With all of the discussion about the oversaturated forward depth and gaping hole at center for the fourth line, somehow Cristoval "Boo" Nieves' name has not come up at all over the course of training camp and preseason. The 2012 second-round pick missed most of training camp with an injury suffered at the Traverse City Tournament but got into the final preseason game on Thursday. It appeared at first to be nothing more than giving him a chance to get his feet wet at the NHL level.
However, based on Alain Vigneault's post-game comments, it may not have been simply an innocent orientation to NHL hockey. On multiple occasions he implied Nieves was at least in the discussion for a roster spot. Hartford has a few preseason games over the weekend, and Vigneault sounded unsure of Nieves' immediate fate.
"We're going to discuss whether we're better off keeping him around or letting him go play a couple of games [in Hartford] and then taking a look again," Vigneault most notably said.
The Rangers did indeed send Nieves to the Wolf Pack on Friday, but it seems that the plan is to bring him back to New York next week. The Rangers have some time until the season opener and will presumably hold a few intense practices in the mean time to finalize the roster and figure out lines.
Though Nieves was not on the radar at the start of training camp, his inclusion this late makes sense. Adam Tambellini and Steve Fogarty are very clearly not ready yet (and may never be). Max Lapierre was completely underwhelming in his tryout and was released early. Marek Hrivik didn't make it to the final preseason game, either, has spent more time at wing than center, and is now 25 years old; if the Rangers don't see a spot for him now then they never will. Brandon Pirri, as good as he was in preseason, is not defensively apt and does not appear to be what Vigneault wants in his fourth-line center. Oscar Lindberg is still recovering from major hip surgery.
That leaves Josh Jooris, the 26-year-old with just 119 decent, but unspectacular, NHL games to his name. It's hard to get a read on Jooris. Calgary has been a black hole the last couple of seasons, and in particular he's spent a lot of time playing with the likes of Brandon Bollig, Michael Ferland, Deryk Engelland, and Kris Russell. His numbers when with players like Dougie Hamilton, Mark Giordano, and Johnny Gaudreau are very good, but most players would look passable alongside talent like that. An injury kept Jooris inactive for most of the preseason, meaning that the Rangers got very little look at him in their own system.
Jooris can probably hold his own, at worst, on the fourth line to start the season, but there's no reason for the Rangers to hand him the spot unopposed if they can help it. Nieves absolutely can challenge him. The 22-year-old is a polished player after four years at the University of Michigan, which Head Coach Red Berenson runs like a professional team. He has size, speed, and defensive awareness. In theory, he looks like an NHL bottom-six center right now. The problem was that he failed to assert himself consistently and make the most of his gifts at Michigan, but he did do so in eight games with Hartford last season after graduating as well as at the Traverse City Tournament this September.
A factor in a situation like this is deciding whether Nieves is better served playing 18-23 minutes in Hartford or depth minutes with the Rangers. The Rangers' forward corps, as constructed, is filled with talent from top to bottom. Though of course there will still be a hierarchy, the fourth line can play a regular shift while also featuring on the penalty kill.
In all likelihood, Nieves will start the season in Hartford, though that's not clear yet. In any case, whether it's opening night or in January, one has to wonder if Boo Nieves surprises everyone and finds a spot in the NHL sooner than originally anticipated.