The New York Rangers have been one of the league’s more remarkable stories through the first quarter of the season. Not so much because they have a good record — that’s nothing new. But moreso because of how they’ve gone about it.
Following last year’s swift and painful first round loss at the hands of the eventual champions from Pittsburgh, the Rangers were left with questions. After being the team that eliminated the Penguins in both 2014 and 2015, they were pretty well dominated over the course of their five-game exit in 2016. They simply couldn’t keep up with Mike Sullivan’s squad and — worse yet — they weren’t exactly trending up for the future either.
Part of New York’s issue was an aging roster with little wiggle room to grow, thanks to cap constraints. Not to say they wouldn’t be decent again this season, but it appeared at the time that this group may have hit their ceiling. And their farm system was ranked last in the NHL by The Hockey News, implying there wasn’t exactly a wealth of new talent on the horizon.
Put another way, it seemed like they might have plateaued and left Henrik Lundqvist’s best shot at a Stanley Cup on the table at some point in the last few years.
That might ultimately still prove to be the case, but at least things don’t look so predictable at the moment. General manager Jeff Gorton made the roster younger by getting creative over the summer. He dealt for Mika Zibanejad (and a much-needed second round pick), signed Brandon Pirri and won the Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes, acquiring some scoring without spending much money or giving away any pieces other than Derick Brassard.
Now the Rangers are winning, and they have some potential upside to look forward to. They’ve also gotten a nice boost from some of the younger guys that were already on the roster, led by Kevin Hayes. The former first round selection (No. 24 overall by the Blackhawks in 2010) is tied for the club lead with 19 points, and sits second with 10 goals. He’s consistently seeing top-six minutes, as well as some time on both the power play and penalty kill — and he’s making his ice time count.
New York is making his production count too. In the nine games Hayes has found the back of the net, the Rangers are a perfect 9-0. And they’re 12-1 when he registers at least a point. That’s a pretty good pattern to follow, since the 24-year old is on pace for just under 36 goals and 68 total points.
To put that in perspective, Hayes had 31 goals and 50 assists before this season — total, over the course of his career.
When Chicago took him in the 2010 draft, the scouting reports described the youngster as a big playmaker with good ice vision. He hadn’t suited up for Boston College yet, though, so there were still questions as to how he’d fare against competition stronger than the New England prep schools he was skating against at the time.
As it turns out, he’s faring pretty well. Hayes erupted for 27 goals and 65 points during his senior year at BC, and was solid for New York in each of his first two NHL campaigns. He notched a 17-28-45 statline in 2014-15, then followed that up with a respectable 14-22-36 last season. But now he seems to really be breaking out.
That would be huge for the Rangers. Not just for the present, but for the future as well. The concern for New York wasn’t that they’d be mediocre, just that they might not have much more untapped potential to draw from and improve.
And if that were the case, how receptive would fans in The Big Apple be to an eventual rebuild? Especially if it included bottoming out down the road?
To be fair, that’s a lot of speculation, but it was a legitimate concern among fans looking at the long-term direction of their team. A strong start through 23 games doesn’t instantly change all that, but it is providing a much more optimistic landscape.
If the Rangers can retool on the fly — similar to what the Red Wings did, time and time again — that would probably go over a lot better in New York than suffering through the lean years that, say, Pittsburgh and Chicago had to endure before rising back up.
Instead, the Rangers have the second-best record in hockey at the moment, and a more youthful roster to work with. Hayes is signed through next season, as is 23-year-old J.T. Miller, who also has 19 points. Chris Kreider is just 25, and locked up through the end of the 2019-20 campaign. And 26-year-old Derek Stepan is inked until 2021.
Perhaps best of all, there’s Vesey. The reigning Hobey Baker winner has 13 points so far in his rookie campaign, carries just a $925,000 cap hit through the end of next season and surprised a lot of people when he chose the Rangers over his many other suitors this past summer. But Hayes and Vesey are good friends, which may have given New York an edge when so many clubs were chasing the talented winger.
If that’s the case, Hayes was already paying dividends before the puck even dropped this season.