Four months after a bitter end in the second round of the postseason, the Rangers reconvene Thursday for the beginning of training camp in Greenburgh with significant alterations. Mainstays in Dan Girardi and Derek Stepan are gone, but top free-agent signing and New Rochelle native Kevin Shattenkirk strengthens the Blueshirts’ back end.
“I think every fall the week before training camp you’re excited,” Henrik Lundqvist, entering his 13th NHL season, said Sunday at his youth camp. “You don’t really know how the team is gonna feel. You need a couple of weeks to glue together and play a couple of games. Obviously we made some moves this year that were maybe a little bigger than the past, because we moved Girardi and Step, guys that have been here for a long time. So obviously that will change the dynamic a little bit in the locker room. But the core group is still there. We added some very interesting players, too, that are hopefully gonna help us a lot. So I’m excited. I’m really focused now on getting a start to a good camp.”
On-ice testing begins Friday, followed by two days of practice and then the club’s preseason opener Monday at home against the Islanders. Here are five things to watch as the Rangers open camp:
1. KING AGAIN?
Lundqvist didn’t have a King-like season in 2016-17, with career-lows in goals against average (2.74) and save percentage (.910,) but his performance against Montreal in the first round of the playoffs showed what the 35-year-old is still capable of. A stronger defense corps should help Lundqvist be more consistent this season, which is a must if Lundqvist wants to capture that elusive Stanley Cup.
2. CENTER OF ATTENTION
Trading a do-it-all center in Stepan leaves a significant void up front as he was a mid-50s point-producer who constantly faced other team’s top forwards, killed penalties and played on the power play. Mika Zibanejad, the recipient of a five-year, $26.75 million contract, and Kevin Hayes will step into the top two center positions and each must continue to improve to fulfill those responsibilities. David Desharnais was signed as a bottom-six center, with the other center position in question. Will Boo Nieves or first-round pick Lias Andersson be able to win the job? Could J.T. Miller be moved from wing?
3. NEW NOISE
Several leaders remain, but with alternate captains in Girardi and Stepan gone that leaves room for some younger players to have bigger voices in the locker room. Lundqvist mentioned Miller and Hayes as players who are young but have enough experience now to take on bigger leadership roles. On Friday, Rick Nash named those two as well as Chris Kreider, the team’s leading goal-scorer last year, as players who can fill the void.
4. DEFENSIVE DEPTH
Ryan McDonagh, Shattenkirk, Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith should solidify the Rangers’ top-four on ‘D’, and Marc Staal and Nick Holden return. There are young defensemen who will be pushing throughout camp such as Anthony DeAngelo, who came over in the Stepan/Antti Raanta trade. Alexei Bereglazov, Sean Day, Ryan Graves and Neal Pionk are other intriguing young d-men in camp. Steven Kampfer provides veteran depth.
5. NEXT STEP
Skjei, Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich are all entering their second full NHL seasons. Skjei looked better and better as last year went on and surely will get a bigger workload as a result. If Vesey and Buchnevich each progress and can provide some more production, the Rangers will be strong again at wing, a position led by Mats Zuccarello, the team’s top returning point producer (59.)