What was originally considered to be the Rangers’ weakness heading into the postseason ultimately became their greatest strength.
That, of course, was the group of young players who shouldered key roles in their lineup. From the Kid Line of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko to youngsters K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider in the defensive corps, some of the Rangers’ best and most consistent performances came from the players who were experiencing their first non-bubble playoffs.
Adam Fox, who many often forget is only 24 and was also competing in his first legitimate postseason, said it best earlier in the postseason. The fact that it was all so new for a majority of this Rangers team probably helped them at times. Fox said the moment never seemed too big for them, and they all played as such.
“We got young kids that are getting older,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said during the club’s breakup day Monday at MSG Training Center in Tarrytown. “We got a nice window here coming up if everybody keeps developing and playing well. I don’t think we have to do all that much different.”
Lafreniere, Chytil and Kakko combined for 11 goals and 12 assists this postseason, with Chytil leading the way with seven tallies. The Kid Line found a groove early in the playoffs and just had a knack for hemming opponents in their own zone as they battled along the walls and relentlessly pushed the puck forward.
Gallant split the trio up for the Rangers’ eventual season-ending loss in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning, scratching Kakko in the process, but the coach never seemed to love that combination from the start. But Gallant said he sees particularly Lafreniere and Kakko as players who can be in the top six someday.
“We’d be pretty disappointed if they’re not,” he said.
In a way, the Rangers’ future hinges on those three young forwards morphing into dominant top-nine contributors. With the cap crunch that lays ahead, it’ll be crucial for the Rangers to get production out of Lafreniere and Kakko in top-six roles. It may not be next season, but it’ll have to happen eventually.
“I think it’s just confidence, building more confidence,” Gallant said. “They want to be star players. I think Laffy took a big step physically. He played a lot more physical, he was finishing checks harder. He felt he could do that in his game. He’s a skill player. Did they get the chance to spend as much time on power plays and special teams as young players want? No, they didn’t. Neither one of them did. I’m not going to blame myself for that because we had one of the best power plays in the NHL. So you’re not going to break up the power play to play young kids.
“We’re trying to win games every night. That’s what we do. Are these kids going to get more of a chance next year and years after? Yes. They’ll keep developing, they’re young players, they both took big steps to me.”
Lafreniere said his goal is to play in the top six, but he recognizes how much he can learn from Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin, who are the two left wingers ahead of him on the depth chart. He plans to work on his skating in the offseason after taking some time away from hockey.
Schneider said he still sees himself as someone who has to prove himself despite sitting out for just two games since he was recalled from AHL Hartford in mid-January.
The kids know where they’re at. And it sounds like they know what they have to do to get to where they want to go, too.