Jets vie for fast start against new-look Rangers
While the Winnipeg Jets experienced an eventful training camp, the New York Rangers spent their preseason developing a roster they hope will accelerate the rebuilding project that started two seasons ago.
After nearly a month of preparation, the Jets visit the Rangers on Thursday in the season opener for both teams.
Winnipeg is coming off a second straight playoff appearance, although its 99 points were 15 fewer than its total in 2017-18 -- and one behind Nashville for first place in the Central Division. Winnipeg then lost in six games in the first round to eventual champion St. Louis, with each setback coming by one goal.
The Jets then made news throughout the offseason.
They traded defenseman Jacob Trouba to the Rangers and lost Kevin Hayes and blue-liner Tyler Myers in free agency. Then they granted defenseman Dustin Byfuglien a leave of absence while Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor missed nearly all of training camp due to contract issues.
Winnipeg finally agreed to new deals with Laine and Connor over the weekend. Laine signed a two-year, $13.5 million contract on Friday while Connor inked a seven-year, $50 million deal the following day.
"A lot of big shoes to fill, I think our young guys are ready to step up," Laine told reporters earlier this week. "We have so much talent on this team. We'll have guys who step up and fill their game and we'll be better this year."
Last season, Laine scored 30 goals but only nine after November. His total was the lowest of his three-year career.
Laine is rejoining a top line alongside Connor and Mark Scheifele, a trio that combined for 92 goals last season.
"They're players that have been big parts of our team. There won't be any 'How do they fit? Where do they fit?' These guys are excited," Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. "The group is excited. They're back here because they are hockey players and that's what they get to do now again."
The Rangers are coming off consecutive non-playoff seasons for the first time since missing the playoffs in seven straight campaigns before the 2004 lockout. New York continued rebuilding last season by trading veterans Hayes and Mats Zuccarello at the deadline, but added some notable pieces to a roster that will feature eight players on the opening night roster age 23 or younger.
New York used the second pick in the 2019 NHL Draft on right wing Kaapo Kakko. The 18-year-old spent the early part of training camp on the top line alongside Mika Zibanejad and free-agent signing Artemi Panarin, but he is expected to reside on the second line alongside Chris Kreider.
Panarin is joining the Rangers after totaling 116 goals and 204 assists over his first four campaigns. The Rangers are optimistic he will form strong chemistry with Zibanejad, who scored a career-high 30 goals last season.
"Having Panarin in here gives us a true first line," Rangers coach David Quinn told reporters early in training camp. "They take an awful lot of pressure off the other three lines. We hope they take some pressure off some of our younger players that are put in key positions."
Henrik Lundqvist, 37, will be in net and the Rangers are hoping to keep his workload to around 55 games. He played in 52 last season and has seen action in 60 or more games nine times during his 14-year career.
They are also hoping Lundqvist will rebound after posting a career-worst 3.07 goals-against average to go along with his first career losing record (18-23-10).
-- FIeld Level Media
Updated October 2, 2019