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HomeSportThe Rangers’ marquee players have to prove themselves when it matters

The Rangers’ marquee players have to prove themselves when it matters


The Rangers need to create, not just fortify, their third line. This has been obvious for months, at least since the 2021-22 version of a Kid Line with Filip Chytil centering Alexis Lafreniere and Julien Gauthier fizzled in December.

They need to fill that nagging vacancy on the right side of the unit featuring Artemi Panarin on the left and Ryan Strome that’s been the source of phantom pain since Jesper Fast departed as a free agent for Carolina following 2019-20.

(Or when Kaapo Kakko comes off IR in a few weeks, maybe head coach Gerard Gallant will simply reapply the Finn as an appendage to that line on which he seemed at his most comfortable and confident during his work there through most of November.)

And as the March 21 trade deadline approaches, president-general manager Chris Drury will surely attempt to add depth on the blue line, and more specifically of the physical nature, to gear up for a deep playoff run.

There are no news bulletins here. The Blueshirts’ needs haven’t exactly snuck up on anyone even if the team has snuck up on the league by recording a 32-13-5 mark into Thursday night’s Garden confrontation against the Caps that was good for sixth overall.

But even as Drury seeks to reinforce his team, the Rangers’ ultimate playoff fate will be determined by the marquee players who are already here and haven’t yet proven themselves in the crucible of postseason play.

New York Rangers left wing Artemi Panarin (10) skates up ice
Artemi Panarin was effectively neutralized by the Hurricanes during the NHL’s bubble playoffs.
Corey Sipkin

That applies to all but Chris Kreider, who was an integral and productive piece of the club’s annual runs of the last decade, and to Jacob Trouba, an important part of Winnipeg’s advancement to the 2018 conference finals and whose physical edge is made for the playoffs.

It applies, specifically, to Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome and Adam Fox. It applies to Igor Shesterkin, who hasn’t yet had the opportunity to make his mark. Depth is necessary to make a run. Some balance is required, as well.

But it is impossible for a team to win even eight playoff games, let alone the full complement of 16, without standout performances from its standout players. Yes, Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow, Pat Maroon and all that, but the Lightning are not two-time defending Cup champions without brilliance along the way from Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point, Ryan McDonagh, Steven Stamkos and Andrei Vasilevskiy.  

I’m not suggesting that the Rangers’ marquee players won’t be up to the task. But history instructs that the burden of proof is on them. It will be on Panarin, Zibanejad, Strome and Fox to demonstrate that their skill-oriented games will translate to the playoffs, when time and space shrink dramatically and officials allow the beautiful sport to turn into a rodeo.

And it will be on Shesterkin to offer a reprise of his work in the Gagarin Cup playoffs, where he recorded a KHL career postseason mark of 8-6 in 16 games with a 1.92 GAA and .935 save percentage. Goaltending, though, should be the very least of the Blueshirts’ concerns entering the tournament.

If there is concern about Panarin, Zibanejad, Strome and Fox, it is largely a consequence of their subpar play in the 2020 bubble, when the ‘Canes snuffed them and the team out of the qualifying round in a three-game sweep that reverberated through the following season.   

Adam Fox #23 of the New York Rangers and Ryan Strome #16 of the New York Rangers react after Igor Shesterkin #31 of the New York Rangers allows a goal
Adam Fox, Ryan Strome and Igor Shesterkin have plenty to prove come playoff time.
Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Yes, of course, that was a unique circumstance with the league reconvening for a brief summer camp that led into the bubble tournament in Toronto and Edmonton following a three-and-a-half-month pause. It was, at the time, impossible to place into context. It remains that way. But the fact is that none of the Rangers’ marquee players turned in a remotely satisfactory performance.

And on top of that, the Islanders all but eliminated Panarin and Zibanejad as factors last season when the teams met eight times in playoff-style matchups. Check that — it was playoff style for the club that advanced to the conference finals for the second straight season. You’ll recall that the Blueshirts’ best players’ inability to produce against upper-echelon teams was a running theme of 2020-21.  

Adding heft to one of the top two lines would of course be beneficial and so would adding support below. Does anyone really need to hear the story again about the impact Butch Goring’s acquisition had on Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy?

But when the playoffs start, the burden will be on the Rangers’ best players. That’s the way it always is. This burden, though, will include the burden of proof.

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