New York Rangers Year in Review: Top Five Surprises of 2016

Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015-16 season was a tough one for the New York Rangers, departing the playoffs in the first round. The 2016 offseason and early season have brought a new sense of life to New York and their playoff chances.

The New York Rangers have surprised in many ways this year. From their first round beatdown by the Pittsburgh Penguins, to the outstanding work of Jeff Gorton recreating the team’s forward group. 2016 has been exciting for the Rangers, let’s take a look at the biggest surprises of the year.

Dec 27, 2016; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers defenseman Nick Holden (22) throws a puck to a fan after defeating the Ottawa Senators at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

5. Nick Holden

When the New York Rangers traded for Colorado’s Nick Holden in exchange a 4th round pick there were very little expectations. His tenure with the Avalanche was mixed, spending time as both a healthy scratch as well as a top-pairing defenseman. In his three years in Colorado, Holden played 214 games, amassing 21 goals and 37 assists.

Fast forward to the 2016-17 season and Holden has taken on an important new role with the Rangers. After seeming out of place early in the season playing on his off-side and against teams top competition, he has settled in as one of the team’s most consistent defenseman.

Holden is playing the second most minutes (19:59 ATOI) of the defensive group, behind captain Ryan McDonagh. He is also on pace to surpass his previous career high in points of 25 as he currently has 18 points (6 goals, 12 assists).

Holden also leads the Rangers’ defense in plus/minus, a testament to his ability to limit scoring chances.

Nick Holden’s calm has allowed head coach Alain Vigneault to deploy him in every situation, both offensive and defensive. With the 2016-17 Rangers needing all the help they can get defensively, Holden has been a welcome addition.

Apr 23, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) and New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh (27) shake hands after the Penguins defeated the Rangers 6-3 in game five of the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

4. New York Rangers Ousted in First Round of 2015-16 Playoffs

Since becoming the head coach in New York, Alain Vigneault’s postseason performances had been competitive and lengthy. In his first two seasons as the bench master for the Rangers, the team went to the Stanley Cup finals and Eastern Conference Finals.

The ending to the 2015-16 season was not as pleasant for the Rangers. Alain Vigneault’s team was decimated in the first round by the eventual Stanley Cup winning Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1. It was not the fact that they lost, but the fashion by which they did so.

The Rangers were outscored 21-10 through the five games of the series, losing by at least 2 goals in all four of the losses. New York’s biggest stars were nowhere to be found. Henrik Lundqvist was the biggest disappointment of the series. He was taken out of back-to-back games, including a 5-0 romping in Game 4.

Alain Vigneault had a rough series with his own decision making as well. With his team failing to keep up with the pace of the Penguins, those decisions were front and center. Vigneault consistently deployed Dan Girardi over Keith Yandle and also made Kevin Hayes a healthy scratch over the likes of Tanner Glass.

Sep 27, 2016; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) reacts after scoring a first period goal against the New York Islanders during a preseason hockey game at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

3. New York Rangers Trade Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad

Coming off of his two most successful offensive seasons, Derick Brassard had cemented himself as one of the Rangers most consistent scoring options. His 27 goals led the 2015-16 New York Rangers, and his 58 points was second behind linemate Mats Zuccarello’s 61.

However, with Jeff Gorton looking to make the Rangers younger and more cost efficient, Brassard was shipped to the Ottawa Senators. The trade sent shockwaves through the organization and was the first major move towards building this season’s team.

The return came in the form of Mika Zibanejad and a 2018 2nd-round pick. Zibanejad represented an injection of speed, creativity, and youth to the Rangers forward corps. In his first three seasons in the NHL, Zibanejad increased his point totals each year, which was important for the player replacing the team’s leading point-getter.

Zibanejad’s early returns were promising before his leg injury, producing 15 points (5 goals, 10 assists) in 19 games. He was also one of the Rangers’ leaders in possession with a 52.7CF%. At 23 years old Zibanejad has an opportunity to become a part of the team’s core for the foreseeable future.

Nov 12, 2016; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; New York Rangers right wing Michael Grabner (40) skates against the Calgary Flames during the first period at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

2. Michael Grabner

When the Rangers lost Carl Hagelin due to salary cap issues they were left with a large hole in their lineup. Last season Viktor Stalberg did his best to serve in Hagelin’s speedy two-way role but never found his footing. So in the offseason of 2016, Jeff Gorton went to work and found himself a steal.

Gorton signed Michael Grabner on July 1st to a two-year deal worth $3.2 million. This was the first time the Rangers had the wheels that left them since Carl Hagelin was shipped to Anaheim. Michael Grabner was brought in to be a strong penalty killer and supply a modest amount of secondary scoring.

What the Rangers received was much more than what was anticipated. Michael Grabner broke out in a big way to start his career in New York, leading the entire NHL in goals midway through November. Grabner still currently leads the Rangers in goals with 14.

The scoring touch has given Grabner his most goals since 2012, all of which have come at even strength. He also continues to be a great penalty killer, helping the Rangers to a top-5 unit this season. Michael Grabner has no doubt been one of the Rangers nicest surprises of 2016.

Dec 17, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; New York Rangers left wing Jimmy Vesey (26) prior to the game against the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

1. New York Rangers Land Jimmy Vesey

The prize of the 2016 offseason was Harvard prospect and Hobey Baker winner Jimmy Vesey. Previously drafted by the Nashville Predators, and his rights traded to the Buffalo Sabres, Vesey elected to test the open market as a free agent three years after being drafted. With speculation surround his preference to be in his hometown of

With speculation surrounding his preference to be in his hometown of Boston, or on a winning team such as Chicago, the truth was found elsewhere. In the end, Jimmy Vesey chose the bright lights of New York, alongside childhood best-friend Kevin Hayes.

Vesey came on strong to start his NHL career, scoring 6 goals in his first 10 games. He has been a strong presence on the Rangers forecheck, using his power forward frame to his advantage. Vesey has also been a contributor on the power play, recording 6 points (4 goals and 2 assists).

Jeff Gorton received praise for this offseason, which was highlighted by the Vesey signing. His construction of the team has created a forward corps that will make the Rangers contenders for foreseeable future. Jimmy Vesey went to New York for a reason, and there is optimism to believe he will be a key piece of that group for the Rangers.

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