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New York Rangers Analysis: Projecting forward lines

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Approaching August, the Rangers roster, and how the lineup may shake out, is becoming much clearer.

Bruce Bennett

The Rangers still have three key arbitration hearings on the horizon, but the roster picture is beginning to look much clearer following a few signings the team made last week. With the likes of Benoit Pouliot, Brad Richards, Brian Boyle, and Derek Dorsett gone, there will be room for new faces on the Rangers depth chart at the forward position. But even some of the known commodities aren't locked into any one spot, and Alain Vigneault and co. will have plenty of options when it comes to line combinations. Let's take a look.

The top line

There's really only one potential question to be asked here, and it's on the right wing. Rick Nash and Derek Stepan, as they did virtually all of last season, will be the number one left wing and center, respectively. In that remaining role on the opposite wing, the two logical options are Chris Kreider and Martin St. Louis.

And if there was a clubhouse favorite, the job likely belongs to Kreider. It was a role he played last season, and did so quite effectively. His speed compliments Stepan's playmaking ability, and opens up space for Nash. The skill sets of each of the three mesh together quite well. This goal against the Canadiens in the playoffs is a perfect example of how this line thrives when its on top of its game.

Joining the Rangers at the trade deadline, St. Louis obviously didn't have as many chances to skate alongside Nash and Stepan, but there's no questioning his skill level isn't high enough to keep up on New York's top offensive unit. St. Louis played a little over 56 minutes with Nash, and a little over 66 minutes with Stepan (the latter figure was buoyed by power play time). Stepan's possession numbers were better without St. Louis, while Nash's were better with him. Both Nash and Stepan posted better numbers with Kreider, who again had way more opportunities, and a bigger case file to look at.

St. Louis also would help the Rangers balance out their scoring if he played on another line. While there's plenty of appeal to putting all the top guns together, St. Louis is more capable of driving play by himself than Kreider at this point in Kreider's career, while Kreider is still learning how to play without the puck. St. Louis is also way more accountable in the offensive zone, an area where Nash and Stepan were also strong. It's easier to hide some of Kreider's defensive deficiencies next to 61 and 21.

The second line

Here's where things begin to get a little trickier. Many project that the Rangers' second line will be constructed simply by promoting Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard, and grouping them with St. Louis. But that also drops Carl Hagelin into a lesser role, and discounts the possibility that Kreider could even be bumped down to that line. Kreider though, as stated, will likely be on the top line, so we'll leave him out of the equation. It's still not a clear picture, though.

One of the Rangers' biggest strengths last season was its scoring depth. Promoting Zuccarello and Brassard on the depth chart doesn't mean they can't necessarily do the job, but leaves a hole where they once were.

On the other hand, it's hard to argue against the move simply based on the line's label, considering Zuccarello, Brassard, and Pouliot, last year's "third line" was anything but a bottom six unit. Only Richards, Stepan, St. Louis, and Ryan Callahan averaged more time on ice than Zuccarello last year when it came to Rangers forwards. Brassard averaged more ice time than both Kreider and Hagelin. Going about applying a value to lines based on what order they appear on the depth chart can be a futile exercise.

The Rangers didn't make a move to bring aboard a big-name center, which likely indicates Brassard will take that spot. And with the chemistry he and Zuccarello established last season, it's hard not to imagine Vigneault keeping those two together. Beyond that, it's also difficult to imagine St. Louis or Kreider not slotting into the top six.

The odd man out here is Hagelin. One of the more effective Rangers in the postseason, Hagelin's speed could work well with Brassard, who was fourth on the team in setup passes, or ones that led to shots (interesting to note here Zuccarello was first on the team, so whoever plays with them won't be short on opportunities. St. Louis, with a 13.5 career sh%, could really flourish in that role. The more it's analyzed, the more it makes sense to bring St. Louis, Brassard, and Zuccarello together.

The third line

Full disclaimer: Whoever Vigneault elects to plug into this role, the line won't be effective as the folk heroes that are Zuccarello, Brassard, and Pouliot. It's also becoming very complicated to predict who the heck is going to end up playing here.

One name to throw out that seems like the most sure-fire candidate for a spot is Hagelin, who again, could likely fall out of the bottom six, and land here. The recently signed Lee Stempniak also makes sense to occupy the other wing. After getting traded last season from Calgary to Pittsburgh, he played next to Sidney Crosby. That's not to say Stempniak should be viewed as a top caliber offensive talent, as that move was simply more a sign of Pittsburgh's lack of forward depth.

Here is a realistic list of names that could fight for a third line spot: Hagelin, Stempniak, Matthew Lombardi, J.T. Miller, Dominic Moore, Oscar Lindberg, Danny Kristo, and Jesper Fast. That's certainly a logjam of names, and could really create healthy competition in training camp. Stempniak and Lombardi, the Rangers newest additions, probably have a leg up to playing alongside Hagelin considering their NHL experience. Lombardi is also a very good skater, and can keep pace with Hagelin, and possibly wreak havoc with good combined speed.

The fourth line

Another area of strength for the Rangers last season, the Rangers proved talent over punch is the way to go when it comes to filling out the depth chart. While Dorsett and Daniel Carcillo were not strangers to dropping the gloves, they held their own in other areas of the game (more so Dorsett), and were a huge step up from the likes of Mike Rupp, John Scott, Stu Bickel, and other goons to formerly fill out those spots.

Moore is the only player left from last year's fourth line, while Carcillo could be re-signed, but that seems unlikely. What this group comes down to is where both Stempniak and Lombardi land. If Vigneault elects to put them on the third line, it opens up possibilities to flank Moore. If either is still available, Stempniak could play one of the wings, while Lombardi could also, or he could play center, forcing Moore out wide.

With the money committed to Glass, it seems likely he is very much in play for a fourth line wing spot. His inabilities as a productive hockey player have been well documented, and he's long been one of the worst possession players in the league, dating back to when he played under Vigneault in Vancouver. Again, this is still a peculiar signing, especially considering Dorsett is making less than $200,000 more, and Lombardi and Stempniak were both cheaper. Glass is on a one-way deal, so his cap hit can't be buried in the AHL. Unless he's sitting in the press box wearing a suit, it's difficult to envision Glass seeing time in Hartford.

What the Rangers forward lines may look like

Rick Nash — Derek Stepan — Chris Kreider

Mats Zuccarello — Derick Brassard — Martin St. Louis

Carl Hagelin — Matthew Lombardi — Lee Stempniak

Tanner Glass — Dominic Moore — Oscar Linderg

The best bottom six I can come up with

Carl Hagelin — J.T. Miller — Lee Stempniak

Matthew Lombardi — Dominic Moore — Oscar Lindberg