Who would have thought that replacing Brad Richards and Brian Boyle would present such a difficult decision for Coach Alain Vigneault? Granted, no one anticipated Derek Stepan being out four-to-six weeks with a fractured left fibula.
In reality, when you think about it, the Rangers dodged a huge bullet in terms of Stepan’s injury when you compare it to the fate suffered by Jordan Staal. The Carolina Hurricane is expected to be out three-to-four months after undergoing surgery to repair his broken fibula.
With Stepan missing the first 10 or so games (more on that later), the center ice decision shifted from finding a third/fourth line center to finding a first/second line center to supplement Derick Brassard.
This situation is one of the few times that being cap-strapped is a plus for the Rangers. President/GM Glen Sather can’t sign any of the mediocre free agents left on the market nor can he make a trade for an over-the-hill center.
The center ice battle has been further hindered by some unfortunate circumstances during the last week or so. Veteran Matthew Lombardi has been hampered with a groin injury and it is uncertain how that will play into his ability to make the team and contribute at the start of the season.
It bears mentioning that Lombardi, unlike the other veteran forwards signed during the summer, has a two-year contract – as opposed to just a one-year deal.
J.T. Miller’s inconsistent play has not helped his cause with Vigneault. While the Blueshirts could get away with an inconsistent Miller as a third or fourth line center, they can’t afford that kind of play if he has to anchor the second line.
After putting on a show in Chicago, rookie Oscar Lindberg’s play has come down to earth and it seems as if he is destined to return to Hartford – which isn’t the worst thing in the world for him.
What the Stepan/Lombardi injuries and the Miller/Lindberg inconsistent play have done is force the organization to look outside the box in terms of filling out four lines.
The injuries (Ryan Malone’s hip flexor included) have allowed longshot Anthony Duclair to have a legitimate shot at making the Rangers Opening Night lineup. The Duke might not have an NHL body at the tender age of 19 (5-11 and listed at 185 pounds on the team’s web site, but probably closer to 175 in real life), but Duclair has shown to have NHL ready skills – scoring a goal in each of his first three pre-season games.
Duclair’s situation is different than most Junior-eligible players because he will have two years left on his entry-level contract whether he plays Juniors or in the NHL. As a result, the team can keep him for longer than the standard nine games before deciding to return him to his Junior team or starting his NHL clock.
However, the Rangers are at their 50-contract limit so they would have to make a trade to open up a spot for Duclair. While every article mentions this, it should not be that difficult to find a player to trade – especially if you make it for the ever-popular “future considerations”.
Kevin Hayes is another player who is getting an extended look as a result of the injuries. The Rangers have been known as an organization that would rather give their prospects ice time in Hartford as opposed to having them step right into the NHL. That might not be the case because of the team’s need at center in terms of numbers and size.
While the Blueshirts dreamed of Hayes being able to play center, they wanted to take a look at him on the wing in order to see how they could best utilize him this season. However, necessity wins out as Hayes is in the mix at center.
Rookie Ryan Haggerty is another player making the best of his opportunity in his first Training Camp. After a subpar first pre-season game, Haggerty has shown the kind of speed and hands that make him a solid NHL prospect. However, the numbers game will probably cost Haggerty a chance to start the season in the NHL.
Jesper Fast has opened eyes with solid play and has become a player to watch. One thing in his favor is that Vigneault likes his style of play and feels comfortable with his ability to take care of his defensive responsibilities.
An intriguing candidate at center is AHL veteran Chris Mueller. Originally thought of as a depth player for the Wolf Pack, Mueller has two qualities going for him that the other candidates at center don’t have. He has proven to be a PP scorer in the past (16 goals in the AHL last year and 11 two years ago). Most importantly, with Stepan out of the lineup, Mueller would be the only right-handed shot at center.
In terms of replacing Stepan as the second line center, two veterans might be in the mix – one expected and one a surprise.
Dominic Moore filled in admirably last year during the playoffs when injuries struck. While it would be too much to ask for Moore to play second line minutes for 82 games, he might be able to give the Rangers the 10 or so games they would need with Stepan out of the lineup. Even if the team goes another route, you would expect Moore to see extra ice time late in third period if the Rangers are protecting a lead – especially if he were spelling a youngster like Hayes.
The unexpected alternative is Martin St. Louis. The veteran RW already volunteered to play center and Vigneault had him centering one of the two PP units at practice on Wednesday morning. His linemates on the PP were Duclair and Rick Nash – definitely an intriguing trio.
Factoring in Stepan’s absence, Lombardi and Malone’s injury problems, Lindberg and Miller’s inability to seize the day, and Hayes’ lack of NHL experience and time at center, perhaps the Rangers best course of action is to play St. Louis at center – at least during Stepan’s injury.
It gives the Rangers an opportunity/excuse to take a longer look at Duclair. If the youngster is struggling then they can send him back to his Junior team when Stepan returns to the lineup without much fanfare. If the Duke continues to show he belongs in the NHL then the Rangers will have a pleasant abundance of talent when Stepan returns to the lineup.
That would give the Rangers two strong scoring lines: Chris Kreider-Derick Brassard-Mats Zuccarello and Anthony Duclair-Martin St. Louis-Rick Nash. Vigneault then could use the rest of the forwards to mix and match a third and fourth line.
You have to figure that Carl Hagelin plays on the third line with either Dominic Moore or J.T. Miller at center and Taylor Glass plays LW on the fourth line. It is a matter of deciding where Jesper Fast, Ryan Malone and Lee Stempniak fit in – with Matthew Lombardi starting the season on the Injured Reserve list.
In some respect, the start to this season will mirror the start to last season in terms of the Rangers not have a settled lineup for the first month or two of the season.
Last year it was a result of AV learning his new team and navigating his way through a nine-game road trip to start the season.
This year it is a result of injuries to some players, replacing other players, and, more importantly, having enough talent that lends itself to competition in Training Camp.
Lost in all of the talk about the Rangers options at center is the battle for the seventh defenseman. It was expected that the battle would come down to veterans Matt Hunwick, Steven Kampfer and Michael Kostka with Conor Allen and Dylan McIlrath being sent to Hartford to get playing time.
Those plans have been hampered by the inability of one of the three veterans to seize the opportunity. Adding additional intrigue was Allen’s assignment to Hartford as McIlrath remains.
Frankly, I don’t think it makes sense for McIlrath to sit in New York as the seventh blueliner. He needs to play; not only in terms of his development, but in terms of showing that he can stay healthy and be productive over a full season.
While the remaining veterans don’t exactly remind anyone of Brian Leetch, Hunwick’s experience should probably win out in the long run – although Kostka’s size (6-1/210) is intriguing. Ultimately, the decision might come down to which defenseman can best play his off-wing: can right-handed Kostka (or Kampfer) play the left side and can left-handed shot Hunwick play the right side?
Given the strength of the Rangers six regular d-men, the spare is not going to get that much ice time. Hunwick is fine as a replacement for a game or two but if the Blueshirts suffered a long-term injury, I would expect Allen or McIlrath to get recalled.
The other thing I expect is that Sather will be active at the trade deadline looking for a better option as the spare defenseman as the Rangers look ahead to the playoffs.