At the beginning of the year the Rangers were without Derek Stepan for a significant stretch of games due to an injury the then first line center had during training camp. There were already concerns about the team's center depth after the departure of Brian Boyle in the offseason (which is why Matt Lombardi was signed in the offseason), but with Stepan out of the picture the Rangers concerns turned into something of a panic. For a brief time at the onset of the season Martin St. Louis was playing top six minutes at center despite never having played the position as a professional before. Needless to say, having a question mark at third line center in a battle between two kids and a hole in the top six at center back in October made it pretty clear that the Rangers' roster was deep at the wings but shallow at center ice. Not much has changed since then.
Among all Rangers' centers, only Dominic Moore, an outstanding faceoff man, is above 50% on draws this season. Brassard, who leads the team in faceoffs taken, is just under the 50% mark, but Stepan, Hayes, and Miller are all well below the league average. Kevin Hayes, who has taken the fourth most draws for the Blueshirts this season, is sitting at 36.9% on draws. As a club the New York Rangers are 46.8% on the dot, which is the second worst success rate in the NHL ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres. Which makes the following statement by Alain Vigneault make all kinds of sense:
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>AV on Hayes being a center or wing: "I think he prefers the middle but we're going to do what's best for our team." Interesting. Very.</p>— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) <a href="https://twitter.com/drosennhl/status/570984508125810689">February 26, 2015</a></blockquote>
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There is no doubt that Alain Vigneault wants Kevin Hayes getting ice time. One needs only look to AV plugging him in for Nash in the Calgary game to show just how much the coaching staff loves his game, but it appears that his glaring inability to win draws has encouraged the Rangers to move him to wing if they can make that happen. It's important to note that Hayes is by no means "done" as a center for the future, but all signs point to the Rangers taking a look at adding a depth center on or before deadline day to help the team be a bit more respectable at knocking the puck backwards faster than the other guy can.
So, who is out there for the Rangers to chase? The asking price on Antoine Vermette is apparently unreasonable and there have already been a lot of role players moving around in trades, including some guys that the Rangers were interested in. Alarmingly, the Rangers have recently been connected to Tyler Bozak of the Toronto Maple Leafs who has a cap hit of $4.2 million for three more seasons. Tyler Bozak is among the worst "first line centers" in all of hockey... but he's pretty good at faceoffs, so there you go. It's well documented that his offensive production is tied directly to Phil Kessel and that he is a liability defensively, or at least the line he has centered has been a sieve for shot attempts against for a few seasons. Mercifully, the Rangers would have to jump through many, many flaming hoops to find cap room for Bozak. In fact, it is downright impossible to make a move for Bozak with Derek Stepan needing a big contract after this season. The question we need to ask here is why are the Rangers even supposedly barking up that tree?
Bob McKenzie described that the Rangers might be becoming a bit "antsy" to make a move after having to back out of the Winnik and Sekera bidding wars, but there have to be more reasonable options out there for the Blueshirts. Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that this team has points in ten straight games... with Henrik Lundqvist out of the lineup. The Rangers, for as bad as they are at faceoffs, have the second most potent offense and the fourth best defense in regards to goals scored and goals surrendered per 60 minutes. Are faceoffs really that big of a deal? You guys can sink your teeth into this insightful piece from Hockey Wilderness regarding the impact of faceoffs on possession- Connecting the Dots: Faceoffs and Possession. The post-it note of the piece, for those who are scared by numbers and graphs, is that faceoffs are not insignificant but they are not linearly connected to CF%. Scoring goals, on the other hand, is a pretty big part of winning games.
So, what if the price of adding a top-nine center from another team proves to be too steep? The Rangers do have two interesting options in house; J.T. Miller and Oscar Lindberg. Miller is hardly a faceoff wunderkind, but he is significantly better than Hayes although his game is a great deal less consistent. As for Lindberg, despite just playing one game for the Blueshirts, he showed that he has an excellent two-way game with very little flair or nonsense to it and that he knows how to put the puck on net. One game is quite a small sample size, but Lindberg should be in the conversation and has certainly earned the right to be the next call up should there be another injury among the Rangers' forwards. I couldn't care less what kind of job Lindberg or Miller does on draws (or Hayes, for that matter), so long as they play a complete game and fit into the Rangers' style of play. Faceoffs are just a nice bonus, but they are a largely misunderstood and overrated part of the game.
It would be nice to see the Rangers put the heat on one of those two kids by getting them some ice time at center in practice (Lindberg is back in Hartford) on the third line and seeing what happens. Can the Rangers find a player out there that is that much better than Lindberg or Miller that doesn't cost the team an arm and a leg? Well, this is a Rangers team that went to the Stanley Cup Final last year. There are a lot of expectations and predictions for success for the Blueshirts and Glen Sather is not the kind of guy to wait patiently for Black Friday to come and go without throwing some elbows and getting that new flat screen no matter what the cost is in blood and nights in jail. Knowing Sather, I would not be surprised if the Rangers made a move to add a veteran rental center for the bottom six or make a bigger move to acquire a top nine forward that can play center with a few years left on their contract at the expense of some of the club's depth at wing or even a prospect and/or pick depending on what is available and which players and assets the management deems to be non-essential.
No matter where you stand on whether or not the Rangers should pull the trigger to add another top nine forward that will, in all likelihood, be a center on or before deadline day, try to imagine what this team would look like if it goes without Derick Brassard or Derek Stepan for a long stretch of games in the postseason. Yep, it could be big trouble. This is certainly a rock that the Rangers should be looking under, but if they aren't sure if the snakes and bugs that are underneath it are still there because they are poisonous, they should take a hint and perhaps try thinking outside the box to address this particular weakness that apparently isn't that big of a weakness.
Do you think the Rangers should make a move for a third line center? A top nine forward that can play center? "Well, if ain't broke, don't fix it," so the Rangers should avoid making a big splash on deadline day and maybe just add some depth if the price is right or if we can convince anyone to take Tanner Glass? Hey, it could happen, Slats found a way to trade Mike Rupp.
Thanks for reading. Let's go Rangers.