The New York Rangers have played 17 playoff games heading into Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final, which will be played at 8 p.m. Tuesday in Tampa Bay.
They’ve provided countless thrilling moments for fans in their month-plus of postseason action and ample opportunities for growth for each player on their blossoming roster. Many have met the challenge and excelled, while a few have stumbled.
This small playoff sample size can make a big impression. The players who step up may springboard their careers to the next level, with each game influencing both present and future decisions.
Predicting the path for individual players is similar to playing the stock market. Educated choices can be made, but there’s always some element of chance. All you can do is take a snapshot in time and use the best information at your disposal in that moment.
With that as a theme, we’ve divided some noteworthy Rangers into three categories to assess the biggest risers, fallers and safest bets based on this year’s playoff performances.
INJURIES: Will Barclay Goodrow and Ryan Strome play in Game 4?
GAME 3: Rangers fall to Lightning and now we have a series
No stock has been hotter than the 22-year-old Czech’s. The Kid Line as a whole has provided plenty of reasons to be bullish, but Chytil has made the biggest jump in terms of performance and league-wide admiration.
Think about this: I actually had fans emailing prior to the playoffs suggesting that the Rangers scratch him so that Barclay Goodrow could center the third line in between lottery picks Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko. A month later, that’s a laughable concept.
Chytil has consistently used his speed to press teams down the middle of the ice and is tied for the team lead with six even-strength goals. (He’s also tied for first with three game-winning goals.) He ranks second with 38 shots on goal at five-on-five, with his shoot-first mentality helping to balance out all of the pass-first players in the lineup. And his possession (53.09% Corsi, according to Natural Stat Trick) and xGF (53.27%) numbers are the best among all Rangers.
Prior to the playoffs, there were questions about whether he should be the third-line center next season. Now those questions have shifted to whether he should supplant Ryan Strome on the second line.
The No. 1 overall pick from the 2020 NHL Draft hasn’t been quite as dynamic as Chytil, but he hasn’t been far off, either.
The 20-year-old winger has matched his linemate with nine points, although he’s been much more of a passer, with seven of those coming from assists. His ability to read the ice and make the right decisions with the puck has been coming to the forefront.
It hasn’t only been about offense for Lafrenière, though. Whether his skating has improved or he’s being more decisive to make it appear that way, he’s looked faster. That’s led to stronger play on the forecheck, while backchecking and off the rush.
Furthermore, Lafrenière has been a physical presence who isn’t afraid to mix it up with opponents or step in to defend his teammates. As the pressure has mounted, he’s looked his most comfortable, which is a great sign for the Rangers.
Are you sensing a theme here?
The Rangers’ youth has mostly exceeded expectations throughout these playoffs, which bodes very well for what head coach Gerard Gallant referred to as both the future and “the near future.”
The 22-year-old defenseman has certainly been among them, with his responsibilities carrying the most weight. He’s second in time on ice per game with an average of over 25 minutes and is often matched up against the top-six forwards for the opposition. Whether it’s been Sidney Crosby, Sebastian Aho or Nikita Kucherov, Miller has more than held his own.
One of his standout qualities is his ability to recover. Because of his high-end skating and 6-foot-5 reach, the 22-year-old defenseman can track down pucks in all situations. And once he has it, he’s shown he’s very capable of pushing forward and making plays.
A prime example came during the second period of Game 3 against the Lightning when he picked Kucherov’s pocket and then set up Goodrow for a shorthanded rush opportunity that hit the post.
Those are plays few defensemen – and it’s what makes Miller’s upside so enticing.
Since returning from an upper-body injury on May 13, the 27-year-old forward has shown all of the reasons he was considered a perfect fit at the trade deadline.
Motte is a menace on the forecheck, a never-give-up defender and a speed demon up-and-down the ice. He’s been a huge spark for the fourth line, with no goals being allowed in the 12 playoff games he’s been on the ice with them. He’s also credited with 11 takeaways in those contests while only committing two giveaways.
His energetic play has added much-needed balance and explosiveness to the lineup, and even though the Rangers are going to have a major salary cap squeeze on their hands next season, trying to fit the pending free agent feels like it should be a priority – particularly because of how well he fits Gallant’s system.
The points were coming early for the reigning Norris Trophy winner, but it wasn’t until the comeback began in the first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins that he really took off.
Fox’s value has only built from there, particularly during his latest eight-game point streak. He was the best player on the ice in Friday’s 3-2 win in Game 2, looking like he had the puck on a string and was toying with the Lightning for most of the game. His 23 points (five goals and 18 assists) rank one behind Mika Zibanejad for the team lead, as he’s repeatedly shown that his skill and hockey IQ translate well to the playoff setting.
Of equal importance has been the 24-year-old’s workload and shutdown defensive abilities. He leads the team with 26:39 TOI per game and is one of only two defensemen (along with partner Ryan Lindgren) who is averaging less than two goals allowed per 60 minutes at five-on-five.
There isn’t much No. 23 can’t do, which makes him a steady bet for any investor.
There was some brief volatility when the 26-year-old goalie was pulled early from back-to-back road games in Pittsburgh, but it’s been all gains since then.
The Hart and Vezina Trophy finalist hasn’t allowed more than three goals since Game 4 of the Rangers’ first-round series and limited opponents to two or fewer in eight of his last 10. His .930 save percentage ranks as the best among the remaining goalies in the playoffs and his 20.6 goals saved above expectation is tops among all 23 who appeared in this year’s postseason, according to Evolving Hockey.
Simply put, the Blueshirts were able to outlast the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games because of Shesterkin. They were outshot in that series, 234-183, but received goaltending excellence from start to finish to frustrate the volume-shooting Canes.
He’s the No. 1 reason they’re two wins away from the Stanley Cup Final and would be the favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy if they were to win it.
While Shesterkin has been the Rangers’ best player, Zibanejad has been the best skater in front of him.
He’s taken off since a breakout performance in Game 6 against the Penguins, collecting 20 points in the 12 games since. The 29-year-old center leads the Rangers with 24 points (10 goals and 14 assists) and has been their most consistent offensive threat. His patented one-timer from the left circle has been all-but automatic, while his passing has been one of his biggest areas of improvement.
When you factor in the power play and penalty kill contributions, the team-best 50.57% faceoff win rate and the inspiring two-way commitment, there isn’t much more you can ask for from any investment – or a No. 1 center. Zibanejad has proven he’s a big-time playoff performer.
While the 30-year-old winger hasn’t had the disastrous playoffs that some may portray it to be, there’s no question that he’s left something to be desired.
His power-play contributions remain steady, but Panarin has only produced seven points at even-strength through 17 playoff games – including only one in the seven-game series against Carolina. That’s a letdown when you consider that he led the team with 96 points during the regular season and was widely considered their most dynamic offensive weapon.
It’s been noted that the aggressive forechecks and heightened physicality faced in the playoffs cut down the space that the former Hart Trophy finalist has to work with. He’s admitted that himself. But that can’t serve as an excuse for a dropoff in play.
He’s looked a bit more comfortable through three ECF games, but the prevailing feeling is that Panarin has more in the tank.
The 30-year-old defenseman was signed to a three-year, $7.5 million contract last summer to bring a steady veteran presence to the Rangers’ young D corps, but he only lasted five playoff games.
Nemeth was benched due to a handful of glaring mistakes. He registered eight penalty minutes through his first four games, mishandled the puck at key times and was too often caught out of position. That led to trade-deadline acquisition Justin Braun supplanting him on the bottom pair by Game 5 of the first round.
Now the Rangers are in a tough position moving forward. They can’t afford to keep a $2.5 million cap hit as a healthy scratch for the next two seasons, but they’ll likely have to attach another asset to Nemeth in order to convince another team to take him in a trade.
Part of the reason that Strome’s stock is falling is due to injury concerns, with an apparent right-leg injury jeopardizing his health heading into Game 4 in Tampa. But even prior to the injury, he wasn’t producing at the rate we’ve been accustomed to seeing during the regular season.
The 28-year-old center has only six even-strength points through 17 games. The Panarin-Strome connection that has been so successful the last three years has generated a 40.43% xGF, according to Natural Stat Trick, failing to create the balance the Rangers’ top six has been known for. While the Penguins, Hurricanes and Lightning have directed their matchup efforts at shutting down the Chris Kreider-Zibanejad top line, the second line has largely been unable to make them pay for it.
To Strome’s credit, he leads the team with 31 high-danger scoring chances, according to Natural Stat Trick. He’s been committed to getting to the net and slot areas, but has lacked a finishing touch with a lowly 4.26% shooting percentage.
Trade-deadline acquisition Andrew Copp has been the better all-around player, which gives him the inside track at a new contract. Both he and Strome are heading for free agency, but the Rangers can only afford one. And as of this moment, Copp is looking like their preferred investment.
Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.