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Rangers go into new season with retooled D, influx of youth

(AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

By VIN A. CHERWOO

AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK (AP) After a second-round playoff exit last spring, the New York Rangers knew they needed to make some changes.

A core group that reached three conference finals in four years, including a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014, had fallen short of advancing beyond two rounds in consecutive postseasons - losing to eventual champion Pittsburgh in the first round 2016 and then to Ottawa last season.

Some veterans were jettisoned and the defense was shored up with the signing of top free agent Kevin Shattenkirk and the influx of some younger players.

The offensive-minded Shattenkirk, signed to a four-year, $26.6 million deal, has had at least 30 assists and 40 points in six of his first seven seasons - with the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign the exception - and should help a power play that ranked 10th in the NHL last season at 20.2 percent.

"That puck-moving ability, 5-on-5 is definitely something we expect from him," coach Alain Vigneault said. "He has been one of the best power play guys in the league for quite some time."

Veteran Dan Girardi, 33, was bought out and 32-year-old Kevin Klein retired. Tony DeAngelo, 21, was acquired as part of the trade that sent Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta to Arizona. Brendon Smith, acquired at the trade deadline, was re-signed, and Vigneault said he expected Brady Skjei to build on his stellar rookie season in which he had five goals and 34 assists.

After playing in various pairings in the preseason, Shattenkirk is expected to join captain Ryan McDonagh as the team's top defensive duo. The newcomer doesn't believe it'll take long for everyone to get on the same page.

"I think the only way we're going to get better is by playing with each other," he said, "and that's how you start figuring out your chemistry with the guys."

Some other things to know as the Rangers head into the new season:

YOUTH AT CENTER

Stepan's departure means Mika Zibanejad is moving up to center the top line, with Kevin Hayes likely on the second. Rookies Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil - have impressed in the preseason, and free-agent addition David Desharnais could also be in the mix. Vigneault has liked what he's seen from the two selected in the first round in this year's draft - Andersson at No. 7 and Chytil at No. 21 - saying "they've played well" and that the team will "tough decisions" as they pare down to their opening-day roster.

Asked if he had any hesitation about the possibility having the youngsters - Chytil is 18 years old and Andersson will turn 19 next month - centering two lines, the coach said: "Talent has no age. These guys have talent.".

J.T. Miller got a look at center in training camp and preseason games but the emergence of the rookies allows the 24-year-old to return to the wing.

BETWEEN THE PIPES

Vigneault doesn't have a specific number of games in mind for the 35-year-old Henrik Lundqvist, who is coming off a 31-20-4 season in which he had career worsts with a 2.74 goals-against average and a .910 save-percentage. Ondrej Pavelec has replaced Raanta as the backup but has struggled the last few seasons. He had a 3.55 GAA last season with a .888 save-percentage in eight NHL games. Vigneault believes Pavelec could be ready to turn things around.

"He has had a couple of off years," the coach said. "(We) got to have a highly-motivated guy that wants to listen to the goalie coach, help a team win so he can prove that he can play in the NHL. I think we got him at the right time."

LEADERSHIP

With Stepan and Girardi gone, Mats Zuccarello and Miller will be among those looked upon to fill the leadership void behind McDonagh.

"It's the evolution," Vigneault said. "It's their turn to assume that leadership role, and I think quite a few of them have been waiting for this opportunity for quite some time."

Miller said he's ready for the challenge and take on the added responsibility.

"It's what they've been grooming me for the last handful of years, to hopefully step up in a time like this, leadership-wise and as a player, too," he said. "I think it's time. I have more to give and another level and I think I'm ready to take on that."

SCHEDULING

The NHL's best road team last season at 27-12-2 will start the season with nine of their first 11 games on home ice. A year ago, they opened with 10 of 14 at Madison Square Garden on the way to a 13-4-0 start.

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Freelance writer Scott Charles contributed to this report.

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Follow Vin Cherwoo at www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

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More AP hockey: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Updated September 27, 2017

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