The New York Rangers are just over a month away from beginning the 2023-24 regular season on October 12th, where they’ll face off against the Buffalo Sabres. Although training camp and pre-season will bring minor adjustments to the overall structure of the roster, there is a solid foundation of what the opening night lines will look like.
The Rangers’ first line has a new young star
With Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad remaining as the top two forwards on the first line, the Rangers currently plan on giving Kaapo Kakko an opportunity to receive top minutes in 2023-24. Following the loss of Vladimir Tarasenko, it was clear that the Rangers would have to replace that role from within the organization. It only makes sense that the former second-overall draft pick would be the best option for Tarasenko’s replacement.
Throughout his career, Kakko has only tallied 98 points in 239 games. There are multiple factors that have led to his extended adjustment to the NHL, including a transition from European ice to American. The biggest problem, however, has been his lack of playing time for the Rangers. Being buried down in the bottom six for most of his career, Kakko hasn’t had the opportunity to play alongside elite talent to help him develop.
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With a first line of Kreider-Zibanejad-Kakko, there should be a significant improvement from the young star. Kreider and Zibanehad have built substantial chemistry as two of the best goal scorers on the Blueshirts, and Kakko should fit right in as the final member of the first line. Kakko has looked like a star already, he just needs the points to solidify that title.
Veteran addition bolsters Rangers’ second line
Artemi Panarin is a certified lock to remain on the Rangers’ second line. Kreider will remain on the first to preserve his chemistry with Zibanejad, and Panarin is simply too skilled to be moved to the third line and receive bottom six minutes. Vincent Trocheck will likely remain as the second-line center, but Blake Wheeler should have the opportunity to add some veteran depth as the right winger.
With Patrick Kane remaining in hockey limbo, the Rangers managed to sign Wheeler to a cheap, one-year deal to act as a replacement. Wheeler’s stats have certainly regressed with age, scoring only 55 points in 72 games last year, but he should be able to contribute a decent amount to an already solid second line.
There is a chance that Trocheck may move to the third line in order to give Filip Chytil more playing time as a top-six center, but for now, the second line appears to be Panarin-Trocheck-Wheeler.
The rest of the kids remain down on the third line
Barring that possible swap with Trocheck, Chytil will likely remain as the third-line center for the Rangers. The same goes for recently re-signed Alexis Lafreniere, who will act as the left winger unless HC Peter Laviolette decides to switch him over to the right side and offer him a top-six role. Both Lafreniere and Chytil have experienced a similar problem as Kakko, being trapped down in the bottom six for most of their young careers.
The right-wing spot on the third line is the biggest question mark currently, but the likeliest candidate is Jimmy Vesey. Playing all over the ice in 2022-23, Vesey has proven that he can succeed on any of the Rangers’ lines. As a solid all-around player, Vesey should be able to excel in the key roles of a bottom-six player, hopefully giving Lafreniere and Chytil a chance to shine in the offensive zone.
The Rangers’ fourth line will be a battle royale
The biggest takeaway from this year’s offseason is that GM Chris Drury is not afraid to make a lot of signings. When free agency opened up on July 1st, it seemed as if every older veteran forward had received an offer from the Rangers. Not all of these forwards will get the chance to find a spot on the fourth line, so it will be an entertaining season watching them all compete to see who will come out on top.
As of now, the most probable fourth line looks like Barclay Goodrow-Nick Bonino-Tyler Pitlick. Goodrow, despite many flaws, has proven to be a solid bottom player with the ability to kill penalties. Bonino will add similar contributions to the Rangers, as well as Stanley Cup-winning experience that will be vital to the Rangers locker room. Pitlick is the most interchangeable of the bunch, but it seems as if he’ll take the right-wing spot for now come opening night.