The New York Rangers' most significant recent free-agent acquisition might not have been superstar winger and MVP front-runner Artemi Panarin. Instead, their best signing might turn out to be a benchwarmer who managed to chew and claw his way into their hearts.

The Blueshirts became the first NHL team to add a service-puppy trainee to their roster when they introduced Ranger, a 9-month-old yellow Labrador retriever, just before the start of the 2018-19 season. The team had partnered with BluePath -- a nonprofit that trains puppies to become service dogs who offer companionship, safety and independence to children with autism -- to help socialize Ranger and prepare him for his future career.

"The Rangers were interested in the autism world because they do a lot of sports camps for kids with special needs," said Michelle Brier, vice president of marketing and development at BluePath, which is based in Hopewell Junction, New York. "It was a very exciting thing for us, as a small nonprofit, to have them select us as a partner. We bleed blue ... just like any Rangers fan."

Under the guidance of puppy trainer Saxon Eastman, a production assistant at Madison Square Garden, Ranger spent each day of the season at the team's offices during business hours, then headed to special events, such as practices and games, to gain experience being around crowds.