Losing Derick Brassard to the mumps is a huge loss for the Rangers, especially at this stage in the season. When Derek Stepan got injured in the Rangers' training camp Brassard became the de facto first line center instead of the two players sharing their usual 1A/1B roles. In Stepan's absence, Brassard stepped up his game. The 27 year old center not only found a way to pick up the assists that we are all accustomed to seeing from him, he was also third on the team in goals scored on a Rangers team that has been starving for goals coming from the sticks of anyone not named Rick Nash or Martin St. Louis. Brassard's 24 points was second on the team behind only the unstoppable Rick Nash. He was a driving force in the Rangers' offense and had a few passes that were gift-wrapped goals in games when the Blueshirts needed to get on the board.
Thankfully the depth scoring for the Blueshirts has started to wake up over the last few games. Three goals from the Rangers' defensemen and a pair of goals from Mats Zuccarello was just what the doctor ordered to take the pressure off of Nash and St. Louis. However, it is worth pointing out that Brassard was the catalyst for both of Zuccarello's goals. The Rangers are going to need the depth scoring to avoid going into hibernation over the next week or two. That means a little more pressure on guys like Lee Stempniak, Carl Hagelin, and Chris Kreider, who was recently promoted back into the top nine. There's little doubt that losing Brassard is a tough blow for the Blueshirts who are currently riding a three game winning streak into a month where they can really put together some points.
Interestingly enough, there are a few silver linings and interesting opportunities presented by Brassard being out of the picture for a short amount of time.
Firstly, it's important to note that the mumps will only keep Brassard out for a short amount of time. The recovery time seems different for everyone, but the Rangers should expect to be without Brassard for 1 to 2 weeks. It's very bad news, but it's not awful news.
With Brassard out of the lineup other players, especially young players, will get a chance to see an increased role in the Rangers' attack.
J.T. Miller slotted into a center ice position last night against the Oilers, and while he didn't have the same impact that he was having playing on the opposite wing of Martin St. Louis, he is a natural center and it will be good to see what he can offer in that role over the next stretch of games. He was given his first crack at a huge opportunity against the Oilers by centering Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello as a direct plug-in for the absent Brassard on the top line. Miller's line finished with 5 shots and he finished with just 13:20 TOI because the Rangers leaned heavily on the Hayes and Stepan lines as the game progressed. We shouldn't read too much into his lack of ice time in a game that was flat and where the coaching staff was just trying to find anyone who wanted to try and push the play and make things happen.
Kevin Hayes will also likely share a bit more of the burden and might be asked to get involved in the offense a bit more, he might even get some more offensively gifted wingers if the Rangers shake up their lines a bit. We've seen a lot of flashes of really promising play out of Hayes and very few things that are a major concern. If Hayes can find a way to win some face offs and make faster decisions when it comes to putting the puck on net, he could really be a special player. His size, patience, and passing give him a lot of the tools you look for out of a top six center, but it doesn't feel like he is anywhere near ready for that. Perhaps this will be a great chance for Hayes to give us some foreshadowing about the player he can be in a few seasons time.
Finally, Derek Stepan will get a real chance to prove his worth to the team with Brassard temporarily out of the picture. The 24 year old alternate captain has 12 points in his 14 games played since returning from injury, although only 2 of those points are goals. Stepan is a complete player that can be trusted in any role, and with Brassard on the shelf the Rangers will be leaning heavily on their big RFA to play big minutes and be a key catalyst for the club's offense. Over the last stretch of games Stepan had been looking solid centering Martin St. Louis and Chris Kreider/J.T. Miller, the Rangers will now have to try and find out which wingers to put with him to give the club a true top line that can eat up a lot of minutes with some chemistry. There will be a lot of weight on Stepan's shoulders with Brassard gone and this will be a big chance to prove that he will be worth every penny of the new big contract he'll be seeking in the offseason.
The strength of the New York Rangers is their depth at wing. Their lack of depth at center has been a pressing concern for the club for several seasons now and leaves a lot to be desired. It is one of the reasons why the Rangers pushed so hard to land unsigned free agent Kevin Hayes. The club's center depth will now be under serious pressure for the second time this season, and in both cases the Rangers were without one of their two best centers. The Blueshirts are going to have to get some big contributions from key young players to try and hold things together until Brassard returns from the mumps. The spotlight is shining brightly on J.T. Miller and Kevin Hayes to seize an opportunity to show that they might one day have the stuff to be top six centers. Hopefully one or both of the kids will step up and give the Rangers a balanced attack with Brassard temporarily missing from the Rangers' top six.