We already knew players like J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Oscar Lindberg were going to get long, hard looks this fall as they all auditioned for the third line center position vacated when the Rangers bought out Brad Richards.
After a week of training camp and a single preseason game, Miller has the inside track for that third line center position. A lot can change over the course of training camp, obviously, but Miller's been impressing since the minute he reported to camp this year. I think Hayes has the best shot of catching him, but most of this will have to play out as the preseason continues.
Stepan's injury has opened the door for some of the kids on the roster to get a shake even if they lose the 3C battle, though. Alain Vigneault admitted as much in an interview with the media (grabbed from Andrew Gross):
"There's no doubt with Richie (Brad Richards, now with the Blackhawks after being bought out) being gone and Brian Boyle (Lightning) not being back, that gave us a little bit of depth at that position (center) if something happened," coach Alain Vigneault said. "This is a great opportunity from Oscar to (Chris) Mueller to J.T. to (Kevin) Hayes. Even Marty (St. Louis) texted me last night, ‘If you need me in the middle.' We'll find a way. I think what we're going to do over the next five games is really give an opportunity, give the guys a chance to show us what they can do. From there, we'll make decisions that will help the team."
With Miller getting another look at center tonight -- he's playing between Mats Zuccarello and Chris Bourque -- it's pretty clear he's the current favorite. But that doesn't mean Hayes would be out of the mix to make the team, since Vigneault has already talked to him about playing wing.
Hayes, Lindberg and Matthew Lombardi (who had a tough showing Monday) aren't the only players expected to get a harder look now that Stepan's offense is out of commission for 4-6 weeks. Maybe Anthony Duclair (who is slotting with Derick Brassard and Rick Nash on the first line tonight) will impress the brass enough to earn an NHL tryout before the team would need to either send him to juniors or have his ELC kick in.
It's been pointed out before, but Vigneault has done everything in his power to give the kids a chance to succeed this preseason. Duclair suits up tonight on the top line next to the Rangers best forward, while Dylan McIlrath will be playing alongside the Rangers best defenseman in Ryan McDonagh.
Ryan Haggerty -- who has scored in almost every contest he's played in since camp started -- is still a longshot to make the team, but will play tonight with Dominic Moore for his opportunity to try and open some eyes. Keep in mind the Rangers already made their first round of cuts on Wednesday, so this is a shorter list of hopefuls.
The other audition tonight? Brassard on the top line. We debated about him potentially replacing Stepan yesterday -- I argued Moore should be the new first line center -- and tonight would go a long way in that department if he can prove he and Nash have some chemistry leftover from their days in Columbus.
As always this time of year, things still need to shake out. But if you're a kid fighting for a roster spot, that door is open a little wider until Stepan returns.