Well, it’s finally here: tomorrow, the Rangers begin their regular season at the Garden against the New York Islanders, playing for the first time since their short playoff appearance back in August.

It’s the first of 56 games in 114 days, and the first of 8 times the Blueshirts will battle the Islanders. The 2021 season is going to be one unlike any other; it’s no longer a marathon – it’s a sprint to the finish. 

Over the past 10 days, the Rangers have been hard at work at training camp, narrowing down their roster to 22 players on their NHL roster, and 6 players on the newly formed taxi squad. And with the offseasons losses of Marc Staal and  Henrik Lundqvist, the team is looking younger than ever. This season will be tough, considering the strength of the East Divison, but these 56 games will be quintessential to the development of the young players, as well as developing good team chemistry and building for future success.

Last year we saw players like Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, and Ryan Strome have career years and breakout seasons – but there are still some players that came up short and will be hungry to prove themselves this year.

Here are 5 players to watch going into this coming season.

5) Ryan Lindgren

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Lindgren’s 2019-20 campaign was solid; once being paired with fellow rookie Adam Fox, the two became a top-2 defensive pairing for the Rangers, especially after trading away Brady Skjei at the deadline.

With Skjei and Staal went, and Brendan Smith slotting in as the 7th defensemen, Lindgren has himself a great opportunity to take his game to the next level. His average TOI per game last season was a good 16:34 (nearly a 2-minute increase from his prior 2018-19 stint) and that will likely go up again due to the larger role he and Fox will have to take on as a pairing.

Lindgren plays a tough, gritty game that complements Fox’s offensive flair nicely, and the two make up a pair that has the most past experience going into 2021. Overall, with a solidified partner (and good friend) beside Lindgren, keep an eye on the young d-man. 

4) Filip Chytil

Chytil, the 21st overall draft pick back in 2017, has a ton of upside, especially offensively. He hasn’t been bad in his young NHL career – far from it, registering over 20 points for back-to-back seasons – but he has not been able to have sustained success. Chytil has had a few spontaneous point streak in his career, with a 5 game point streak back in 2018-19 and a 4-game one in 2019-20.

Chytil has showcased his strength as a forward and has scored a handful of highlight-reel goals, but the key for him going forward will be to demonstrate consistency, and that he can score points at a high rate on the highest level.

With Alexis Lafreniere slated to be his left-wing, Chytil is definitely a candidate for a breakout season.

3) Jacob Trouba

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Fresh off of a seven-year, $56 million extension, it’s safe to say that Jacob Trouba’s 2019-20 performance was underwhelming. In some games, Trouba looked like top defensemen, eating minutes and chipping in on offense. Others, he wasn’t noticeable, or he was making costly mistakes that were uncharacteristic for him. Trouba recognizes his performance last year, saying back on January 7th that hegot away from how [he] play[s] hockey a little bit, trying to fill a role and get comfortable.” The constant rotation of pairings and partners definitely played a role; Trouba played with Libor Hajek, Skjei, and Smith last season, and after a brief training camp stint with Tony DeAngelo on his left, it’s likely he’ll be paired with rookie K’Andre Miller. Miller is a big defenseman who is more offensive-minded, and whose style of play definitely overlaps with Trouba’s. With fewer d-pairing switch-ups and a year on Broadway under his belt, Trouba should definitely be a player to watch. 

2) Kaapo Kakko

The young Finish forward, and former second overall pick in last year’s draft, had high expectations coming into last year. He might have outscored former first overall pick Jack Hughes, but Kakko’s rookie season was definitely categorized as a disappointment. But there should be absolutely no worrying – Kakko’s still a teenager, and he’s still trying to get his feet under him in such a strong and fast league in a new country.

Just before the pause, Kakko looked much stronger and much more confident, even getting 2 goals in Dallas back on March 10th. He also was a brighter spot in a rather dull playoff appearance back in August at the Toronto bubble. Now, with Jesper Fast in Carolina, Kakko has a great opportunity to show us who he really is. He’ll be playing on a line with Panarin and Strome, a huge upgrade from his usual third-line linemates.

As a soon-to-be 20-year-old, Kakko’s 2nd season should have obvious improvement from his first, and he’ll be a player to watch as he gets an opportunity as a top-six forward. 

1) Pavel Buchnevich

Photo: Jared Silber/NHLI/Getty Images

Buchnevich has been raved about in training camp so far – according to head coach David Quinn, Buchnevich has been “jumping out” to Quinn and the rest of the coaching staff, adding that he “loved the way [Buchnevich] played in the scrimmage [Thursday] night” and that he’s “excited for the fact that it looks like [Buchnevich’s] got a chance to maximize his potential for a full season.”

Buchnevich reached a career-high in points last year with 46, yet saw a dip in his goal-scoring from the previous season. With the amount of praise Buchnevich has garnered so far this preseason, he is definitely a player to keep your eyes on. Alongside linemates Chris Kreider and Zibanejad, both coming off stellar years, Buchnevich seems eager to take his game to the next level.  

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