NHL

Erik Gustafsson’s imminent return will put Rangers back at full health

The Rangers finally appear set to be back at full strength.

Defenseman Erik Gustafsson was a full participant in Tuesday’s practice, the first time he’s practiced without limitations since suffering an upper-body injury during the team’s 4-3 shootout win over the Panthers on March 23.

He returned to his normal third-line defensive pairing with Braden Schneider.

Erik Gustafsson is nearing his Rangers return. AP

Head coach Peter Laviolette wouldn’t reveal whether Gustafsson will return for the clash against the Devils on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, but Gustafsson said he’s back to 100 percent and certainly sounded like he’ll be back in the lineup after missing the past four games.

The Rangers sent defenseman Brandon Scanlin back down to the AHL, meaning Gustafsson will at least be available.

“I feel good now, I felt good on the ice,” Gustafsson said Tuesday after practice. “Just happy to be back. … I feel like a week off is a lot.”

If Gustafsson returns to the lineup, it’ll likely come at the expense of Zac Jones, who has filled in admirably as the Rangers endured a spate of injuries to their blue line in recent weeks, including Ryan Lindgren and Jacob Trouba in addition to Gustafsson.

Jones has received high praise from his teammates and told The Post last week that he thinks he’s been playing the best hockey of his career recently.

Gustafsson’s return likely means Zac Jones will be headed back to the press box. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

“We’re fortunate, we’ve got a lot of great defensemen here right now, we’ve got great depth for the playoffs and decisions to make on the back end, decisions to make up front,” Laviolette said about possibly having to bench Jones. “I think Zac has played really well, that’s a good thing for us. … It’s gonna be a tough decision no matter what.”

The hit that injured Gustafsson, an elbow to the head from Florida’s Sam Reinhart, appeared to be borderline dirty and drew scorn from fans. But Gustafsson didn’t see anything malicious in the play.

“It’s a fast play, I don’t think he did anything on purpose,” Gustafsson said. “It’s a fast game we play out there.”


Kaapo Kakko has been productive in recent games after a cold streak, delivering four points (two goals and two assists) in his past four games, including a goal in Monday’s 5-2 loss to the Penguins, and was plus-three.

It followed a stretch in which he had just three points (three goals, no assists) in the 15 games beforehand, a stretch in which he was minus-two.

“He’s looking strong right now to me,” Laviolette said. “He’s skating well, he’s using his body, being physical, heavy on pucks, heavy in battles in the offensive zone, looking to generate.”

Kaapo Kakko has found his offensive game in recent days. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

The Rangers signed defenseman Victor Mancini to a two-year, entry-level contract and forward Kalle Vaisanen to a three-year, entry-level contract.

Mancini, whom the Rangers picked in the fifth round of the 2022 draft, recorded 10 points (six goals, four assists) this past year with the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

Vaisanen, whom the Rangers selected in the fourth round of the 2021 draft, recorded 14 points (nine goals, five assists) with Turun Palloseura in the Finnish league this past season.

According to an industry source, the plan is for Mancini and Vaisanen to go to AHL Hartford on amateur tryout deals. Their entry-level contracts will start next year.

Additional reporting by Larry Brooks.

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