRIK LUNDQVIST // Original Photo—NHL Public Relations on Twitter
The Devils certainly have a more ideal situation on their backend. A top-four featuring Sami Vatanen, Andy Greene, Damon Severson, and newly-acquired P.K. Subban is very solid.
Additionally, Will Butcher makes for a fantastic fifth option especially considering he likely hasn’t reached his full potential yet.
New Jersey’s blue line had their own Corsi% struggles last season but the addition of Subban, combined with a full-season of Vatanen (barring injury), should help to alleviate that concern.
They’ll certainly have to be as strong as possible given the amount of question marks in the crease.
Veteran netminder Cory Schneider was the definition of consistency in his first three years as a Devil posting a 2.14 GAA to go along with a .924 SV% over 169 starts (172 appearances), but we haven’t seen that version of Schneider since 2015-16.
In the three seasons since then, the American has only managed to earn a 2.91 GAA and .907 SV% over just 122 starts (126 appearances).
His health has played a crucial role in his regression and considering he’s also 33 years old, it may be time to turn over a new leaf.
With that being said, good starting goaltenders are hard to find but perhaps 22-year-old MacKenzie Blackwood is ready to take the reigns.
The young Canadian made his NHL debut last season and performed amicably racking up a 2.61 GAA and a .918 SV% over 21 starts (23 appearances).
If Schneider struggles out of the gate, Blackwood could have a shot at taking over the crease; however, Schneider still has three years remaining on his contract ($6 million AAV) so the Devils are naturally hoping he’ll have a bounce back campaign.
PICTURED—DEVILS' GOALTENDER MACKENZIE BLACKWOOD // Original Photo—NHL Public Relations on Twitter