It seems like there were more question marks about the Rangers lineup this offseason than any year in recent memory. With a few departures, some additions in free agency, and an influx of young talent attempting to crack the NHL ranks, Alain Vigneault was like a kid with an Xbox controller, attempting to set his NHL 15 lineup just right .
As the Blueshirts prepare for their season opener Thursday night in St. Louis, there are still plenty of unresolved questions, while in reality, Vigneault is being saddled with a good problem to have.
Losing Derek Stepan in some ways both made it an easier and more complicated equation. Only 12 forwards can play every night, and in Vigneualt's eyes, only 13 should dress. But it doesn't stop there, as the second-year Rangers head coach has made it abundantly clear all offseason that should any of his younger guys stick around, and they won't be observers from the press box. Young players are in New York to play, or Hartford to play, but not anywhere to watch.
So sans Stepan, the deck was a little less crowded. The other important element to that was the minutes and hierarchy that was opened up on the depth chart. Appearing on Mike Francesa's radio show on Wednesday, Vigneault reiterated his philosophy with young players, and in citing Anthony Duclair, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes, and Jesper Fast, said the four will all be given a chance to prove they deserve a place in the lineup, and that all four need top nine minutes.
That last bit serves to muddle the picture once again.
By deploying all of those players in a top nine role, Vigneault created a micro competition among the larger battle. No one would argue the following forwards will be bona fide names on the top three lines: Rick Nash, Chris Kreider, Martin St. Louis, Derick Brassard, Mats Zuccarello, Carl Hagelin, and, when healthy, Stepan. As it stands, six of those players are in, and Stepan will be after 10 games or three weeks.
The math already doesn't work. With six incumbents healthy and in, and four kids that, according to Vigneault, need to be among the same mix, the top nine is maxed out. If Hayes can't go tonight, it drops the total number down to nine, but meanwhile, things are incredibly tight.
Stepan's return will only put more of a squeeze on this group. Miller in all likelihood is the safest, considering how thin the Rangers are down the middle, and the NHL experience he holds over the other three. From there, three players may be fighting for one spot, unless Vigneault backs off his stance of deploying these players in the top nine. In reality though, the head coach is probably right in this regard.
Vigneault showed in his first season behind the Rangers bench he's fearless when it comes to rolling four lines, but it wasn't just some unplanned, scheme-less use of his lines. While Vigneault's fourth line was used more in one season than perhaps John Tortorella's entire tenure as New York's head coach, it was its ability to take heavy defensive zone starts, and play tough minutes that buoyed its time on ice. And that will be how Vigneault will construct this season's bottom line: by grouping defensively reliable players, and creating a line he can put out late in the game to protect leads, or neutralize the other team's weapons.
By that description, Fast is the most likely candidate to be kept around and bumped down to line four. After making the final round of cuts, Vigneault said he and his staff had "complete trust in Fast" when he was on the ice. That's pretty high praise for a 22-year-old with 11 career regular season games under his belt.
Yet the underlying message through all of this is, depth, a former weakness organizationally for the Rangers, has now become a strength. Not only will Vigneault be able to handpick whichever players give the Rangers the best chance to succeed, but the players themselves will force each other to be better. Duclair won't be able to feel content the night after scoring a goal, knowing that another player will be breathing down his neck, gunning for his spot. Miller, who has taken longer than the team hoped to transition at the NHL level, will be forced to expedite that transition this season.
Last year, it took the Rangers until about Christmas to begin clicking and playing their best hockey. Vigneault indicated he was hoping that cohesion would be found in a shorter stretch this season, one that will now include not only finding the right combinations, but the right group of young players.