As the New York Rangers march into their First Round matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, they're going to have to rely on a lot of things to work if they want to move on. The offense, the goaltending and the defense not imploding every over shift are the main highlights. There might not be much the Rangers can do about the latter, but they are going to get some help to their offense thanks to a growing corps of young skill players.
Since all of the below (well, minus one) should be aiding this category, it felt wrong to focus on one player individually. So here's the whole group, with the nominees and the one winner.
Oscar Lindberg -- At this point Lindberg is only being included here because he might play in the event of an injury. As a rookie he posted 28 points in 68 games despite a fluctuating role on the team, fantastic defensive play and consistent healthy scratches down the stretch. You know who is playing over him and you know that's not going to change. Poor Lindberg for being unfairly pushed into the outer reaches of this lineup for an inferior player who is only playing because he's an Alain Vigneault favorite. It's bad in the short and long term but you knew all this already and I feel like we've wasted enough time on this.
Kevin Hayes -- Another member of the "we were punished for no reason" club, Hayes out-skated Lindberg for the guy holding the bag so Tanner Glass can play so he's in the lineup to kick things off. Hayes had a pretty solid year overall (his underlying numbers were great to go along with 36 points in 79 games) and was another player who saw his role, position and opportunities thrown around at will. It's tough to make an impact as a young player in the NHL, and Hayes was given no opportunity to get comfortable in his own skin this year.
Hayes came on a bit towards the end of the year, and will be an important piece moving forward. Vigneault has finally admitted defeat to trying to move him on the wing (a move that hurts everyone involved) and is seemingly content with keeping Hayes at center and Eric Staal on the wing. Hayes offense has been a bonus -- especially when he was stapled to the fourth line -- but I do expect more from him if Vigneault keeps him in the top nine.
Chris Kreider -- Kreider had a rough start to the year in terms of the stat sheet. I say that because his underlying numbers have been some of the best on the team, even if the goals and assists weren't there. Despite that sluggish start, Kreider still finished the year with 21 goals and 43 points in 79 games. Not the offensive explosion people expected, but still a very solid year for one of the team's most dangerous forwards.
When Kreider is going he really is one of the Rangers best threats. Boasting the speed to get through neutral zone with possession (which mitigates not getting the puck from his defense), Kreider's best attribute to the team this year has been his ability to keep teams on their heels even if they're dominating the possession game. Yeah, Kreider still takes the occasional bad penalty. Yeah, Kreider still takes the occasional horrible shot. Yeah, Kreider still dips in and out of games at times. But ...
Kreider is still learning how to impact the game when his offense isn't there, but he's gotten better. His physicality -- always a plus with his size and speed -- have helped the Rangers become a tougher team without sacrificing skill, as well. If he can score the way he has been going into the playoffs it's going to be a major boost for the team. Not just because they have another guy scoring, but because if Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, Keith Yandle, Rick Nash and Eric Staal do their part, anything from guys like Kreider become gravy.
J.T. Miller -- The closest candidate to actually winning the whole thing. I think you'll appreciate who he lost to when you see the case provided below.
Regardless, Miller had a breakout year for the Rangers, joining the 20-20 club (he finished with 43 points) and playing in all 82 games -- only Yandle achieved that feat with him. Miller has shown flashes of the ability to take over games because, much like Kreider, he's a big body and an even bigger presence when he has the puck.
Where Kreider doesn't totally excel with having the puck on his stick -- he's much better at the quick plays or breakouts -- Miller is at his best when he has possession and can slow things down. On the power play he's done an efficient job running things from the half wall, and he's meshed with almost anyone he's been paired with. Miller's offensive breakout has been a needed event for the Rangers, especially when they were struggling. Miller was a pretty awesome offense force last postseason (well, when Vigneault pulled him off the fourth line), so if he can parlay that into this regular season growth then we should be able to see him take yet another step this spring.
Derek Stepan -- Yeah, I'm still putting him in the "youth" category and there's nothing you can do to stop me. He might be balding like a 39-year-old but he's only 25 so he gets the benefit of the doubt here.
Stepan's second-half offensive explosion has been one of the biggest bright spots on the year for the Rangers. In his final 40 games Stepan recorded 38 points -- giving him a career-high 53 points to finish the year. His offense has helped mitigate the Nash injury and the E. Staal lack of production (note: not an indictment on him) to help keep the Rangers afloat.
Oh, he's also a very good defensive player who has held his own with very tough assignments this year. The Rangers have relied on Stepan in a more defensive role in the playoffs -- something that's often overlooked when people look at his playoff production -- but to insinuate Stepan's been anything other than vital to the Rangers is an insult to him.
The Rangers are going to need to score at a massive clip this postseason, especially with Ryan McDonagh out of the lineup. Including his defensive responsibilities, Stepan becomes one of the most important players the Rangers will ice this spring.
Which works since he's been that and more through the second half of the year.