Canada and Russia will meet tonight at 8 p.m. in the Gold Medal game of the World Junior Championship. The Rangers are very well represented in the final frame of the World Juniors; with Anthony Duclair (Canada), Pavel Buchnevich (Russia) and Igor Shesterkin (Russia) playing major roles for their respective sides.
And that's a good thing. I don't know if you've been following the tournament, but Adam's had a few nice gif recaps to highlight just how well the Rangers' kids are playing. (If you missed them you can check them out here, here and here.)
And while this is a very good thing, it will also signal a massive decision the Rangers will have sitting on their plate once the medals are handed out tonight: What to do with Duclair when he's eligible to return.
Since it's been a while, let's recap a few things about the Duclair situation:
- Because of when he signed his contract extension, Duclair burns a year off his ELC this year regardless of what happens.
- If the Rangers elect to send Duclair down, they cannot call him back up until his junior season is over. And because Quebec automatically qualifies for the Memorial Cup, this decision is essentially a permanent one. (More specifics on this below.)
- Duclair can stay with the Rangers as long as they want him to and the team can send him down whenever they want. Basically, this decision doesn't have to be made tonight or tomorrow or even a few weeks from now.
The last two points are the key factor in my belief the Rangers will give Duclair an opportunity to get back into the swing of things once he returns. Here's Alain Vigneault's thoughts, courtesy of Andrew Gross:
"Duke is playing today and maybe tomorrow and we'll decide what we're going to do," Vigneault said. "Yes, we have cap space. I know Jeff (Gorton) is on his way to Toronto to see those games and we're hooking up with Glen (Sather) in the next day and we'll make that decision.
"There's a lot of components that go into making that decision," Vigneault added. "One major component that we have to consider is that if we send him down, we can't call him up (until the end of the QMJHL season) and that team is Memorial Cup bound so you're looking at mid-May (until Quebec's season is over)."
Right now the Rangers have Tanner Glass watching the games from the press box -- which is what should be happening -- so adding an extra player into the mix is going to kick another player out by default. I speculated about using Lee Stempniak as part of the bottom-six rotation that rotates players in and out of the press box only if he's being replaced by a quality hockey player (aka Anthony Duclair).
And the reality of the situation is Duclair needs to play. Not only because I believe he's earned the right to learn at this level, but the Rangers are stunting his development if they keep him stapled in the press box. I believe that's also an aspect of this decision Vigneault and Glen Sather need to talk about, especially if Glass isn't going to be a daily presence in the press box.
If the Rangers allow Glass to be the reason why Duclair isn't playing -- and is eventually returned to juniors -- I think it's a massive mismanagement of assets that hurts the team in both the short and long term. If Vigneault gives Duclair a string of games where he gets a real opportunity and doesn't prove himself it's a different story, but he has to get the chance.
If the World Juniors are an indication, Duclair's short time in the NHL has already helped round out his game in a few areas that have paid off -- mainly his desire and ability to get to the dirty areas of the ice. Canada is loaded this year from top to bottom; so Duclair impressing and being a mainstay on the top line should be a good indicator of his ability and skill.
If he gets an opportunity to flash those things on Broadway but doesn't provide enough to warrant staying that's one thing. But if he's pushed to the press box by a player who doesn't deserve to be in the lineup at all, that's on the Rangers.