These haven’t been the best of times for New York sports. The Jets and the Giants are coming off last-place finishes. The Nets flamed out chaotically, while the Knicks arguably peaked on opening night (i.e., Bing Bong Night). The Mets and Yankees have both been playing well, but the MLB season is still young, and the off-season brought all manner of frustrations. But one New York team from the four biggest pro leagues has maintained good vibes from the very beginning of the season: the NHL’s Rangers. They’ll play Tuesday night in their first proper playoff game in five years.
The Rangers’ 52 wins were tied for the second most in franchise history — a finish that far exceeded preseason forecasts that projected they’d be on the playoff bubble at best. But more satisfying is the path they took to get there. Four years ago, after years of competitive teams that did everything but win the Stanley Cup, Rangers management famously wrote a letter to fans announcing that they’d be blowing up the roster and starting over. They realized that they’d gone as far as they could with that version of the team, and recognized that the fastest way to compete again would be to trade away popular players and try instead to stockpile draft picks and prospects.
This is, of course, a promise lots of teams make without following through. But the Rangers didn’t force fans to endure a perpetual rebuild. They improved incrementally since the letter, with a big breakthrough this year: They’d been a lock to qualify for the playoffs for months, and were in the mix to win their division until the season’s final week.
For much of the season, the Rangers were something of an anomaly, ranking near the top of the NHL standings despite ranking near the very bottom in advanced statistical categories that typically signal a team’s true strength. But this wasn’t so much a fluke as it was a product of a top-heavy roster of stars (and a world-class goalie, in particular) that offset weaker players further down the lineup.
Ultimately, those depth issues could be a problem in a tough Eastern Conference. But a roster like that means fans get to cheer for a young team loaded with dynamic, likable stars who should form the core of the Rangers for years to come.
Bandwagon jumpers should get to know five names. There’s Igor Shesterkin, who will almost certainly win this year’s Vezina Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s best goalie, and who almost scored a goal himself this year.
Adam Fox is a Long Island–born, Harvard-educated 24-year-old who last year won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman in his second pro season. Here’s a photo of him as a kid. Relatable!
Artemi Panarin is a world-class playmaker who has earned every cent of the big free-agent contract he signed three years ago. You may have heard his name recently outside of a hockey context; he’s the most high-profile Russian hockey player to have publicly criticized Vladimir Putin.
Veteran winger Chris Kreider, a fan favorite who made his debut ten years ago this spring in the middle of the playoffs, scored 52 goals this year, tied for the second most ever by a Ranger in a single season.
And center (and sometime DJ) Mika Zibanejad is an offensive threat who, along with Kreider, is the only player remaining from the franchise’s last playoff team.
One name that mercifully has not come up much this season is that of owner Jim Dolan, who last spring questionably fired the team’s top executives but seemingly hasn’t meddled since. And while last year’s housecleaning suggested that new team president Chris Drury had a mandate to dramatically shake up the roster, that hasn’t (yet) been the case. Outside of hiring a new coach, most of Drury’s work has involved locking in core players to long-term contracts and addressing the middle and bottom parts of the team’s depth chart — unflashy work that hasn’t deviated much from the path they were already on.
Ten years ago, I wrote for this magazine about how the Rangers had pulled off a rarity in New York sports: They had competently rebuilt their roster without testing the faith (or patience) of their fan base. That team was about to begin a four-year stretch in which they’d reach the Stanley Cup finals once and the conference finals two other times. The window to compete is just now opening for this version of the Rangers, even if a deep run in this season’s playoffs is still something of a reach. But with the rebuild going according to plan and then some, there’s already much for fans to celebrate.