Before Anthony Duclair's skates ever touched the ice this preseason, the odds were already stacked against him.
Conceptually, this may have seemed a bit odd to some observers. Duclair, a 19-year-old who fell to the Rangers in the third round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, was coming off a 50 goal campaign playing junior hockey in Quebec, and with the Rangers in need of some pure goal scorers, Duclair, on paper, represented that.
Yet what the Rangers also had was some proven top six and top nine talent, and a coach who was philosophically steadfast when it came to his deployment of his younger players, and Duclair specifically. If he was to hang around, and be in New York's lineup, Duclair needed to be playing on one of the top three lines. It was the only way he could continue to mature, and truly be utilized to his fullest potential at the NHL level.
But then consider what the Rangers already had on the wings: Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, and Carl Hagelin. These were all returning players that were guaranteed top nine roles. What ended up playing into Duclair's favor was Derek Stepan's injury, which forced St. Louis into the middle. Duclair also should be praised for the preseason he put in. He began the regular season in New York on merit.
And Duclair made good on the trust management put in him by keeping him around. After a solid first game, maybe a "getting-his-feet-wet" experience, Duclair posted two assists in game two, and hasn't looked back since. He added another assist in game four against the Islanders, and has found his way on the scoresheet in two of the five games he's started. Duclair has been very active on the puck, drawing penalties, or facilitating movement on the top power play, or being a solid linemates for Nash and St. Louis.
The problem by no stretch for the Rangers has been Duclair, it's been other things, and chiefly among them has been figuring out a way to get St. Louis going. A major piece to the Rangers success, St. Louis has had an ineffective start in some rights while filling in at center, with four assists in the five games (a strong number), but looking uncomfortable at times, and probably not playing to his full offensive potential while having to shoulder the responsibilities of a center.
So in the Rangers last game against Carolina, one they so desperately needed to win in front of an impatient Madison Square Garden crowd, Vigneault moved St. Louis back to the wing with team chasing a one-goal deficit in the third. In the shuffle, Kevin Hayes was bumped up to center on the first line, and with St. Louis moving back to the outside, the logjam on the wing saw Duclair as the odd-man out.
AV said he was looking for nine forwards in the third, and he "lost" Duclair in the shuffle.— Rangers Report (@rangersreport) October 17, 2014
Things got grimmer a day later for Duclair's NHL perspectives when the Rangers decided to recall Chris Mueller from Hartford. In the team bringing in another center, it all but signals the end to the 'St. Louis at center' experiment, and also likely signals an end to Duclair's time in New York, again, because of the numbers. With the very strong start Lee Stempniak is off to, and with the Rangers desperately trying to weather their second tough start in as many years, Vigneault will likely move forward with Nash, St. Louis, Kreider, Zuccarello, Hagelin, and Stempniak as his six, top nine wingers.
That could also mean Duclair going back to the Q.
If this is really the end of Duclair's brief stint in New York, it won't be goodbye forever, just for now. Duclair very clearly proved his raw, physical attributes and skill alone are of NHL quality. The caliber of his play earned him more time on Broadway, yet the rest of the cast members essentially squeezed him out.
J.T. Miller's demotion a bad sign
For all the outlined reasons above as to why this was going to be an incredibly difficult situation for Duclair to stick, J.T. Miller had an equally good situation handed to him. Miller, a natural center, who had his best shot at making the team playing in the middle, looked in good position to do so when the Rangers had their full complement of players.
And then Stepan went down with a serious leg injury.
For Miller, it became a can't-miss situation. In terms of top-nine centers, the Rangers carried Derick Brassard ... and Derick Brassard. It was a slam dunk for Miller, yet for whatever reason, he was beat out by rookie Hayes, and even St. Louis.
Now, the 21-year-old Miller returns to Hartford, still incredibly young, and full of promise, but with questions surrounding what his role in the organization is. When Stepan returns in six games, he'll play more minutes than any other Rangers center. Throw Brassard and Moore into the mix, and that still leaves one center job to be had, one that many thought was Miller's to lose even before his strong training camp, and the New York was without No. 21.
If the Rangers plan really is to use Hayes as a center long-term, then his solid start in only his first few professional games should instill some confidence in the team's brass. Yet there still remains a question as to where Miller fits in. Like Duclair, he won't be seeing fourth line or mop-up duty. With the plan to clearly have Stepan and Brassard head-up the depth chart for the next half-decade (things can change, injuries can happen, but for the time being that's the plan), what the team's plans for Miller are remain unclear.