NHL on NBC: Can Rangers jump from rebuild to Stanley Cup contender?

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NBC’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Saturday’s matchup between the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. Bruins-Rangers stream coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBC. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When the Rangers meet the Bruins on Saturday afternoon, they’re staring at a team that’s more or less where they want to be.

For many, it seemed like the Rangers needed to continue to add pieces for some time, like they’ve been since boldly signaling a rebuild. Reports indicate that John Davidson and Jeff Gorton leaned that way … and then Rangers owner James Dolan shockingly fired them.

Plenty of people believed that the firing was in some way related to the statement that left the Rangers $250K lighter, but Dolan insists that the change to Chris Drury was a long-time coming.

Whether you totally believe that the timing was coincidental or not, Dolan’s said plenty of other things that make you wonder about the direction of the Rangers rebuild. Dolan is sending a message for big changes for the rebuilding Rangers, and it’s fair to ask if they’re truly ready for it.

Mixed messages about Rangers’ need to make big changes, speed up rebuild

Following the Rangers’ shocking changing of the guard, it was tough not to get mixed messages about where the rebuild is at. At least when you compare sentiments from new GM Chris Drury, and then ponder what owner James Dolan has said.

“Honestly, we have enough talent now to compete for a Stanley Cup,” Dolan told the New York Post’s Larry Brooks in a phone interview.

“ … But other owners, other general managers have been telling me for a year that they can’t believe how stocked we are with talent, but talent alone doesn’t do it. We’re missing this piece and we need it. And when I looked at our organization, I felt that we need to change the whole organization and change the culture.

[BRUINS-RANGERS COVERAGE BEGINS AT 3 P.M. ET – NBC]

In that interview, Dolan states that the Rangers have enough talent to compete for a Stanley Cup. Among others, the Athletic’s Rick Carpinello reports that Dolan felt the Rangers should have made the playoffs this season.

Drury, on the other hand, refuted the idea that the Rangers were expected to make the playoffs.

“I don’t think that was the expectation,” Drury said, via Carpinello (sub required). “I don’t think that was a mandate …”

While Dolan spoke of needing to “change the whole organization and culture,” Drury said he didn’t expect to do anything “too drastic.”

Now, maybe the mixed Rangers messages from Drury and Dolan don’t mean much. It could be a matter of semantics, and they’re on the same page. Making sure they stay that way could be a big challenge for Drury.

The dangerous pursuit of grit

Either way, Drury faces a challenge: threading the needle between improving the Rangers as a whole, while also keeping his owner happy. One of the potentially challenging parts would be finding the sort of “grit” to complement the Rangers’ skill without overreacting and undermining the rebuild altogether.

Can you find players who can “win battles in an alley” without giving up too much on the scoreboard?

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Ideally, the Rangers would add players who can bring some snarl but who can also, you know, play. Considering how the modern game is played, you can risk overreacting.

The Rangers merely need to look at the Penguins. Despite winning back-to-back Stanley Cups, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford overreacted to rough stuff from Tom Wilson, and the results set the team back.

[From 2019: A look back at the Penguins paying in their pursuit of answers for Wilson-type players]

Again, the Rangers adding more grit isn’t the worst idea.

It’s just important that they add functional grit. Don’t just win in “the street and the alley,” but also on the ice. Find forecheckers whose grit helps you create turnovers and retain pucks. The right type of fear might leave teams struggling with turnovers and breakouts.

Yet, if you swing too far in the wrong direction, you’ll be losing on the ice, and crying in that alley.

Speeding up the Rangers rebuild makes some sense

In late April, C.J. Turtoro argued that the Devils’ rebuild has been going better than the Rangers’ version. To summarize an interesting read, Turtoro argued that the Devils have the edge over the Rangers’ rebuild because of New Jersey’s strength at center, and their cap flexibility.

Rangers and Devils fans can argue that take until they’re red/blue in the face. But the more interesting point is that the Rangers could use a top-notch center to go with Mika Zibanejad, and they do have some cap space.

Maybe most importantly, the Rangers need to seize the opportunity to make the most of some late primes.

Artemi Panarin is 29, Chris Kreider is 30, and even Mika Zibanejad is 28. Those players are by no means ancient, but it’s also possible that Panarin and others may start to lose a step or two soon.

You don’t want to run the risk of the prime years not lining up well between the Alexis LafreniereKaapo KakkoAdam Fox class and the older, Panarin-led group.

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So, it’s important for Drury to make this point to Dolan, and other Rangers who are feeling bloodthirsty. There’s some serious talent on hand, but the Rangers still need more talent. Not just more snarl.

That’s once again where there’s a risk in overreacting to “will over skill.” If you overpay Ryan Reaves 2.0, you might hamstring yourself in trying to add a key piece that matters more on the ice.

Plenty of challenges ahead

Before this wraps up, Drury faces more than just big-picture rebuild vs. accelerate type questions in running the Rangers. Consider some of the key decisions:

  • He’ll want to reassemble parts of the front office after the firings of Davidson and Gorton.

  • Is David Quinn the right choice to bring the Rangers from rebuilders to contenders?

  • Plenty of contract/extension possibilities to mull over. Igor Shesterkin and Pavel Buchnevich are pending RFAs. If the Rangers want to extend Adam Fox and Kaapo Kakko, they can do so this summer. Just don’t forget to set aside money for Alexis Lafreniere and K'Andre Miller, as their rookie deals expire after 2022-23.

  • Meanwhile, Zibanejad won’t be a bargain much longer. And will it just be a buyout situation with Tony DeAngelo?

Overall, Chris Drury has his hands full during this next (post?) stage of the Rangers rebuild. That said, his Rangers predecessors handed him the raw materials to possibly put together something like the contender they’ll see in the Bruins on Saturday.

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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

NHL on NBC: Can Rangers jump from rebuild to Stanley Cup contender? originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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