Brandon Pirri was brought onto Broadway the way most bargain bin players are: Late in the game and for pennies on the dollar.
These players are available for cheap every year, and smarter teams take advantage. The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, signed Daniel Winnik, traded him that trade deadline for picks and then signed him again the next year.
The Rangers are actually no stranger to this strategy. Benoit Pouliot? A late-season addition for pennies on the dollar. Lee Stempniak and Viktor Stalberg? Same thing. How the Rangers have handled these players is another matter, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about.
Pirri fits a similar narrative to the above three, only he’s young enough that he can be a big part of the team’s future moving forward. At 23-years-old, Pirri scored 22 goals for the Florida Panthers. There’s two notable things about that season for him:
- He had only two assists. As in, he had 24 points and 22 of them were goals.
- He has 22 goals ... in 49 games.
Last year he played in 52 games with Florida (24 point) and nine games with Anaheim (five points). He’s no washout looking for a second chance, nor is he an older player trying to reinvent himself. That’s not to say he’ll score .44 goals a game again, but he can be a 20-goal guy in this league.
Normally such a player would be akin to a rare white elk appearing on the hill for the Rangers as a depth option. This year? Well, not so much.
See, the Rangers are in a very interesting position: They have far too many forwards for far too few roster spots, and almost all the forwards are talented and have a reason to be on the team.
The way I see it, this is my ideal top nine for opening night:
Rick Nash - Derek Stepan - Mats Zuccarello
Chris Kreider - Mika Zibanejad - Pavel Buchnevich
Jimmy Vesey - Kevin Hayes - J.T. Miller
As you can see, Pirri isn’t on it.
So throw him on the fourth line, you say. You always demanded talented players be put there, you scream. Yes, but ...
Here’s the thing; I think the Rangers have an opportunity to create a fourth line that’s younger, faster and better than the fourth line Vigneault leaned so hard on in 2014. That line is:
Jesper Fast - Oscar Lindberg - Michael Grabner
The perfect mix of speed and scoring, with guys who are fully responsible in their own zone. You can’t ask for a better fourth line, especially since it will allow Vigneault to shelter the third line to help them acclimate or give the second line even easier minutes to dominate.
Obviously that leaves Pirri as the odd man out. And Nathan Gerbe. And Josh Jooris. Fine, such is the casualty of actually having a competent and complete lineup.
Jooris might have a role at center while Lindberg recovers, but you’d have to assume he’s the guy Lindberg will be replacing.
So where exactly does Pirri fit? He’s far too valuable to be sent to the AHL, so the next logical landing point would be either playing for Lindberg while he’s out or sitting as the 13th forward.
I’m all for rotating a qualified 13th forward in and out of the lineup, but there’s not any players in the top nine that can sit for extended periods of time. Vesey and Buchnevich need time to develop and season; same goes for Hayes. You’re not sitting Nash, Zuccarello, Miller or Kreider so they’re automatically removed from the equation.
Pirri signed with the Rangers knowing full well what he was walking into. Maybe he thinks he can show that he belongs.
Ironically I’ve been screaming that talent should trump all else when it comes to hockey players earning a role in the NHL. Only, this is a rare somewhat exception. Let’s say Buchnevich struggles in the smaller rinks of North America and Pirri excels. Buchnevich is the better long term asset, and he needs to be given a chance to season even if Pirri brings more to the table right now. Same for Vesey. So sitting either long term to keep Pirri in doesn’t make any sense for the Rangers, even if he’s more talented right now. Right now being the key, because you’d hope and expect Buchnevich and Vesey to be better long-term players. They’re worth making the investment in.
That means Pirri’s best option for the Rangers is the 13th forward role/injury replacement guy.
That’s actually ... really OK. If the Rangers have so much talent on their roster that guys like Pirri can’t even get a regular spot it’s a good thing. It would also mean the Rangers are playing to their strengths, and can give guys like Vesey and Buch (who might need rest to acclimate to an 82-game schedule) regular — but limited -- time off through the year.
It would mean the Rangers would be moving in the right direction. Even if it’s not the answer Pirri wants to hear.