When the New York Rangers limped off the ice after being whacked by the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games in the first round of the playoffs last spring, it was hard not to imagine that it likely marked the end of an era. Goalie Henrik Lundqvist had been yanked twice and looked beaten down. The Rangers' defense that had backchecked the team to the Stanley Cup finals in 2014 and conference final appearances in 2012 and 2015 looked broken. Rick Nash was a nonfactor.
In short, it was hard not to imagine the future as anything but bleak for the Broadway Blueshirts. But credit general manager Jeff Gorton with somehow retooling the Rangers on the fly by acquiring highly touted college free agent Jimmy Vesey, intriguing center Mika Zibanejad and free-agent forward Brandon Pirri. Was it a shuffling of the deck chairs or a bold reinvigorating of the Rangers' lineup that will help get them back in the playoffs for the 11th time in 12 seasons?
Biggest new faces
I must admit I'm still not sure how Vesey ended up with the Rangers, given how they finished the season and the fact that it looked like the window was closing on their championship potential. But good on Gorton and assorted New York celebrities for making the Rangers an attractive option for the collegiate star.
Pirri had 22 goals in just 49 games for the Florida Panthers in 2014-15 but has struggled to find a permanent NHL home, having bounced from the Chicago Blackhawks to the Panthers to the Anaheim Ducks, for whom he played just nine games last season before signing with New York. But he has impressed from the get-go with the Rangers and could be another important depth piece.
Zibanejad came at the expense of Derick Brassard, but he's younger, brings more size and has, in theory, a better two-way game. Michael Grabner and Nathan Gerbe will help fill in spaces among a much-different-looking forward contingent. On the blue line, neither Nick Holden -- acquired from the Colorado Avalanche -- nor Adam Clendening will replace Keith Yandle, who likely was the Rangers' most consistent defender over the last half of the season but who ended up signing a big contract with Florida.
Will the blue line return to its former state, or are those days gone forever? I chatted with Ryan McDonagh in Minnesota during the offseason, and the Rangers captain said he is committed to returning to his former status as a nightly difference-maker. The same must happen for Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, both of whom saw their games slide dramatically last season.
Up front, how will all the new, younger faces meld together? And is there enough offense there to keep the Rangers comfortably in the playoff picture? The talent is certainly there, so it's up to coach Alain Vigneault to get the most out of this group. Speaking of Vigneault, can he help the Rangers' penalty kill get up off the mat after the unit finished 26th last season?
We actually wrestled with where to slot in "The King" in this preview. Is Lundqvist a sure thing or big question mark? As noted, the playoffs ended on a sour note for the one player most responsible for the Rangers' significant success over the past decade, with Lundqvist sporting a 4.39 goals-against average. It's fair to say this season looms large for the 34-year-old Lundqvist. But he was excellent at the World Cup of Hockey (even if his Swedish teammates were less so).
The bottom line is that Lundqvist has to be, well, Lundqvist, and if he is, the team is playoff bound and should be a handful. If he's not, if time is starting to wear down the former Vezina Trophy winner, then it won't really matter what else has been done to this lineup. The Rangers will be in trouble.
I still think Lundqvist is capable of delivering the goods, and I like what the Rangers have done to get younger and faster up front without really sacrificing skill. I fully expect them to be better in their own zone and ultimately finish where they end up pretty much every spring -- in the playoffs. Fourth in the Metropolitan Division.