Entering the 2021-22 season, the New York Rangers have young players that are looking to take that next step in their development where they would cement themselves as players that will help the Rangers win now and in the future. We saw this with Adam Fox a season ago, where after a really good rookie season where he came fourth in Calder voting, he then progressed the following season where he transformed into a Norris winning defenseman where he showed the league his high hockey IQ, and elite two way play. With Fox breaking out last season, the Rangers will now look at big jumps from these young players to help the team get better for the now and future.
5. Dryden Hunt
The Rangers’ main goal this offseason was to get bigger and stronger and it showed with additions like Patrik Nemeth, Sammy Blais, Ryan Reaves, Barclay Goodrow, and a player that is going under the radar by a lot of people, Dryden Hunt. He isn’t the biggest guy in the world as he is only 6’0″, 194 lbs, but he will hit anything and is not afraid to drop the gloves. But a big part of his game that really stands out to me is his ability to defend in his own zone. From 2018-2021, Hunt managed a 3.4 EVD which ranks him first among current Ranger forwards during that timeframe. Already, if he gets proper ice-time you can expect good things from Hunt defensively, but with a proper coaching staff and a consistent role in the bottom-six, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if Hunt becomes a Jesper Fast 2.0 where he can be a very effective defensive player on the Rangers.
4. K’Andre Miller
After an impressive start to Miller’s rookie season, he (like most of the team) started to trail off and play worse as he started to become a bit inconsistent, and it did not help that his defensive partner for the whole season in Jacob Trouba got hurt against the Islanders to where it ended his season. Now with one season under his belt, he’ll have a lot to learn from and what to do in specific situations. It will also help if he stays put with Trouba for a whole season as they have good chemistry together, as they both have similar size and play style, and it also helps that Trouba is being a great mentor and helping Miller in his development. If Miller is able to hone in on his raw talent and smartly use his big size he’ll be able to truly cement himself as a true top-four defenseman in the league.
3. Igor Shesterkin
Shesterkin’s first season as a starter had its ups and downs, but overall he left a good taste in a lot of people’s mouths as he showed the ability to be a top goalie in the NHL in only his 2nd year. Along with the team getting healthy and a competent coach to implement a solid enough defensive scheme to where Igor won’t be left out to dry every other game, he can truly show the league that his long-term deal is already gonna be a bargain. During the 2021 season, Shesterkin ranked 12th in SV%, 16th in GSAx, 13th in GSAA, and 3rd in HDSV%, these stats could look better but during the last handful games for the Rangers, Shesterkin was left out to dry. To add, legendary goalie coach Benoit Allaire will continue to assess Shesterkin’s game and continue to improve it, particularly in the basics of playing the position, such as his angles and positioning on the ice. In all, in 2021-22 Shesterkin can truly become an elite #1 goalie and possibly be a vezina candidate.
2. Kaapo Kakko
Kaapo Kakko was easily the most improved player this past season as he went from one of the worst analytical players in the analytics era to one of the best defensive forwards in the league (for the 2021 season), and showed real promise along the boards and in developing quality offensive chances. Even with this, Kakko is still not scoring, but that can change easily as with Gerard Gallant giving him consistent top 6 ice time and his continued improvement in skating and strength he can quickly become one of the best two way forwards in the league, only at the age of 21 as well. Kakko had a 2.3 xEVO during 2021 and this will very much improve if he is able to play with Artemi Panarin or Mika Zibanejad on a consistent basis, as the chances he creates will show more on the scoresheet due to having better finishers on the ice and to add if he is able to mantain his high-level of defense. Kakko can quickly go from a terrible rookie season where he was hystorically bad, to possibly being one of the best two-way players in the NHL in only his 3rd season.
1. Alexis Lafreniere
To the surprise of nobody, Alexis Lafreniere is my top breakout candidate for the Rangers. Lafreniere showed a high level of offensive production when put in the top-six as 61% of his points came when he was in the top-six, and very much like Kakko, Gallant giving Lafreniere that consistent top-six time will be the prime factor in him breaking out offensively. If you want an in depth look at Alexis Lafreniere’s inevitable breakout, check out this article where I heavily focused on the main factors that will allow Laf to become a dynamic offensive player in 2021-22.