February 8th, 2018. Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton write a letter to the fans of the team the they were planning on selling at the deadline. It was the start of the breakup of some great Rangers teams that had peaked with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 and a President’s Trophy season and game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2015.
That group of teams under Alain Vignault as coach were among some of the best teams that the Rangers have had since the 1940s (only being behind their 1994 Stanley Cup Champion team). The ensuing trade deadline saw the likes of Rick Nash, JT Miller and team captain Ryan McDonagh away for prospects and draft picks. At the 2019 deadline they sold Kevin Hayes and long time fan favorite Mats Zuccarello for more draft picks. That left only Chris Kreider and Henrik Lundqvist from those great teams earlier in the decade.
It looked like the Rangers were set for a full on rebuild which was set to be headlined by prospects they had to wait for in Igor Shestyorkin, Vitali Kravstov and K’Andre Miller each as the top prospects on the team for their respective position groups. But then, on April 9th, 2019, the Rangers’ rebuild was given a major shot in the arm by winning the 2nd overall pick in the NHL draft lottery. It was the best draft pick the Rangers have had since the Original 6 era.
It also came in a year where the top 2 prospects had the potential to be franchise players in Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko. This put the Rangers at somewhat of a crossroad. Should they stick to a strict rebuilding philosophy and try their luck with the lottery next year as well or should they get aggressive to try and upgrade their team for maybe having another shot at being great while they still have Lundqvist? In the days leading up to the draft, it became evident that the 2nd option was their preferred timeline.
The Rangers traded for Jacob Trouba for the first round pick they received in the Kevin Hayes trade. Trouba is a 25 year old right handed defenseman who would be a first pairing defenseman for most teams across the league. It made it so the Rangers would have either what they hope to be a super defensive pairing of Trouba and Skjei or the chance to spread out their top 2 defensemen onto 2 different pairings to strengthen the corps overall. Then on draft night they picked Kaapo Kakko who is already expected to be a top 6 winger going into his rookie season at the tender age of 18.
With those additions made, the Rangers headed into free agency with roughly $20 million in cap space and a bonafide top line winger on the market in Artemi Panarin. There was a lot of speculation that the talented Russian wing was going to go to Florida and reunite with Coach Q and his fellow countryman Sergei Bobrovsky, and he was offered more money by the Islanders and Blue Jackets but he decided to take his talents to Broadway.
Panarin is just about a point per game player over his entire career (320 points in 322 games). In terms of offensive talents he is easily one of the 10 best in the NHL. He has a career CF% of 59.9% so he is also one of the best possession players in the league as well. His game isn’t perfect as he isn’t someone you necessarily want to see in the defensive zone but he also wasn’t brought in for that.
So now after roughly 600 words of backstory from me, how much do I really think Panarin accelerates the Rangers’ rebuild? I think if he wasn’t brought on this year, the team would be a couple years away from competing for a spot in the playoffs and maybe around 5 years away from being true contenders again. Now though with the Bread Man on the team I can see them competing for a playoff spot as early as this season (even with the Metro division being absolutely stacked currently) and being able to be serious Cup contenders in 3 years.