Sports fans have very short memories, and it’s time we start remembering where this Rangers team was three years ago. After their ‘16-’17 playoff exit to the Ottawa Senators, the Rangers began entering a rebuild status. They were a bottom team in the Metro division and the Eastern Conference for the next two years. Had it not been for the Covid shortened season and the bubble being introduced, the Rangers would have missed the playoffs for four consecutive years. In 2019, the playoffs were expanded to allow “bubble” teams a chance to advance, and the Carolina Hurricanes swept them in a best-of-five. The irony was that for the NHL Entry Draft that year, the first overall pick was awarded to a team that made the playoffs in the bubble and would be entered to win that spot, which they did. The Rangers drafted Alexis Lafreniere with that pick. The Rangers again missed the playoffs in the ‘20-’21 season. The Rangers brought in Gerard Gallant as the head coach for the following season. The season saw a Rangers team dramatically and surprisingly finish well above expectations.
I will start at the top when evaluating where to expect the Rangers to be in 2023. The Rangers let Gallant go this offseason after back-to-back playoff exits after being up in the series 2-0.. The Rangers are not an old team, but their stars are getting up there. Their window for a cup with this roster is closing, and they are incredibly close. The Rangers fired Gallant in an effort to shake up the Rangers playoff woes these past two seasons, but I do not believe he was the problem. The Rangers brought in Peter Laviolette this offseason after his exit from Washington. Peter Laviolette is a Hall of Fame coach and arguably one of the best coaches of all time. For background, Laviolette was the coach who broke the Islanders’ playoff drought back in 2001. After they fired him, he went on to take his next three teams to Stanley Cup appearances, winning it as a coach of the Carolina Hurricanes. This guy brings out the best in everything he touches, and what the Rangers are missing comes from within this team itself.
The Rangers have a playoff team, and there should be no question about it. The 2023 team will look very different than how their roster ended last season. Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrick Kane, both trade deadline acquisitions, are gone. The offseason signing of Blake Wheeler will offset both losses. Blake Wheeler has more left in the tank than most people do. While Tarasenko may be the best of the three, Tarasenko is precisely what the Rangers lack, and that’s why he has never won a Championship. Vlad Tarasenko needs to be the star wherever he goes. So does Patrick Kane. Blake Wheeler does not. Blake Wheeler thrives to be the star; he wants to win a Cup, and I believe coming to the Rangers is where he believes he can. This signing will be one of the biggest steals of the offseason and can get Wheeler one of two things: a retirement on his terms or an end-of-career payday next season. Blake Wheeler should fit on the second line with Artemi Panarin. The 2023 Rangers defense and depth are relatively unchanged. Nick Bonino was brought in for a fourth-line role, giving the Rangers a little more athleticism than last season. Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad will continue to run the first line, with Kaapo Kakko on the other side of Kreider.
The Rangers evaluation matters in the playoffs. The Rangers should finish as a third-place playoff team in the Metro and will have a first-round rematch against the Devils. The Rangers should want to finish as a wild-card team and face Toronto or Carolina. The Devils will be too tough of a matchup for them again, but the Rangers have played Carolina well. Either way, the Metro Division is too tough for them to get out of the first round, second at best. There is no true window for the Rangers to get to the cup this year without significant injury. The Rangers got by both Pittsburgh and Carolina due to injury two years ago. With starter Tristan Jarry already on the shelf, Casey DeSmith went down in game 1, leaving third-string goaltender Louis Domingue to play the next five games, and the Rangers struggled. The Rangers didn’t begin to show life until Jacob Trouba knocked Sid Crosby out of game 5. The Rangers came back from a 3-1 deficit to win the series against an injured Penguins team. In the second round, the Rangers avoided Frederik Andersen in net. The Rangers went on to the Eastern Conference Finals against the two-time defending cup winners, the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Rangers lost the next four after going up 2-0 in the series. After back-to-back game seven series, the Rangers showed they didn’t have the stamina or leadership to hold a 2-0 series lead.
Last season, the Rangers again went up 2-0 in their series against the Devils and lost the next three before forcing a game 7. When a team loses back-to-back series going up 2-0, you should believe the problem is in the locker room, not on the ice. This year, both the Hurricanes and Devils got stronger. If there is any coach that could get the Rangers over the hump, it’s Peter Laviolette. The problem is, he’s a year too late. Even if the Rangers found that leadership they’re missing, it won’t be enough to beat either team if they’re healthy in back-to-back series. They will be an excellent team this season, and their playoff matchups will be good, but they will fall short. This time it will be respectable, and we could see them win the cup in 2024-25. Carolina is on an all-out push, and their window is closed after this year. The Rangers should consider this year the turning point for their future. A hard-fought loss to one of these teams this season will have them eyeing 2024 with a vengeance, and with Carolina falling off, and if they lose back-to-back years to the Devils, expect to see the Rangers raising the cup next season. The Rangers are a team we should make a lot of profit betting on in the regular season and then against in the playoffs. Be excited to watch them; they will be excellent to watch.