One can look to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan the next few days to catch a glimpse of the Rangers future.
The annual Traverse City Tournament is set to start for the Baby Blueshirts when they take on the Blue Jackets on Friday afternoon, with the eight-team tournament running through Tuesday. For the Rangers, this is very different than years past, when the tournament was almost an afterthought that preceded training camp.
Now, the veterans reporting on Thursday are late to the party.
For the franchise that has been rebuilding on the fly for the past two seasons, they are now regarded to have one of — if not the — best prospect pools in the NHL. All organizational eyes will be on this year’s No. 2-overall pick, Kaapo Kakko, along with 2018 first-rounder Vitali Kravtsov, touted Russian goalie Igor Shesterkin and young defensemen Adam Fox and Yegor Rykov — all five of whom could have a chance to make the roster for opening night on Oct. 3 against the Jets at the Garden.
“It’s good to get some games in before camp starts,” Fox said after the group practiced in Tarrytown on Thursday before flying out. “Guys are going to be playing hard. It’s time to make an impression for some people. Definitely excited to get there and get some games in.”
As planned, the Rangers are going to be very young this season after off-loading veterans and restocking the farm system. But, as general manager Jeff Gorton has pointed out many times over, trading for drafts picks and prospects is the easy part. The tough part is making sure those turn into the right people.
Those declarations might not come for years, but right now, seeing the beginning of those returns has everyone’s attention.
“I am so excited,” said the 19-year-old Kravtsov. “I’ve been waiting this whole summer. [I’ve worked] hard, and I need to show something in Traverse City.”
This is always an interesting tournament because every young player thinks along those lines — that they need to show something. With so little coaching structure in place and with this being the first real game action for so many players, it could get a little ugly at times.
“A lot of players told me that in Traverse City, it’s strong hockey. A lot of hits, a lot of fights,” Kravtsov said. “It’s good to try it.”
Kakko, who was coveted for his 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame, was absent from Thursday’s practice due to him being “under the weather,” according to the team. But the 18-year-old Finn was still set to make the trip, and he surely wants to pick up where he left off — winning the gold medal for his country in the men’s World Championships in May.
Shesterkin, the 23-year-old Russian netminder, finally came over from the KHL, where he had put up ridiculously good numbers in a league where stats are skewed. With the more experienced Alex Georgiev still here and proven to at least be a worthy backup to Henrik Lundqvist, it’s possible Shesterkin starts the year with AHL Hartford to get acclimated to the smaller rink and the North American game.
If that is where Shesterkin starts, he will already be acclimated with the new coaching staff down there, as the Wolf Pack’s first-year bench crew will be in charge this weekend, headed by Kris Knoblauch. Also coming along will be the enlarged department of player development, including Jed Ortmeyer, Tanner Glass and Tuomo Ruutu.
It adds up to a moment in the team’s history when excitement in a new generation of players is rising.
“I think just being around some of the young guys who are trying to make the team, it’s definitely exciting,” Fox said. “I think a lot of guys are eager to get going.”