5 things to watch as Rangers enter second half of 2023-24 season

Coming out of the NHL All-Star Break, the Rangers are in first place in the Metropolitan Division, have one of the best power plays in the league and an upcoming schedule that mostly keeps them close to home for much of February.

It’s a nice spot to be in as the March 8 trade deadline looms, even if the Blueshirts haven’t exactly been aflame since their blazing 18-4-1 start.

Since Dec. 3, the Rangers are a pedestrian 12-12-2 and have won only five of 14 matches since the calendar turned to 2024. If that’s enough to start some unease among fans of a Stanley Cup contender, well, that’s how high expectations are for this team.

They remain, obviously, a Cup threat with hopes for at least a deep playoff run. But there’s plenty of work to be done over their final 33 games, including, perhaps, figuring out why Igor Shesterkin hasn’t yet been the Shesterkin of the last couple of seasons.

Here are five things to watch as the Rangers begin post-break life Monday night by playing host to the Colorado Avalanche at Madison Square Garden.

Dec 12, 2023; New York, New York, USA; New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) reacts during the third period against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden.Dec 12, 2023; New York, New York, USA; New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) reacts during the third period against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden.

Netminder blues

Shesterkin is still one of the world’s best goalies, but he is not having his finest season, despite his All-Star nod. His .899 save percentage and his 2.86 goals-against average would both be career worsts and they are well below the numbers from his Vezina Trophy season of 2021-22 (.935, 2.07).

There have been a few times where the goals have just kept coming against Shesterkin this season – he’s allowed at least five goals in a game five times, including six twice. Last season, he gave up five goals in a game once.

Overall, Shesterkin is 19-12-1, tied for sixth in wins among goalies, and Jonathan Quick (.915, 2.43) has provided terrific backup work. Still, for the Rangers to do what they’d like to do come the playoffs, Shesterkin probably has to level up to peak Igor.

Bread rising?

Over the first 49 games, Artemi Panarin was the Rangers’ best offensive player with 30 goals, 36 assists and 66 points, and would’ve been a deserving All-Star, but could not accept because his wife was expecting. He comes out of the break tied for sixth in the NHL in goals and points and seems like a lock to surpass career bests in both categories (32 and 96). Heck, he’s shooting more – he’s already taken 194 shots on goal, just 34 shy of the most in his career – and he could challenge Jaromir Jagr’s franchise record for goals (54), set back in 2005-06.

His real impact, like Shesterkin’s, must come in the playoffs, though. Panarin did not produce in last year’s seven-game loss to the Devils, managing only two assists. And while his line, with Vincent Trocheck, a faceoff ace, and Alexis Lafrenière, has been a key part of the Rangers’ attack all season, that would be mostly forgotten if Panarin has another spring dud.

Deadline chatter 

Everyone loves trade talk, rumors, debate, speculation and invented deal scenarios, and there should be plenty of all that leading up to March 8, especially since players have already started moving. Elias Lindholm went from Calgary to Vancouver and Montreal sent Sean Monahan to Winnipeg.

With Filip Chytil out for the season, the Rangers probably need a center to jolt their third line, at least, and right wing could be another area of need. Under Chris Drury, the Blueshirts have not shied away from deadline deals – to say the least! – over the past two seasons. Should be the same now. Kaapo Kakko’s name has already come up as a potential trade chip the Rangers could use in a deal. But while some fans are losing patience with the former No. 2 overall pick, Kakko is still young – he turns 23 later this month – and may still hold promise.

Low five (on five)

It’s been a familiar refrain over recent seasons, but the Rangers need to be better at 5-on-5 play. They sometimes struggle in both generating and cashing in on even-strength chances. Still, they have scored the 10th-most goals in the league (160) and their special-teams play has been good, with the power play ranked third (27.2%) and the penalty-kill at 82.7 percent (9th).

Home, sweet Garden 

Coming out of the break, the Rangers start with the Avalanche at home, followed by visiting Tampa Bay on Wednesday. After a Friday trip to Chicago, the Rangers are at the Garden or at least in the immediate area for games against the Islanders and Devils until a trip to Philadelphia on Feb. 24. This could be a good chance for the Rangers, who are 15-7 at home so far this season, to enjoy the comforts of home, even with some rugged teams on the docket, like high-flying Colorado.